Trying to stay happy when something bad happens–like diabetes.

A key purpose for the Happiness Project is to be able to cope well with difficult events when, inevitably, they happen.

Well, bad news has come. My sister has diabetes.

The news unfolded slowly. At first, the doctors thought she had Type 2, even though she doesn’t fit the usual profile—she’s young, thin, fit. That diagnosis was a blow, but two things cushioned it.

First, she’d been feeling lousy, and getting her blood sugar under control made her feel much better. So the diagnosis gave her an immediate boost. Also, we were all relieved she didn’t have Type 1, which requires daily insulin shots and can’t be remedied by diet and exercise (some Type 2 cases can be).

Well—she does have Type 1. And the times we’d said “Thank goodness it isn’t Type 1!” made the diagnosis seem all the worse.

So how to cope? She’s so far away—she’s in L.A., I’m in New York—I felt helpless. What to do? I bought a book to understand the issues (I admit that I got Diabetes for Dummies, but it was just the right thing for my level). I investigated the state of medical research, and that was encouraging.

It took me a while to grasp just how tough diabetes is. I thought you had to eat healthfully, exercise, and give yourself a daily shot; I assumed that taking the shot and never eating dessert were the toughest parts. But it turns out that, for my sister at least, those aren’t the real challenges.

What’s harder is the constant monitoring and adjustment—her blood sugar is up, or worse, it’s down. And even when she eats the same things, her body may react differently, so she can’t just settle on a routine. The response isn’t predictable.

With a writing partner, my sister writes for the TV cop drama The Shield and is writing the sequel to her new young-adult novel, Bass-Ackwards and Belly Up. So she’s typing for about 10 hours each day. Already her fingers are sore from being pricked for blood tests. Not a big deal when you think about complications like amputation and blindness, but it’s the kind of minor discomfort that can make you crazy.

And diabetes is relentless. There’s no respite. My sister’s getting married in May, and she can’t have a raucous, indulgent bachelorette party or eat a big piece of wedding cake. She can’t take a day off for her birthday or New Year’s.

Her doctor told her, “I can help you manage it, but I can’t get that monkey off your back.” My sister says she’s fine day-to-day, but thinking about the years stretching ahead makes her feel overwhelmed. And all the complications that can arise …

Daniel Gilbert’s new book Stumbling on Happiness explains that when we’re faced with serious setbacks, a mechanism which he calls the “psychological immune system” kicks in to help us make the best of it, to help us see ways in which a situation has positive aspects.

I could feel myself starting to do this. “Well, you’ll be eating well and exercising regularly,” I said to her. “Once you get this under control, you’ll do great.”

Also, people feel more fortunate and happier when they compare themselves to those who are worse off than those who are better off. My sister deployed this strategy.

“Yes,” she said. “And think about all the other things it could have been. It could be a lot worse.”

What she didn’t say, and I didn’t say, was that it could have been a lot worse – but it could have been nothing at all.

After college, my roommate was in a bad car accident, and I flew out to Hawaii to see her. She was wearing a halo brace with bolts drilled into her skull.

“Do you feel lucky to be alive?” I asked.

“Well, actually,” she said, “I feel like I really wish I hadn’t been in a damn car crash.”

It’s not easy always to stay focused on the positive. Psychological immune system–do your stuff.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • carol

    I am sorry this is happening to your sister and your family. but. beyond the psychological immune system, be grateful it is 2006. the carb counts are on every box. we have two second bg readings and continuous blood glucose monitors and pumps. she CAN have that huge piece of wedding cake if she “covers” for it. Today’s PWD need do what we all must do to be healthy. eat right and exercise. sweets should be occassional for all, even pwd. seconds of that delicious lasagna should be an occassional treat. the old days diabetics had to swear off sweets and strictly follow a diet of measured foods. the old day diabetics (just 5-7 years ago!) had strict regimes to go with inflexible insulins. it’s great in 2006 and will only get better as time goes on. to help your sis, tune into the “OC” as the online PWD community calls itself. Start with Diabetes Mine and Six until Me and click from there. My daughter was diagnosed in Jan 2005 at age 8. Maintaining tight control is a rollercoaster ride, but thank God for today’s insulins and medical science making advances every day. It’s blasphemous to say but I don’t hold out hope for a cure. The pharmacutical industry is way too entrenched. But the $ poured into research is doing good and the technological advances are priceless. You and your sis may find it hard to believe, but one day (not too far away) this will all be just a nusience. (as an aside, what a great test for her relationship pre-marriage. how is her fiance coping? is he there for her or self-focused … how is he doing?)

  • Something to keep in mind here is a quote from Dr. Peter Green’s book Celiac Disease- A Hidden Epidemic, “Of the 2.1 million people with type 1 diabetes, 8 to 10 percent also have celiac disease.” There is a whole chapter devoted to diabetes. Unfortunately, auto-immune diseases seem to come in combinations due to predisposed genetics. Some doctors are starting to screen their newly diagnosed diabetics for celiac, other make their patients wait way too long to be diagnosed. The important thing to focus on is these can be managed. I agree with the above comment- Amy, the blogger of Diabetes Mine, is an excellent example of coping with both diabetes and celiac disease.

  • Gretchen Rubin

    Thanks so much to both of you to pointing out some great diabetes sites. It’s reassuring to see how other people are grappling with these issues — and sometimes even managing to find some humor in it. And you’re right–remembering how far the treatment of diabetes has come is another way of focusing on the good, and reminding yourself of how much worse a situation might be.

  • Gretchen
    Sorry to hear about your sister’s diagnosis. It sounds like she’s got a great support system in place, and I know that will help.
    Let me give you one tip from my nearly 34 years of diabetes. Finger sticking is never easy, but I think I’ve found the perfect lancet device. BD makes one with really fine lancets (see
    It’s so good that when I stopped using the BD meter, I still kept their lancet device. For me, it’s as close as you can get to pain free.
    Bear in mind that there are meters that allow you to test on alternate sites (forearm or side of your hand) and some of these sites are less painful.

  • Hey there, I found this entry via Just wanted to say that, while your sister can’t completely ignore diabetes for a day, she can certainly celebrate and live it up. She’ll need a little extra monitoring, plenty of low blood sugar supplies and (for the cake and yummy wedding food) extra insulin. My wedding day was joyous and celebratory despite diabetes – hers will be too!
    Thank you for the sibling perspective. I was diagnosed at 18 and still wonder what it was like for my 20 year old brother and 17 year old sister.

  • Rebecca Haugen

    Everyday because of my children being in someone elses care nothing happens to make my day good. All my days are more negative results than positive. I work towards positive but than money doesn’t add up, courts refuse me something, people turn me down when I ask for help, dog rips up something, etc… even the small things add up to making my days seem negative. I hope for one day that everything is less stress and normal. I am not looking for great days everyday because I am always let down. I just would like to have one day with no major issues. One day without my husband being self centered, one day where someone will say yes instead of no, one day to be good. Again it seems like little to ask for but again when something happens everyday that hinders progress to get your kids home, destroys something in your home, or treated like your needs are always last in what is supposed to be an equal relationship; one day isn’t much to ask.