It’s on the kitchen counter, having arrived in the mail a day or two ago: a letter from the Joslin Diabetes Center with a full, quantitative report on what’s going on in my blood cells and, by extension, me. I’m not ready to open it.
Last week I saw my diabetes specialist. At one time, when I was new to diabetes and full of zeal, my performance — at monitoring, eating, record-keeping, sweets-avoiding, exercising, and controlling — was excellent. Sometimes, when Dr. A. introduced me to a med student on rotation, he would say, “This is my best patient.” Or even, “Here’s my A student.” In my late 20s at the time, that always struck me as paternalistic, if not affectionate, but still flattering. In the last couple of years, however, my body’s quarterly report card shows a more erratic performance. Occasionally, those numbers look great. More often than not, they look… merely adequate. Last week, as we looked over the records that I keep daily on my blood sugar, Dr. A. raised his eyes over the top of the paper and asked me, in so many words, why I couldn’t do better. When I shrugged and smiled weakly, he caught my glance and then tapped the side of his head (home of the brain) as if to say, “You can do it. And because you’re not doing it, it must be your attitude.”
He’s right. Diabetes is the disease that’s all about control, self control. The more you have, the healthier you are, the longer you live.
He’s right, too, as he has said many times before, I can do it. I am able, I am smart enough, and I have many resources.
It is so grindingly tiring, however, to have so much responsibility for one’s self, and to fall short so often. I mean, I can’t help but fall short; the body is not a perfect machine.
And my numbers always falling short means that I fall short. Although I’d like to separate myself from my illness — “Hey, it’s her fault, not mine!” — that’s impossible. We are shackled together.
What would make me feel better? Not numbers. I want some qualitative feedback. And I want a compliment. Shake my hand; hug me.
It’s funny, a few weeks ago my family and I were at a party, and I was talking to my neighbor who graduated from MIT years ago. With him, I was sharing my experience with my students there who want to know their grades on everything. I have been perplexed that even the highest-performing students have been frustrated by my specific remarks on their scientific writing, and my use of evaluative words such as “excellent.”
My neighbor visibly balked: “Excellent?! That’s vague. That’s not quantitative. That doesn’t mean anything.”
I laughed, a great burst of it. Instantly, I had insight into a miscommunication, between nonquantitative me and my quantitatively-fluent students, who are math, biology, and engineering majors.
Now I’m wondering if my doctor, whom, really, I trust and even love (in an appropriate, professional way — it’s just that I’ve known him so damn long), is speaking to me in a language that, to him, conveys all meaning, “The A1C is 7.8,” and I’d like something a little more… wordy.
I want both: precision (numbers) and encouragement (words). Sure, diabetes is a disease of numbers — maybe all diseases are — but we (diabetes and I) are a person, too.
Back to that report card… When will I open it? First thing tomorrow morning, when the day’s slate is clean.
Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com.