November 14 was United Nations World Diabetes Day and as part of their campaign to increases Diabetes awareness they issued the second WDD Monument challenge. The challenge is to increase diabetes awareness by lighting monuments around the world in blue for the evening. According to their website, “A total of 279 iconic monuments were lit in 2007 as beacons of hope for the millions of people worldwide living with diabetes. Over 1.2 billion people were reached with campaign messages.” The 2008 goal was to encourage a total of 500 buildings to light up to mark World Diabetes Day. After a little thought, I decided I could help them out.
As I looked across the list of world monuments who had signed up to participate, I was amazed at just how diverse they were. There was the Tower of London and Stockholm’s Little Mermaid side by side with Michelangelo’s Statue of David and the statue of Christ that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, but as I looked deeper I also found buildings and monuments in Iran, the occupied West Bank, India, Japan, Bolivia and the Phillipines. This project truly transcended not only borders, but religion and ideology as well. In looking I was saddened to see that the US had relatively few buildings participating, and at that time, none in the Southeast. I wrote it off as an interesting project and soon forgot about it. A few months later I decided to check out their site again and this time I found that something awesome was happening. Of course, there were even more “iconic” monuments that had signed up, but there seemed to be a grassroots movement developing to light up local monuments all over the world. Suddenly there were fountains and buildings in small towns in Sweden and Austria that were being lit by local groups, not big corporations with lots of funding, but local folks who wanted to try and make a difference. Once again, I thought it was cool, but I dismissed it. However, it would not go away, I kept thinking about it trying to figure out what I could do to contribute.
You see, about three years ago I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes. At the time I was devastated, but in retrospect this terrible disease, complications of which will most likely kill me one of these days, has been one of the best things that ever happened to me. Like a lot of the people I know, I had slowly grown more sedentary over the years. It was not intentional, in fact, it was barely noticeable. I went from working with my hands and back building and installing the things I designed, to sitting behind a desk writing and drawing. I went from playing football with the guys on the weekend to working around the house and watching games on television. My wife and I went from grabbing a quick bite while we were out to spending evenings at home cooking wonderfully decadent, but hardly healthy meals and desserts. I had always been a big guy, but over ten years or so I had gone from a reasonably healthy 295 to over 450 pounds and I was feeling it. I knew something was wrong, but I was in denial, avoiding the doctor because I knew what she was going to say. I had all the classic symptoms, although I did not recognize them at the time; frequent urination, excessive thirst, increased fatigue, irritability, blurry vision and a general feeling of unease. A couple of weeks before I went to the doctor, I even pulled my brother to the side to let him know that there was something wrong with me, although I did not know what it was, just in case something were to happen. I finally listened to my wife and friends and visited my doctor to get checked out, the diagnosis was as expected and life changing.
I was diagnosed on my Grandma’s birthday and I held things together pretty well, until I found out that they were not going to serve her birthday cake in deference to me and my newfound ailment. I broke down at that point. I know they meant well and that they were trying to make things easier for me, but I just could not imagine Grandma and the rest of the family having to forego a family celebration because of me. I guess that was when it really hit home, that this was not something I got to bear on my own. I couldn’t just take responsiblity for my poor health habits and go on, my diagnosis affected everyone around me, the people I loved were having to change and adapt because of my personal irresponsiblilty. That was simply not acceptable to me and as I came out of the other side of my funk, I became determined that my disease was not going to rule my life.
I had the grat fortune to speak with a family friend, Jimmy G. in New Orleans, who is a life-long Type I diabetic and he shared some wisdom and gave me a great piece of advice. The wisdom seemed strange at the time, but now I find it oddly comforting, he told me, “The good news is, barring accidents, now you know what you are going to die from, so you can deal with it. Most folks get surprised when it is too late, so you are lucky there.” At the time I did not get it, but now I find it empowering. I got the wake up call and now I can decide how the rest of my life is going to play out.
Jimmy’s advice was more simple to understand, and has proven to be the turning point in my new life. He advised me to find a good endocrinologist and get under their care. Since diabetes affects every aspect of my health, it is important to have someone who specializes in this disease at the helm, when it comes to my health. I did that and it was absolutely life changing. She got me on the right path concerning diet and exercise, has helped me manage my disease and has guided me on the many lifestyle changes I have made. I am happy to say that under her guidance and with the help of my wife, family and friends, I have given up smoking and through diet changes and exercise I have lost over 130 pounds. For the moment, my diabetes seems to be under control, but I know that it is very easy to slip off path, and I know that eventually things will change and I will have to adapt to a new reality, but now I have the support system and knowledge in place to deal with that when it happens.
The funny thing about life changing experiences is you want to share them. So I have found myself talking to people about diabetes and the changes they can make in their lives to either keep the disease at bay or if it is too late for that, how they can enjoy a better quality of life while taking care of themselves and managing their disease. When I was first diagnosed, I was embarrassed by it, as if there were something wrong with me as a person because I was a type II diabetic, so I hid the fact. As I began to get into better shape, and shared my diagnosis with friends, I began to realize, we all have our own crosses to bear and that this was mine. Sure I could have taken better care of myself and perhaps avoided this if I had started earlier, but that was not what had happened, so there was no point in focusing on “what if”. I also realized that I had not recognized the dangers until it was too late, and that by hiding my own disease I was helping perpetuate the climate of ignorance and embarrassment surrounding this disease. So here I am now, sharing my experiences, encouraging people to take better care of themselves, to get tested and see a doctor regularly, to exercise and enjoy everything that life has to offer.
Which leads right back to me standing in Bell Buckle waiting out a pouring rain, with a borrowed lighting rig and an armful of blue gels. You see, I decided that the gesture did not have to be a huge one, I don’t have the resources to light up the Eiffel Tower, but I could put together enough gear to light up Bell Buckle, Tennessee’s Town Hall, so I did what I could. I contacted an official of the town and explained my hare-brained idea and quickly received permission for my installation. To my surprise, the local newspaper picked up the story and ran with it and the prestigious Webb School joined in the campaign and lit their library in blue to support the monument challenge. The installation went wonderfully, in spite of the rain, and now I am proud to say that the town hall of Bell Buckle, is listed right there alongside the great monuments of the world. In fact, due to the alphabetical listing, I can actually say that Bell Buckle leads the list of monuments in the US. It just goes to show what can happen when one person decides something is worth doing. So there you go, it has been a tough journey from crying in the doctor’s office to lighting up the town, and along the way I have had the diabetes blues many times, but giving Bell Buckle the blues sure did make this monkey smile.
Update: I am happy to report that it looks like there are lots of folks who decided to take a chance and get involved all over the world because the UN has just announced that they doubled their goal and over 1,000 monuments were lit in blue all over the world to increase diabetes awareness. I am going to try to expand this project locally for next year, so if anyone is interested in helping out, or if you have a structure you want to light, let me know. Together we can make a difference.
For more information about diabetes, including treatments, recipes and general information check out the site of the American Diabetes Association.