Coming out as a Type 2 diabetic was difficult for Jonathan Shuffield because he didn’t want people to judge him – his weight, his food choices, his lifestyle.
So the Spokane DJ kept silent for 11 years: long, terrifying years of isolation, shame and wishing his diabetes that caused his blood sugar levels to rise higher than normal would go away. He didn’t even tell people he dated.
That all changed in October when the co-host of the regional LGBT talk radio show “OUTSpoken” used National Coming Out Day to announce that he was a diabetic who had hid his condition for more than a decade, and for the most part was not being proactive in managing his disease. He told his audience he feared people thinking he was fat and lazy, a common myth.
Shuffield, 40, figured if the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and its allies could step forward and speak their truths, so could he.
“I had an epiphany,” Shuffield said, throwing his arms in the air to animate and flashing a big, jovial smile. “If I feel isolated, there must be others.”
In 2012, 29.1 million Americans, 9.3 percent of the population, had diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. About 1.25 million of them, including children and adults, had Type 1 diabetes. About 1.4 million Americans are diagnosed with diabetes every year.
This wasn’t Shuffield’s first coming out. At age 20, he told his conservative parents – his dad was a Southern Baptist pastor in Wenatchee – that he was gay. He then followed up with a letter to the editor in the local newspaper.
Shuffield also went to the media with his diabetes pronouncement, writing a personal essay published in the national magazine Diabetes Forecast in January, with about 2 million readers. He received letters of support and messages from people who also felt ashamed and alone after their diabetes diagnosis.
“We can’t be quiet anymore,” he said, calling diabetes a world epidemic. “People have an archaic view that if you are diabetic you are fat and lazy. That has nothing to do with it.”
Tyler Simon, the manager of community engagement in the American Diabetes Association’s Portland office, applauds Shuffield for sharing his story and said it will help inspire other diabetics to know they have support.
“The more we start talking about what diabetes is, what are the facts and what (people) can actually eat the more we negate the stigmas,” Simon said. “The people affected by diabetes are the perfect avenue for that.”
One of the largest myths is that all overweight people will develop diabetes. Weight is one risk factor but so are ethnicity, family history and age. In fact, the American Diabetes Association reports that most overweight people never develop Type 2 diabetes and many people with the disease are at a normal weight or moderately overweight.
“I will admit that I felt a small amount of shame,” Shuffield wrote in the magazine. “I was overweight, I didn’t exercise, and my diet was nothing but carbs. I felt as if I deserved this mysterious disease and that others would wholeheartedly agree if they knew.”
Another common myth is that diabetes isn’t a serious disease. Yet it is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States and it is likely underreported as a cause of death. Type 2 diabetes – the most common form of the disease – is a chronic, progressive condition. It causes more deaths per year than breast cancer and AIDS combined and it doubles a person’s chance of having a heart attack, according to the American Diabetes Association.
It took years for Shuffield to absorb his reality, not fully comprehending until a doctor bluntly told him if he didn’t change he would be dead by 40.
“Well that freaked me out,” Shuffield said.
Until then, his conversation with doctors had been passive with not a lot of information or support. He didn’t know what to do or where to get help and he didn’t find the prescribed diabetes classes helpful. He bought “Type 2 Diabetes for Dummies,” yet still felt confused.
“It’s not like they have AA for diabetics,” he joked in the same passion-filled tone he often uses on his radio program known as “Hot Mess Sunday.”
He took the doctor’s warning seriously. He lost 85 of the 300 pounds on his 5-foot, 6-inch frame. He paid more attention to his food choices, meaning “I no longer eat like a college student.”
(One common myth: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes. Fact: It’s not so simple. Type 2 diabetes is caused by genetics and lifestyle factors yet research has shown that drinking sugary drinks is linked to Type 2 diabetes, according to diabetes.org.)
Shuffield goes to the gym and is training to ride 25 miles in the Tour de Cure fundraiser for the American Diabetes Association in May.
“I’m starting to connect what impacts (my insulin levels) and what doesn’t,” he said. “When I consistently go to the gym, it’s extremely helpful.”
(Another common myth: People with diabetes need to follow a special diet. Fact: A healthy meal plan for people with diabetes is generally the same as a healthy diet for anyone – low fat, moderate in salt and sugar, with meals based on lean protein, non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and fruit.)
Today Shuffield’s diabetes is still not controlled, but he’s keeping his blood sugar at good levels. His goal is to avoid taking insulin to manage his blood glucose levels. He feels fortunate his eyes are good and his kidneys are healthy. He worries about neuropathy or numbness in his feet. The best thing is he feels free and knows he has support – the whole goal of coming out.
“It really translates to everybody,” Shuffield said. “Everybody has a closet. We are really, really good at judging ourselves. I’ll say I’m shocked at the support I’ve received. We just need to connect with others in our community.”
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