When Christina Bartson was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 11 years old, she concealed her disease from those around her.
“I wouldn’t check (my blood sugar) in front of friends at school; I would go to the bathroom to check and do (insulin) injections,” Bartson said. “I really wasn’t comfortable showing my disease.”
When the 23-year-old went to college and started dating, she didn’t always let her dates know about her diabetes, either. Sometimes, she would intentionally hide it.
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“I would skip checking (my blood sugar) entirely or I would check before even meeting up to go on a date,” the writer said. “I’d plan out everything I’d be eating in the day so I could assure that I’d be alright that evening.”
The reality of diabetes
Diabetes is often called an “invisible disease” because people often look healthy, and there are no outward indications they have a chronic illness.
That, paired with a lack of awareness around the disease, often makes it hard for people to feel comfortable disclosing their diabetes while dating, says Joanne Lewis, director of nutrition and healthy eating at Diabetes Canada.
“It can make people stand out (and feel like) there’s something a little different about them,” Lewis said. “Some people with Type 1 specifically aren’t comfortable with that — especially younger people in their late teens or early 20s. That’s the time in your life where you want to kind of be like everyone else.”
In Canada, approximately seven per cent of people aged 12 and older have diabetes, according to government data.
Diabetes is a disease where your body either can’t produce insulin or can’t properly use the insulin it produces, Diabetes Canada says. Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas, and its job is to regulate blood sugar.
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Blood sugar ensures the body functions properly, and too much sugar in the blood can cause damage to organs, blood vessels and nerves. A low blood sugar can make a person disoriented, nauseous and cause blurred vision.
There are three major types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2 and gestational diabetes.
Type 1 — or insulin-dependent diabetes — often develops in childhood or adolescence, and people with this disease aren’t able to produce their own insulin because their body has attacked their pancreas.
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With Type 2 diabetes — the most common type — the body cannot properly use the insulin made by the body or the body doesn’t produce enough of it.
Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy and affects around three to 20 per cent of pregnant women. After a woman gives birth, it usually goes away.
Despite the fact that most people know someone who has the disease, Lewis said there are certain challenges people living with the condition face when it comes to going on dates. Dating often involves eating, drinking or a physical activity — all things that affect blood sugar.
Dating can be tough
Going to a new restaurant where you may not be aware of the menu or how the food is prepared can be anxiety-provoking, Lewis said. It is harder to calculate carbs when you’ve never eaten a certain meal before, meaning you may give yourself too much or too little insulin for the meal.
There’s also the issue of waiting for food.
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“You just never know how long it’s going to take to get your food,” Lewis said. “This particularly can affect people with Type 2 diabetes who have already taken their medication in advance, and they need to eat at a certain time. When that meal is delayed, they then run the risk of having a low blood sugar.”
Alcohol also affects a person with diabetes as drinking can have a significant effect on blood sugars. For Bartson, red wine makes her blood sugar drop.
If a date involves physical activity, that can also have an impact on blood sugar.
“If you’re doing something physical… there has to be concessions made for the person with diabetes so that if it’s more activity than they’re prepared to do, they could go low and might have to stop and eat,” Lewis said.
It’s important to consider the fact that someone with diabetes may need a clean and sterile place to wash their hands and test their blood sugar, she added.
“There’s things like that where you just have to accommodate,” she said.
These situations may be easier when your date knows you have diabetes, but what happens if they don’t?
When do you tell someone you have diabetes?
“If you’re with a group of people or a new person in your life who doesn’t know about your diabetes, one of the struggles is: ‘When do I tell them? When’s the right time to tell them?'” Lewis said. “There might be fear around how someone might react.”
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She says that everyone is different, and some people are very open about their diabetes while others prefer to keep it private. Some people decide to tell a date right away, Lewis said, while others may wait a bit.
Bartson said during her late teens and early 20s, she decided she was going to tell dates about her diabetes. Her close friends, who have always been supportive, helped ease her anxiety around disclosing.
“I was like, ‘I’m tired of hiding this; I don’t need to feel insecure about something like that,'” she said. “If someone is truly interested in getting to know me then I have to be upfront. There was no use in hiding it — it only made me more anxious.”
Plus, not disclosing diabetes can be dangerous, Lewis said. If, for instance, blood sugar drops too low, a person can become confused, develop slurred speech or even have a seizure.
How to support a partner living with diabetes
Bartson says on top of her family and friends, her partner of two years is incredibly supportive. She says he keeps his place stocked with honey and orange juice for whenever she needs to treat low blood sugar.
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“He is the loveliest, most supportive person I could ever ask for,” she said. “He is really good at helping me with my diabetes and supporting me with the highs and lows.”
If you’re dating someone who lives with diabetes, Bartson said it’s best to avoid telling them how to manage their own disease. Doing so can be frustrating.
“We hate it when you make suggestions or tell us what we should be doing to control our diabetes,” she said. “(Thinking) you have a better grip on it than we do is a big no-no.”
She also says it’s important to be patient and supportive. As diabetes can affect one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being, showing compassion and being understanding is vital.
Lewis says that despite the anxiety someone with diabetes may feel around dating, if their partner values their relationship, they won’t see their diabetes in a negative light.
“I remember counselling someone once who started dating a woman who has diabetes, and he went to diabetes education classes so he could learn how to better support her,” she said.
“If the person really cares about you, they’ll want to know how they can support you.”