Helen - Interview 09

Age at interview: 63
Age at diagnosis: 60
Brief Outline: Helen was diagnosed three years ago. She is currently controlling her diabetes with a low dosage of gliclazide + diet and exercise regime.
Background: Helen is a retired head teacher and is married with 2 adult children aged 39 and 42. Ethnic background/Nationality: White Scottish.

More about me...

Helen had none of the classic symptoms of type 2 diabetes, so the diagnosis was a big shock. She had been under a lot of pressure as a head teacher, was also looking after her own family and her elderly parents. She had been feeling tired and was frequently emotional. Her main complaint though was an itchy, burning sensation in her thumb and occasionally itchy feet, which she thought might be the beginnings of Parkinson's disease - which is in her family. She didn't feel especially thirsty, nor did she need the toilet any more than she always had, so when her blood tests showed high blood glucose levels, she and her doctor were surprised.

Once she realised she had diabetes, Helen drastically altered her diet and started exercising more. She lost some weight (despite not having much to lose) but the regimen proved unsustainable and the doctor advised her not to lose any more weight. She was prescribed gliclazide which seemed to make her mouth very dry and painful ('as if my teeth were being drawn out'). When she could endure it no longer, she told the GP who prescribed metformin instead. Metformin however gave her bowel problems, so she restarted gliclazide, but this time she re-examined her diet and exercise regimen and changed it a bit so that she ate a bit more, and things finally began to settle down. 

Helen is now on only on half a tablet of gliclazide each day and has found a way to counter the dryness in her mouth. She eats a lot of vegetables, more pulses and less red meat. She also walks regularly, and now that she has retired she feels more relaxed. Her husband has been a huge source of support for her throughout, and she feels that her life is now well balanced.


Helen believes it helps to have a supportive partner.

I would hate to think I had to deal with it on my own without having a partner or a really close family which have... You need somebody, you need somebody with any illness. But the partner stops the depression. And also I think if they'll go the journey, I mean some husbands or partners don't want to go on the same journey, don't want to know about it. 'Oh, you deal with it. It's your problem' you know. But if somebody just goes along with you, everything you're doing. Fine. You know, even to calibrating the machine you use to get, you know, prick your finger, even to get new ones on the internet.

Just, supportive. Also to say, 'Look, I'm quite happy to eat what you're eating. I'll have a bit more chicken or a bit more of that, but basically the same food.' That does make life easier. We didn't change our diet greatly. Except I [now] get my husband eating vegetables you'd never heard of, that he would, didn't, and also camouflaging them in different ways. So that way it's been positive from his point of view.

Helen recalled how all-consuming her condition became until she had settled into a new routine.

I thought I just would get a pill and that would be, you know, miraculously, go out the door, take my pill and that would be the end of the subject. I didn't for a moment realise how much I myself had to sort it out. Also one of these things that, you know, it was, in the initial stages the amount of, you, I was sort of depressed about it' And how all the wee symptoms you had before, like feeling tired... All seemed to be magnified. And also wanting to research so much about it and talk about it, becoming, that was the centre of what, what life was about. But I would have said it was like that till about, and that was in the August I was diagnosed, so it was maybe Christmas it was beginning to become a bit boring. And then, just from then on, you know but it probably took nearly a year.

And I think initially you'll spend the first three months, every minute of every day, this is what your thought is. And you're waking up in the morning and you think about, 'Oh, I've got diabetes' or, 'I've got this problem to deal with or I've got that.' But it gradually gets, when the shopping's easy, and you know what you can eat is easy, and you know the timing and it's easy, and you know how much exercise you're doing and that's, becomes part of your life, so that's how you should do things. You start to get and as the days go by and you don't give it another thought, other than taking this wee pill in the morning.

Helen was healthy and the only sign that she had something wrong with her was an itchy thumb.

Well, initially when I was diagnosed with diabetes it came as a huge shock both to myself and to my GP who I've known for a long time. And I originally went to the doctor after being, having a holiday, a month in France. Came home and felt very tired and also had a very very itchy thumb. Now in retrospect I had been moaning about the itchy thumb and my hands had been irritated probably for twelve months before that. But it was there and then it wasn't there.

So I really didn't, I was too busy, my life was far too busy, I didn't pay much attention to it. But I was on holiday and, from school and I thought, 'I really must go and see about my itchy thumb.' And the doctor looked at it and he said, 'Oh, you've had allergies before. I think it's an allergy, blah, blah, blah. I'll give you some antihistamine.' But asked me other questions. Fine. He said, 'Come back and see me in a week and tell me.' So I went back in a week and said, 'It's absolutely no better.' So he then started to ask me questions and he, the question he said to me was, 'What do you think is wrong with you?' And, because I then said, 'I've got itchy thumbs and yes, I've got a bit of itchy feet and I was hot and bothered'. And he, and I said, well, I was a bit apprehensive because my grandfather had Parkinson's disease, and because of the hand feeling I just was a bit frightened of that. So he said, 'You definitely don't have Parkinson's.' And he said, 'You don't have this and you don't have that and you don't have these things.'

And he said, he then started to ask me questions. Did I go to the toilet a lot? And I said, 'No, not really.' I said, 'I get up every night to the toilet, but I've been doing that since my children were born. So it really is no more than a habit I think.' And he said, and, you know, he asked me was I thirsty. And I said, 'No, I don't think so.' And he said to me, 'You know, you're slim, so you know there's no issue about weight.' And he asked me other questions about my family. And I said, 'No, no, no, no.'

Everything was negative of all the questions he was asking me. So that was fine. He said, 'Well, we'll take some blood tests.' So I forgot about it. I went off for the weekend. And he came to the house because the results had come through and the, the blood sugar level was actually very high. So it shocked him and it certainly, it shocked me because as far as I was aware I felt healthy.

Helen was under stress at work and wonders if too much adrenaline pumping round her body might...

So do you, I mean do you ever have any thoughts about why you got diabetes?

Yes. Not, 'Woe is me' and, 'Why me?' Because I mean that's just life. I don't know again too much about the current research and how much they feel that diabetes is maybe an auto-immune problem. I know they checked me out for auto-immune because I've had problems before with, I had hair loss, which was an auto-immune, and I also had you know, loads of allergies. And they did check me out and they said, 'No, it wasn't auto-immune.' So that's, I've put that aside. But because I've got an auto-immune problem within my own child, that had to be checked out. But that's the one thing I really would like to know really, where mine came from? What it is - did I just overload my system?

I mean there's a lot of research that I've read that said that having the adrenalin gland constantly pumping. And certainly with the kind of pressurised job, with the lifestyle I liked to lead, I was always on the go and was pumping all the time. I was aware of that.

I would have said I was on overdrive for six months, I mean really overdrive, trying to run a school in two-thirds of a building, too many people, staff stressed out their minds. Then go back into a building where they'd taken down roofs and we'd to clear up. I mean it was just, it was six months of hell. And that was only, that was in 2000/2001, so it wasn't long before. And I can look back and say, you know, I started to feel not so much energy after that. Again, you don't know. But I really, oh, that's the one thing I would like to know. Is there a family connection? They don't know. I mean one's a, that's my mother's cousin, which is kind of out there, and one's a great-aunt, which is out here. Is it to do with adrenalin stress? I don't know.


Helen says even a 20 minute walk at lunchtimes helped lower her blood glucose levels.

So the doctor was excellent. He sent me then to the practitioner of my practice who deals with diabetes. And she immediately said, 'Look, this is what we'll do. We'll send you to the dietician to make sure that your diet is all right. We'll send you to the podiatrist. We'll send you to the eyes. And let's see what you can do with a diet and exercise programme.' So I went on probably a very strict diet. I'm not as strict now as I was then. But a very, very strict diet and a very, an exercise programme.

Well, the exercise programme, I didn't go to exercise class or anything like that. I just went out at lunchtime and I took a break for twenty minutes and I walked fast in my local environment. And also if I went to my mother's, my husband took me and I walked back. So I, or [if] I was going down to the doctor's, I walked to that. So I was actually building in exercise to my normal lifestyle. Because I knew there was no way I could go to exercise classes with how much my work took up and my family life took up. So that was fine. And then I went back to the doctor in three months and the tests were done again and, yes, it had come down a lot in that time. But by this time I'd started to ask questions of my family. And it turned out I had, my mother's cousin, at 62 he had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. And then out of the blue an aunt, a great-aunt of mine, my aunt said something about, 'Oh, yes, she had, she had sugar, and we used to weigh her food out.' But by this time I had been reading books about it and I said, 'She had type 2 diabetes.' So that was, in both my father's family and my mother's family so there was that.


Helen changed her medications several times before she stopped getting side effects. She found...

So that was really how I was diagnosed. I did the exercise and I really got it under control as much as that. But went back again for the next three months, and it hadn't come down. And they said that they felt I should go onto some medication. And that's when the fun started and some of the problems started.

I was put on gliclazide. I had half a pill in the morning. It's long-term, lasts all day. And still with my diet. And from the minute I took it, I had this horrible, horrible feeling in my mouth and, as if I was getting my teeth drawn out. It was a horrible sensation. And I put up with it for two or three weeks and just thought, 'I can't live with this.' Went back to the doctor, changed the medication onto, I can't remember, some other, I think it was 'metmorfin'.


Metformin. And, oh, that gave me a bowel problem. And the bowel problem was such that I was getting up at 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 6 o'clock. It was all the time, needing to go to the toilet. But I couldn't do. So went back, I went to my, my own practitioner because I thought, 'Is there something else wrong with me?' And he said, 'I think you should go back to the diabete- and get the pill changed.' But he said, 'I'll send you to the hospital.' So I did have a complete bowel check. Everything was fine. The minute I changed the pill again it was fine. I got put back on gliclazide.

And then I was beginning to have terrible lows on it, which they were not happy about. But we persevered with it. I learned how to sort of, you know, eat a bit more, how to sort of, instead of keeping my diet quite so rigid, sort of eating more. Did test myself at that time two hours after every meal. And then things started to, sort of balanced out.

Focusing on the positive things she could do helped Helen to feel less depressed.

I learnt how to work my way round it. Not to say I didn't feel s-, slightly depressed. The more I read, the more depressed I found it being. And initially, and I've got a friend who's got diabetes as well and she feels exactly the same, they tell you all the bad news. You know, the doctor obviously feels obliged to tell you that, you know, you can have heart problems, you can have kidney problems, you can lose your sight, you can have trouble with your circulation, you can have... And, you know, by the time I came out the surgery I thought, I mean the, that was the worst part. I felt a little bit, because I thought you'd just be given, the ignorance, or tell me, 'Do this, do this, do this, do this, this.' Fine. But to tell me all the negative things. But I've now decided as long as I do what I'm told and I, and follow a regime and live as much as I can a healthy lifestyle. As the doctor said, 'I don't want you just to have ten good years. I want you to have twenty good years.' So I think, oh, that's just, so I don't get depressed about it any more. I get [more] depressed at night because I'm agitated when I go to my bed and I'm hot and bothered and I can't sleep. That bothers me more. But whether that's the diabetes or not, I don't know.

Because I really think I know the food I eat and I know what I can eat. And anybody that's got diabetes, the book, and I wish I could remember the name, the name of it, but I know it keeps talking about 'know your own mileage', know what your own body can do, know what you can eat, know what foods are good for you. And I find, I found once I, got rid of the obviously, the medical side of it, that I wanted to know, but 'I know about that. That's not the big issue. And if it is, I'll deal with it when, when the time comes' I was then able to dwell on all the positive things about it. Like having a good healthy lifestyle.


Helen feels that media stories linking rising obesity levels with diabetes are counterproductive...

And I don't know, the research is, the research always seems at the moment, and it's something that does irritate, and the television really irritates me about the fact that they always say things like, 'Diabetes is exploding because the society is obese.' And it's that thing, I feel like saying, 'But I wasn't.' And people are saying, 'Oh, she certainly''.You know, if you've put down, 'Oh, she must have been some size.' And that really, you know, as you can see over there, that was me at, at you know. I've never been anything other than roughly the size, maybe 4 or 5 pounds, but that was all. But they always try to make out, you know, 'It was your fault. You, you ate too much.' And I don't think that is, I don't, I think that's counterproductive. And I think the, the media and the press, yes, we have a terrible problem in the world of obesity. And yet people will say that on the whole people are not eating a lot more calories. So it's what's in the food that's doing the problem. But there's ways of being able to say, 'You know, you didn't, you didn't cause it.' I mean that's the only thing which really I find so negative. And maybe just because I feel it wasn't mine, that wasn't what caused mine.

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