When I introduced two new friends in February 2008, I knew that both of them were committed to managing their diabetes. Each of them live near me in Boulder, Colorado, and had contacted me a month earlier.
Barry Erdman is a licensed clinical social worker who had learned the previous Thanksgiving that he had type 2 diabetes and told me he was already managing it quite well. Jeff R. said he had type 1 diabetes for 15 years and was then getting a graduate degree at Naropa University “with the expectation of helping fellow diabetics overcome issues that surround diabetes, particularly depression.” I had learned in 1994 that I had type 2 diabetes and have been writing about it ever since.
When we met in my favorite coffee shop on that cold morning, we connected. But none of us could imagine where that chance meeting would lead.
After more coffee shop meetings, we decided to meet monthly in my apartment. We invited other friends who also wanted to keep tight control over their diabetes. Gradually the group grew.
At first, I led the group, and we met when I would be in town. Eventually, the group outgrew my small apartment, and for the past year we have been meeting in the apartment complex’s clubhouse. Since I no longer had to be around for the meeting, we now meet regularly on the second Saturday of each month. Jeff now facilitates the meetings.
In the past three and one-half years the group has changed in more ways. We started as a group of men friends. When I learned last summer that three knowledgeable and committed women might be interested in joining our group, I polled our members. Neither then nor later did anyone object.
At the beginning of this year Barry set up another way for us to share information and ideas. This “Diabetes Healthy Living Network” is a Facebook group.
Our group will undoubtedly keep changing. Our email list now has 18 members. Typically, about a dozen members attend the meeting. I had hoped that our support group would grow larger. But when I interviewed members who know more about group dynamics than I do, I changed my mind.
“I took two group processing classes as a part of earning my M.A. in somatic psychology,” Jeff told me. “They teach that the ideal support group size is six to 10.”
Dick Williams, a group member with type 2 diabetes who has taught university courses in group dynamics, says that a sharing group shouldn’t be more than about 15 or less than eight or nine. “When the group gets bigger than 12 or 15, splitting it would be a good idea,” he says. “More than that and you get some people dominating the discussion and others who are more shy are left sitting there.”
The ideal size depends on the kind of group, Barry says. Maxing out at about eight people is ideal for an emotional support group like ours, he thinks. But if it is an educational group with a seminar format, “You could fill an auditorium and still be valuable.”
We did fill an auditorium when Loren Cordain, the author of The Paleo Diet, spoke to one of our meetings. For that talk we brought together members of all of Boulder’s diabetes support groups. Other outside speakers have spoken to our group alone.
The content of support group meetings can either be sharing or speakers. In either case it needs a focus. And for the greatest effectiveness that focus needs to be more than diabetes itself.
A central focus of our group is a general commitment to a low-carb diet, Shelley Schlender points out. She is a radio broadcaster who covers health issues. Since people can follow so many different eating plans, “It’s wise for us to have a diabetes support group focusing on a particular dietary approach,” she says. “For instance, if half our group were high carb and low fat and the other half were high fat and low carb, it wouldn’t work as well.”
Still, each meeting should focus on a particular topic, Dick says. Choosing the topic ahead of time gives the members a chance to reflect and prepare their questions, but the members can also pick the topic on the spot. In either case, support group meetings generally start by “checking in,” sharing what happened to them since the previous time they met, particularly in the area of focus.
Whatever the content of a particular meeting — sharing or a speaker — all useful meetings provide both emotional support and information. The Internet as well as books and magazines excel in providing information about diabetes. Thinking that local groups provide emotional support and that the Internet, books, and magazines provide information is too simple. They overlap.
Three of our support group members tell me that they learn a lot from the group. “To me the value of diabetes support groups like ours is the learning opportunity,” says Frank Harritt, the author of Diabetes Self-Defense.
Another group member, Balaji Sundararajan, is a project manager for a semiconductor company. He says that without the group he would never have had access to the books and articles we discuss.
A third group member, Glenn English, calls himself as “a retired computer geek.” But Glenn trusts what he hears from group members more than what he reads on the Internet because he can see us face-to-face. “I have a problem with the Internet, because I can’t figure out what’s true or not,” he says.
Support groups help us because then we feel that we are not all alone with the disease, Jay Krakovitz, M.D., tells me. Jay is an internist who practices in Denver who learned two and one-half years ago that he has diabetes. He says that he has always been a proponent of support groups for people who have chronic diseases.
“When I developed diabetes and found out about your support group, it was the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of dealing with my disease,” he says. The group bolsters him emotionally and keeps him up-to-date educationally.
You have to go to a support group meeting to appreciate how worthwhile it is, Jay continues. “But you need to be coaxed to go to the first one, because people often have a psychological barrier, like ‘Why do I want to spend a couple of hours around sick people? Do I want to get together with fellow suffers on a Saturday morning?’”
But then they realize that they are not fellow sufferers — “they are fellow copers,” Jay continues. “Instead of making you feel like you have the disease, it makes you feel like you are doing well, because everybody else you look at in a support group is functioning normally.”
Support groups give you a sense of optimism. They do the opposite of what you would think when you join together with other people who have your disease. When you begin to participate in a diabetes support group, both you and the group will change.
This is a mirror of one of my articles that Diabetes Wellness News published. This article appears in the October 2011 issue.