Maybe you’ve seen some of the art. The “gluco-rollercoaster” made out of syringe caps and test strips. A photograph of a fingertip, black and white except for one brilliant drop of red blood. Lancets and pen needle covers carefully arranged to spell out “Hope.” Some pieces are professional; some amateur; others are the work of children. All are strangely moving, personal expressions of what it’s like to live every day with a disease that is usually unseen.
Diabetes Art Day – the event that inspired these pieces is the creation of Lee Ann Thill, a professional art therapist, who has lived with type 1 diabetes since she was a child. Diagnosed in 1978, Lee Ann spent many years “not coping with diabetes,” as she puts it. Eventually, however, she improved her self-care, became involved in the diabetes online community, and found herself particularly inspired by reading other people’s blogs. “I was like, ‘I’m going to make one of those,’” she says, “and talk about these things that are important to me that people aren’t talking about.”
Thill’s own blog is called The Butter Compartment, in honor of the spot in her fridge where she stores her insulin. Several years later, a fellow person with diabetes (and founder of Diabetes Social Media Advocacy), Cherise Shockley, came to Thill with an idea: why not use The Butter Compartment to help spread what she believed was the healing power of art? Why not create a special day where everyone touched by diabetes – children, adults, parents, family members, friends – could visually express how their lives have been affected by the disease?
The idea immediately resonated with Lee Ann, who by that point was a practicing art therapist. “When you have diabetes, you’re always intellectualizing,” she explains. “You’re measuring, you’re planning, you’re doing math. In many ways, that’s necessary – you can’t break down or fall apart when you have to deal with something every day. But I think that art helps release some of the emotions that get set aside or dismissed.”
Nonetheless, Lee Ann was hesitant at first. “I was worried that nobody would respond, and I would feel dumb,” she admits. But she did it anyway, posting a series of blog entries in the summer of 2010 explaining Diabetes Art Day and encouraging people to participate. Lee Ann estimates that about seventy to eighty people took her up on the invitation; in the second year, participation more than doubled. She now has a website just for Diabetes Art Day, where anyone can upload pictures of their art.
“I was thrilled,” says Lee Ann about that first year’s response. “There’s already so much sharing that goes on in the Diabetes Online Community just from talking with each other, but seeing each other’s art was a different type of experience. I felt an enormous sense of community.”
Now gearing up for round three – which is scheduled for September 24, 2012 – Lee Ann has a message of encouragement for anyone who is interested in participating, but feels like they’re not artistically inclined: consider it an exercise in self-forgiveness. “One of the reasons that I think art can be so useful for people with diabetes is that the disease makes you very prone to judging yourself,” she explains, pointing out that self-criticism is one of the reasons people often think of art as just for kids. “Art-making is a way to allow yourself to not be perfect. I’d like people to approach Diabetes Art Day as an opportunity to accept themselves and their efforts, and to use that as a way to reframe the way they think about their own diabetes care.” Get all the details for taking part in this year’s Diabetes Art Day at diabetesartday.com/participate.
Catherine Price is a freelance journalist and type 1 diabetic who has written for The New York Times, Slate, Popular Science, and O Magazine, among others. She blogs about diabetes at asweetlife.org. Catherine is currently working on a book about the history and science of vitamins, to be published by the Penguin Press. Price is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience