Actor, writer and artist Peter Arpesella was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of seven. Peter grew up at the Grand Hotel of Rimini, Italy (the one in Fellini’s award-winning film Amarcord), with Federico Fellini as a regular guest and family friend. His diabetes diagnosis followed a period of tremendous family turmoil, during which Peter had the mumps followed by pancreatitis.
Peter has never let diabetes get in his way, and he lives life to the fullest. He’s not only an accomplished sailor, well-known actor (you can see him in Mad Men) and an artist, but he’s also a writer. Peter’s first novel, Good Like This, in which diabetes figures prominently, was recently published. (Read more about the book here.) He took some time out of his busy schedule to ‘dish’ with The DX. Thank you, Peter!
What is your state of mind today?
I’m excited about this interview! I love interviews. I love questions. It doesn’t mean I have answers, but I love being asked questions.
What three words would you use to describe who you are?
Creative, curious, loving.
How does diabetes change – or not change – who you are?
I don’t feel it changes who I am. Diabetes is something I have, not who I am.
But it taught and teaches me many things. Over the years, I became more aware of myself. Diabetes asked me to be accountable and honest with myself. It showed me that it’s a lot better to choose simple truth over denial. It also created (or added to a pre-existing) fear that the rug may be pulled out from under me. A fear like, “I hope I’ll be taken care of, I hope I’ll have what I need to always take care of myself.” Being aware of this fear helps me navigate stressful times.
It made me aware of my (and everyone else’s) mortality early on. It induced me to take responsibility for my life. It made me aware of the powerful connection between my body and my mind. It showed me the importance of healthy nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. It proved to be a “truth tool.” If something or somebody stresses me, I see it in my blood glucose levels. If something or someone’s good for me, I’m happy and relaxed, and I see it in my blood glucose levels.
The beauty of creating and telling stories. The pleasure of sharing those stories with others. In the end, I guess the primal motivation is life. Each story I tell is about life, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I’m writing about life, human beings and our consciousness about it all. Life is the one thing we know we have, and simultaneously it’s the biggest mystery of all. This magnificent irony is what makes me excitedly curious about things and people. I tell stories to bring joy, entertainment and inspiration to others. Even one out of three will do.
What do you appreciate most in your friends?
That they exist! Friends are one of the pillars of our life. We are social beings and we need each other, otherwise we would exist only one at a time.
What would you pack for your favorite vacation?
Sailing gear, bathing suit, sunblock. Oh, and diabetes supplies, obviously. I’m a lifelong sailor. I love sailing. And I love the sun. My favorite vacation would be “sailing in the sun.” My favorite vacation also requires my wife and our “dog-ter” to be with me. So we’d pack accordingly.
What’s in your refrigerator right now?
Let me check… coconut milk, soy creamer, salad, carrots, onions, artichokes, tofu, tempeh, kombu seaweed, blueberries, red miso paste, insulin, garlic, smoked salmon, beans, lentils, organic agave, apple juice boxes, and my wife always has a bottle of Champagne for when we celebrate something. (I don’t drink, but I “act as-if” and just wet my lips.) We have to go get groceries today.
What is your favorite way to relieve stress?
Sailing. Meditation. Yoga. A walk, possibly in a beautiful place. Aerobic exercise. Writing. Talking to my wife about what’s on my mind. I guess I have quite a few ways to relieve stress. The easiest is a three-minute slow breathing time, where I just focus on my breath. By the end, the stress is less or gone, or I get an idea about what I can do to make the situation better. (Read more about diabetes and mindfulness here.)
If everything else fails and the stress is overwhelming, one of the things I do is to “speak out the worst case scenario.” I start with a disclaimer, “I need to vent my fear and stress about ________. I’m going to describe my fear/stress about the worst case scenario, not to give it energy, but to get it out of me.” Then I say what freaks me out and describe the worst-case scenario, in detail. By the end, the fear/stress is usually gone and I get an idea or two about what I can do to help the situation, if anything.
What is your idea of happiness?
When I smile with my heart. Luckily I have experienced it and it’s not an idea anymore. I know what it feels like. It’s very simple and very real. It’s a serene and powerful sense of fulfillment and connectedness with everything and everyone.
What do you most dislike?
What’s your favorite diabetes management tip?
Be honest with yourself.
If I can add another couple of tips:
Eat healthy, exercise in a way that’s fun for you. Add sweetness to your life and have a positive attitude. (Do something that you love, let go of anger and resentment. Love, laugh, etc., preferably every day.)
What words do you try to live by?
Be happy. Share my happiness.
What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to take care of myself, not being taken care of.
On what occasion do you lie?
Various. But I really don’t like it (see earlier question), so I do my best not to. Never about or around diabetes, or my management of it. The simple truth creates a whole lot of good.
I find myself “not speaking up” more often than I would like. When that happens, I don’t like it, because it makes me not true to myself and it projects a false image of myself. It’s kind of a “lie.”
To fix it, whenever possible, I find a way to “say what I should’ve said” as soon as I can. Or I just have to let it go. I’d love to always speak my mind – with charm, lightness, and humor whenever possible.
Was writing about a character with diabetes a challenge?
It was a challenge. It was inspiring. It was empowering.
It was a challenge in the sense that it demanded me to be completely honest with myself. I wanted to create a story that touched the hearts and minds of people. I knew I had to relentlessly write the truth (that I know) about having diabetes in the imaginary reality of the story. To write that truth I had to dig inside and share everything, including the dark parts, the failures, the fears, the cop-outs, the lies.
While writing, if I felt that something was difficult or intense to write, that it took a lot out of me to get onto the page because it made me relive a difficult time of my life, if I felt exhausted afterward, I had reason to hope that it would work for the readers.
If you could change one thing about your family, what would it be?
I’m assuming you’re asking about my family of origin. If I had a magic wand, that gave me power to change others, I would erase the lies that caused endless fights, pain, separation, divorce, addiction and lack of happiness. If I could only change myself, I would speak my mind all the time and not be afraid of the consequences (you can see the recurring theme in my life). Basically I would defiantly be me, all the time, instead of trying to please my mother and father.
Who are your heroes in real life?
People who make dreams come true and create a happy life for themselves and others. The list is long.
What would you choose for your last meal?
A gift certificate to a meal, and I wouldn’t use it for as long as I could.
Then I’d have a beautiful and colorful salad. Butter lettuce, carrots, endive, peas, basil, chives, peanuts and almonds, fennel, flaxseed meal, dressed with lemon-pepper and extra virgin olive oil.
I know what a healthy meal like the one described, does to my body and mind. I eat it every day. I’d want to “go” feeling those feelings. I’d want to feel all the lively natural flavors and nutrients that this wonderful earth gave me so I could enjoy this life.
What are you doing next, to top this?
I’d love Good Like This to be made into a movie. That would instantaneously bring a level of awareness, interest and information to the diabetes world like probably never before. Based on reader’s comments, I’m grateful to see that people relate and identify with it, whether or not they have diabetes. I’m happy to see that the story creates a positive and empowering experience, for everyone.
Good Like This isn’t just about diabetes. It’s about family, love, passion, commitment, addiction, ambition, transformation, self-discovery and self-acceptance. But in this story the protagonist goes from victim to hero, because of diabetes. This has never happened before in fiction.
The bottom line is, it’s not what we have that counts, but what we do with it.
This applies to all areas and situations in life, and to everyone. My hope is that Good Like This makes a positive difference.
All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the interviewee and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.
© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience