Remember doing those paint-by-number sheets when you were a kid? It seemed magical when a confusing canvas of intersecting lines and random numbers transformed into a circus elephant or something equally amazing. I remember the joy I experienced when I produced my first masterpiece and the new found love I had for being an “artist.”
Then in elementary school my math teacher saw a way to get her students to love math equations by introducing paint-by-solving-the-math-equations. She gave us an equation that we had to add/subtract/multiply/divide in order to figure out the number that corresponded with the correct color. For a small number of us perhaps the inner artist died on those math sheets because the numbers no longer produced that clearly discernible circus elephant, but for many of us a new palette was added to our artistry because when given the equation, we could figure out how to paint our masterpiece, so the joy of art continued and success with math came along for the ride.
As I got older, I began to see the same artistic patterns in so much of what we do. Participating in sports; going to college and then to graduate school; applying for a job; all began with a familiar canvas: confusion of intersecting lines but the support of formulas to guide us to the perfect picture we know is hidden in there if we get the numbers right. Along the way, as the formulas get more difficult, the number of those who experience the joy of arriving at that masterpiece decreases and more and more of us join the few from elementary math class who have lost their inner artist. The joy of painting fades to a distant memory when we can no longer see the perfect picture.
As someone with Type 1 diabetes, each day presents a new canvas. The lines are clear, the formulas, equations and calculations are well prescribed, and we all know what the picture should look like if we can just get those numbers right. Thankfully, improvements in technology and treatment plans have kept the art alive for more and more T1Ds who are experiencing perfect or near perfect A1C results. But for many of us, the inconsistency of each day muddles the image. The quest for the masterpiece, fueled by the apparent paint-by-number ease of improved blood sugar management devices can begin to make the numbers never quite good enough and the palette of paints we use becomes significantly altered. I’ve been through phases of allowing the numbers of my blood sugar readings to determine the color of my paint for the day. If I wake up with a number that’s slightly higher than expected, the whole canvas, which is that day of my life, is painted black. If I miscalculate my lunch bolus and have to snack at 2pm, I’m scribbling angrily in red. As the canvases begin to collect and add up, many of them are lacking joy and I begin to feel like I’ll soon be joining those from math class who lost their inner artist.
I’m starting to learn it doesn’t have to be this way. Sure, eating a piece of birthday cake might lead us to less desirable blood sugars, but enjoying that cake means we are celebrating love and life. An after dinner walk on the beach during vacation might throw a wrench in the body’s accustomed routine, but it’s a way of embracing the moment. The more we seek opportunities to dabble outside the specified lines, the more meaning we create in our lives. This is a palette too often neglected in our artistry.
Now, don’t get me wrong, good blood sugar management is, without a doubt, necessary for T1Ds to live healthy, fulfilling lives. Eating birthday cake every day isn’t the healthiest choice – for the body or soul. While monitoring blood sugar closely is the key to feeling physically great, we have to be careful that we don’t allow a blood test to also be the judge of our mood, our sense of self-worth, or our ability to enjoy other aspects of life. There’s meaning in being artistic and coloring outside of the lines. Know your numbers, work smartly with them- but don’t paint by numbers. Paint with your heart to keep your inner artist alive.