Sydney Williams is a founder, author, speaker, hike leader, outdoor advocate and self-described feeler of feelings. This is her story:
Diabetes is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
Every November, I like to reflect on the past year and think about what I'm thankful for. This is the third November where the thing I'm most thankful for is being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. When I was diagnosed with T2D in September 2017, I took it as a challenge. I've been a people pleaser my entire life, and I channeled that into being the best diabetes patient my doctor has ever seen. I am an analytical person and learning about the four factors that affect our blood sugar was my saving grace. This quadrant - food, exercise, medications, stress - was my north star. After I checked my blood each morning, I'd do a mental check: what did I eat? Did I move my body? Am I taking my medications? Am I stressed out right now? When I started making adjustments to my nutrition plan, started moving my body, and took my medications as prescribed, my physical body started to see results but my blood sugar levels were still elevated, so I needed to look at how to better manage my stress.
At the time of my diagnosis, I was working at a marketing firm, and my primary function was leading email marketing for one of our clients, NBC Universal. I was diagnosed the week before fall premieres, so if you know anything about the entertainment industry or if you watch TV at all, you know how much we like to remind you that your favorite show is starting soon. It was one of the most stressful times in my career, and I needed to find a way to manage my stress. I was working from home in San Diego but commuting up to the NBC offices, living out of a suitcase and in a hotel for a few days every week. My first attempt to reduce my stress was to stop traveling. When that didn't cut it, I tried my hardest to establish some boundaries around my time. Working from home made it tempting and possible to work at all waking hours of the day, and there was a lot of work to do. I was extremely efficient at managing my working hours, but I was a workaholic.
I tried some other things - seeing if I could switch accounts, reduce my workload, find something at the agency that I enjoyed doing - but none of it panned out for me. When you work in client services, the clients come first. I took that to heart. On the side, I had been helping my friend with her startup. I was helping her get her branding and marketing figured out and when she offered me the opportunity to join the team as Chief Marketing Officer, I knew I wanted to do this. I knew leaving Corporate America to join an early-stage startup wouldn't reduce my stress, but I figured if I cared about the work I was doing, maybe the stress would be worth it. As much as I loved knowing who won The Voice before the rest of the country, I realized most of the bullet points on my resume that I thought were star achievements were actually teaching people how to numb. When I was working in the wine industry, I wanted you to drink all the time. When I was working with NBC, I wanted you to have your face in the app or your butt on the couch, binge-watching our programming. I was good at what I did and the various teams I worked with generated a lot of revenue for the brands we touched. Was it possible to turn these skills around and use them to make the world a better place?
So I joined the startup, rooted in women's empowerment and social justice, and I thought this was the ticket. I'd be stressed, but I actually care about this work and I felt like I was making the world a better place. I quickly realized that I wasn't cut out for startup life. My first task was to raise one million dollars, and I hadn't done that before, but I'm resourceful and scrappy, so I'd figure it out. We were trying to show traction for our potential investors, so we took a big order with a national retailer. Supply and demand, right? Well, we weren't ready for that order. We couldn't afford the supplies we needed to execute it, we didn't have a production space big enough to fill the order, and in the realization that we just took on a project we couldn't handle, I started having panic attacks almost every day, sometimes twice a day.
I was at risk of reversing all of the progress I had made in managing the disease so far - my blood sugar readings were skyrocketing back to levels I hadn't seen since I was first diagnosed, and the assault on my mental health was too much to handle. I quit that job after 95 days without a backup plan, no savings to speak of, and no other work lined up. It was the scariest decision I've ever made and one of the easiest I've ever made too.
After I quit that job, I went to Santa Catalina Island (off the coast of Los Angeles) and hiked on the Trans-Catalina Trail. I had attempted this trail back in 2016, but we weren't able to complete it. Physically, my body couldn't finish the hike, and the last 10-15 miles of the trail was pretty sketchy because of the heavy rains during our trip, so I had some unfinshed business with this island. Over the course of the second hike, I was able to process a lot of emotional trauma from earlier in my life, and I connected the dots between a sexual assault I survived 12 years ago, and how that trauma manifested as mental and physical disease in my body when I didn't seek help after the assault.
For six days across that island, my only priority was to put one foot in front of the other, pay attention to the thoughts that were swirling around in my brain, and learn to love my body again. When I got done with the backpacking trip, I felt like anything was possible. I realized that in the years leading up to my diagnosis, I was eating and drinking my feelings - ice cream for breakfast, a bottle of wine to myself for dinner - and when I committed to being the best diabetes patient my doctor has ever seen, I replaced those coping mechanisms with Hiking My Feelings. Since I got off the trail last year, my husband and I sold everything we own, moved into a van, and this year, we've been on tour around the United States, hiking as much as we can, and sharing the story of how hiking helped me heal my mind and body from trauma and disease. We built a life around spending time outdoors so I can better manage my diabetes, and I'm proud to say that I've reversed the disease!
My diabetes empowered me to take a hard look at my life and all of the choices I had made. A lot of my decisions were made from a state of fear, a state of unresolved trauma, and once I identified what happened and why, I didn't feel scared or sad, I felt free. This disease has liberated me from my limiting beliefs, has inspired me to write a book about my journey, and to encourage folks from all over the US to get off the couch and onto the trail. I'd love to share my story and hike with you when we come to your town, so be sure to check out our tour schedule. We have a lot of great events coming up in 2020 and I'd love to meet you and inspire you to see this disease as an opportunity versus a burden.
Considering 49% of the US adult population is prediabetic or living with diabetes, we are all so much more alike than we are different. We're connected for life, and when it comes to diabetes, you can count me in to tell my story and lift up the voices of those living, and thriving, with diabetes.
For more information about our movement to get folks off the couch and into the great outdoors, visit hikingmyfeelings.com.