Teresa Opperman – Type 1 diabetes and anorexia

Teresa Opperman who has been living with Type 1 diabetes for 53 years speaks candidly about having anorexia as a young adult.

“In essence, I just wanted to show my family that I am capable of controlling my blood glucose, my life and my weight.”

Teresa Opperman (61) lives in the Eastern Cape. She is married with three children (one biological) and twin grandchildren.

Teresa was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1968. She was prescribed Novo Lente and was on it for 26 years. In 1993, she was prescribed Lentard and Monotard whilst pregnant.  Then she changed to Actrapid and Monotard, then Humalog and Basaglar. Currently, she is on Humalog and Tresiba and uses the Freestyle Libre as a management tool. “Since Dicovery pays partially for it, I now use it. It helps, but it doesn’t cure diabetes. It helps us people living with diabetes to take better care of ourselves.

For six years, from 1977 to 1983, Teresa had anorexia. At age 18, she weighed 86kg when the eating disorder started (she was 185cm tall) and eventually weighed 58 kg.

Choosing anorexia

The high-carb diabetic diet that Teresa was on caused her to gain a lot of weight, and that changed the way she felt about herself. She explains, “I liked to be fit, active, and attractive. I firstly decided to lose the weight, because I wanted to be thinner and fitter. I also decided that I wanted to take control of my life. At each meal in our house, my parents and sisters would check to see if I had finished my plate of food. My parents took control of my whole life, and my sisters followed suit.”

“I tried to establish my own independence, and at age 18 I was dreaming of going to university. I passed my matric with flying colours, and started to apply at the universities and colleges for a nursing degree. In 1978, Type 1 diabetes patients were not allowed into the university-system, as they were declared as not being healthy. I also could not find a place to stay in a hostel, as they did not cater for people living with diabetes.”

“Many people with diabetes that I knew as a kid didn’t live beyond their early 20s. Some even died before the age of 20. Those years blood glucometers were not available. I bought one of the first ones to be imported for the huge amount of R740 in 1982. This changed my life, and the control it gave me, made it so much easier.”

“I can actually remember that we would be amongst friends of my parents, and one would say, “Which one is the sick one?” and my mom would point at me. Their response was, ‘Goodness but she looks so healthy.’ But after the huge amount of weight that I lost, I wasn’t looking very healthy anymore.

Diabetes management

When asked how the anorexia interfered with her diabetes management, Teresa responds, “It made my management much easier. Because the less I injected, the less I could eat, without experiencing any lows. I can only remember one low during that time. The glucometer made my control so much easier.” However she knows that choosing this route was not good for her body or health.

“Unfortunately, my sisters still treat me as the ill sister, who can’t make any decisions for herself. The way that my parents did.”

Seeking help for anorexia

The situation that Teresa found herself in caused many arguments in her family. Her parents eventually took her to a clinical psychologist. “He suspected that I might be of a different sexual orientation, and never could get down to the real problem. I just wanted to show my family that I am capable of controlling my blood sugar, my life and my weight.

The support that worked

It’s thanks to meeting her husband that Teresa started to eat more and gain weight. She says, “I met my husband, and we would go out to dances and visit friends. I could see that he didn’t know how to explain his girlfriend’s strange eating habits. He helped me to slowly but surely eat normal again, and I gained. I weighed 69kg when we got married. My weight stabilised at 70kg. I’m 185cm tall so I have a healthy BMI.”

My husband has never been ashamed of me. Not even during terrible lows in public places. He loves me just as I am, and he decided to marry me, knowing very well that I have diabetes. He has accepted it as part of our lives.

Advice to youth who have diabetes and anorexia

Teresa says honest communication to family members is imperative. As this was the obstacle she faced. “Talk to someone outside your home, the pastor, a nurse, your doctor and tell them your experiences. Tell them that you hate being tested, that the whole family needs to change their eating habits (and that the family hates you for this), tell them that you hate being treated as the sick, crazy one always spoiling everybody’s fun. Discuss what you feel is the problem in your life, do not try to change it. Do not try to take control in this way, but rather get someone to help you. There are many dietitians and health practitioners around that can assist you. You don’t have do die from hunger, to make your point. But you need to value yourself for who you are, cherish yourself, and show those around you that you can be trusted to be in control of your own life. It’s a lifelong battle to cope with diabetes.  And our loved ones don’t always understand the frustration.”

Take charge of your diabetes

Teresa ends off by saying, “The world has been promising us a cure for diabetes for many years. Till that happens we all need to look after ourselves, we can’t expect other people to do it. If you take charge of your diabetes and manage it, it will not manage you.

“Having diabetes taught me that each day is valuable and to be lived to the fullest. Delve deep into yourself, and find what makes you happy, and cope with your diabetes whilst you do what you love to do.”