Finding a ‘New Normal’ for the Second Time: How One Millennial Is Navigating Life with Type 1 Diabetes and the Coronavirus Pandemic

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

For many millennials, the concept of “health” has taken on a whole new meaning since the coronavirus hit the United States. But for some health has played a front and center role in their daily lives for years. And the pandemic has just taken that to another level.

Michelle Stephens is a member of that segment of Generation Y. For the past eight years, type 1 diabetes has been a part of her daily life. While she is able to do practically everything that her fellow millennial friends can, managing her blood sugar and staying healthy is always in the back of her mind.

Michelle Stephens, a Chicagoland native was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was age 17 and a high school senior.

Now, with the threat of the COVID-19 and the constant reminder about the potential impact of chronic conditions and having a compromised immune system, she is more cautious than ever about the decisions she makes every day. This includes making choices about socializing with family and friends.

In recognition of this National Diabetes Awareness Month, Stephens tells us how she has navigated her new normal in the pandemic along with her type 1 diabetes during these past seven months, sharing valuable advice for millennials—those living with and without chronic conditions.

YMyHealth: How has your life changed since the pandemic?

Michelle Stephens: In March, I began working from home, and my company has had all of its employees work from home since then. I work in the financial industry, focusing mainly in pensions and 401K planning, so the transition to working remotely went pretty smoothly. At the same time, it has been really nerve wracking to be working in the finance sector because the economy has been so unstable and deeply affected by the pandemic.

One of the biggest changes was no longer having my more than 90-minute commute on the bus twice a day. It has actually been one of the positive things about this challenging time in our lives. It has given me some extra time for myself that I didn’t have before. Not having that rushing feeling of the commute has made me calmer and being at home, my management of my blood sugar has actually gotten better. It has given me more time to check my blood sugar and to cook almost all of my own meals, which really helps me control my blood sugar because I know exactly what’s going into everything that I’m eating.

The other major change has been having my family and friends be even more worried about me having type 1 diabetes than they already were to begin with. Like I would tell my parents that I was going to the grocery store, and they would be worried sick that I was going to get the coronavirus and die, even though I’m wearing a mask at all times and my blood sugar is completely under control.

So, getting used to that new level of worry has changed things, and it’s definitely affected my decisions about the types of social interactions that I want to participate in. I’ve always been a really social person, but now I have to go about socializing in a different way.

YMyHealth: How has having type 1 diabetes factored into these changes? What has been your biggest challenge?

Michelle Stephens: Having type 1 diabetes has made me more cautious than most people during this time. The way I see it is that I’m in control of how I act and react.

I’m really careful about the choices I make in terms of who I see and what types of activities that I agree to be a part of. For example, if I see on Instagram that a friend who asked me to get together has been hanging out at a bar, I will not get together with them in person. Actually, I do not go to any type of indoor venues period. I’ve gotten together with people in their parents’ backyards where we can be socially distanced or with virtual group happy hours. So, the pandemic has made me more vocal and confident in making choices and expressing my opinion to friends about social gatherings.

Michelle with her boyfriend, Matt, at a Chicago Blackhawks game in pre-pandemic days. The two have quarantined together to reduce their risk of COVID-19 exposure.

I also have not seen my family at times, including for periods of time when I’ve been with other people because I don’t want to accidentally be a carrier that would expose them.

My biggest challenge by far has been the social aspect. I’ve always been a really social person. I grew up in Chicago and went to college here, so I have a lot of friends and family in the area who I see all of the time. The pandemic has changed that because of my increased risk. It’s been really hard for me not to see them, but I would rather not see them than be worrying the whole time I’m with them that I’m going to catch the virus.

YMyHealth: How has the pandemic changed your management of your type 1 diabetes?

Michelle Stephens: My hemoglobin A1C (a person’s average blood sugar level over the past three months) and blood sugars are good, but I’ve been really trying to take this time to focus and make my health even more of my top priority.

I’ve been trying to boost my immune system as much as possible since I have type 1 diabetes. So, I’ve been eating healthy and cooking my own meals, and I make sure to have a regular sleep schedule. I bought a stationary bike, which I’m using the Peloton app for, so that it’s easy for me to exercise at home. I also have been doing virtual meetings with my therapist, and it’s really helping me with my anxiety. A lot of people living with chronic conditions have anxiety and this is such an anxious time on top of it, so it really helps.

Also, anytime I leave the house I wear a mask, and I have hand sanitizer with me.

YMyHealth: What have you heard about type 1 diabetes in relation to COVID-19?

Michelle Stephens: The media has talked a lot about diabetes putting people at higher risk for getting COVID-19. But when you really listen to the details, they are talking mainly about people with type 2 diabetes, not type 1 diabetes. This makes sense because people who have type 2 diabetes often are older and have other chronic conditions—a combination of additional risk factors for contracting COVID-19. So, yes having type 1 diabetes may put me at a higher risk if I do not keep my blood sugar controlled because that weakens your ability to fight infections. However, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes are very different. I’m also young, and I do not have any other chronic conditions.

YMyHealth: Did any of your doctors ask you to take specific precautions?

Michelle Stephens: I was not given any recommendations that were any different than most public health measures that are being communicated to everyone else, including wearing a mask. Instead, my primary care doctor was really reassuring to me because she told me that having type 1 diabetes will not likely make me any more susceptible to getting COVID-19 than anyone else or to dying from it if I did get it, especially since my blood sugar is well-controlled.

YMyHealth: What advice do you have for millennials who are living with type 1 diabetes or other chronic conditions during the pandemic?

Michelle Stephens: Be really good about taking your medications regularly as they are prescribed, eat healthy, and sleep well. It’s also really important to take care of our mental health because we have added stress. There’s nothing wrong with talking with a therapist. It’s really helpful and can be done so easily from home now that so many therapists out there offer virtual appointments.

Michelle visiting a vineyard in France a few years ago.

When it comes to socializing with your friends and family, advocate for yourself and be polite. Evaluate your risk of going somewhere to be with people in person and do what’s comfortable for you. 

For example, if someone invites you to have coffee in a coffee shop, is drinking coffee with that person worth the risk of catching COVID-19? For me, it’s not. So, I would suggest meeting them for coffee outside and away from other people. When it comes to seeing groups of friends be creative. You can still maintain your friendships just differently.

In the summer, I met with a small group of friends while we were all wearing masks and spaced six feet a part in someone’s backyard. Meeting outside in the summer I felt okay with up to about eight people while we were wearing masks and social distancing. Typically though, I try to keep a get together with any group in person to less than six people total and usually the same people who I trust.  With larger groups, we’ve done Zoom hangouts where each time one person made a PowerPoint presentation about something interesting or funny. One friend even made a presentation on each friend’s astrology sign, which was fun.

The pandemic has definitely made me standup for myself and my health more when it comes to social situations, and seeing how people have responded to that, especially when I want to alter a plan, has definitely made me realize who my friends are and who I should spend my time with.

YMyHealth: What’s your advice for millennials who are healthy and do not have chronic conditions when it comes to friends and relatives who do have chronic conditions?

Michelle Stephens: Be a little more sensitive to others and be more considerate when making plans with your friends. If you’re planning to see a friend or family member who you know is living with a chronic condition, play it safe in the weeks leading up to getting together in person.

Social distance and wear a mask at all times in public. And if after taking all of these precautions and more, you unfortunately do find out you were exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 be honest it with the friends or family members who you’ve already gotten together with. We can’t hide things. Not telling the truth puts our friends and family at even greater risk.

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