One of our family’s proudest moments came last summer when my now-13-year-old son Jack decided to go away to diabetes camp for the first time. It was not quite two years since Jack had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and he had never done sleepaway camp before. So this was a big deal. It turned out to be a great week for Jack and all of us. Jack’s little brother, William, got some well-deserved quality time with Mom and Dad as we took a collective breath from the strains of managing diabetes, knowing that Jack was having fun and receiving excellent care.

One day I took William to see the Disney® movie Inside Out. As we sat there in the dark and the plot unfolded, before I knew it, tears were rolling down my face. I was completely caught off guard. Perhaps having Jack away at camp gave me some time to reflect, and the tears I had suppressed for so long in the attempt to be a strong mom and spouse gave up the ghost.

Each character in the movie — Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness — so strongly resonated with my experience parenting a child with type 1. I found myself especially drawn to Sadness. I feel persistent sadness in mourning my boy’s carefree, pre-diabetes life and in knowing that his condition isn’t going away until we find a cure. The upside of my sadness, however, is that it has unlocked an even deeper level of love for Jack and my family. We are more connected now than we ever were.

Then there’s the powerful bully, the domineering character of Anger — I connected with him too. I am angered by how complicated life is now for my child and how much society doesn’t understand his disease. I feel this anger for everyone dealing with type 1 who has to regularly explain how their diagnosis had absolutely nothing to do with eating too much sugar.

The Fear character intrigued me, since he keeps close company with me, especially in the middle of the night. I fear seeing a blood sugar of 25 when my gut tells me to get up and check on my son. As a mother, I fear for how my son will manage on his own one day in college and beyond. But fear has also mobilized me; it made me pursue getting a CGM (continuous glucose monitor) for Jack so we have an extra layer of protection from unexpected lows.

The Disgust character is who I relate to when I look at our pile of sharps. I know it’s bizarre, but I keep a collection of them in various sharps containers from the nineteen months before we started using an insulin pump. I can’t throw them out yet. To me, each needle stick reflects the physical and psychological jab that diabetes inflicts. I keep them around because a big part of me wants to stay engaged with disgust (and anger) to motivate me to work harder at fundraising and advocacy for a cure.

After the movie, William and I discussed our favorite characters. And that’s when he uttered the sweetest words I have heard in a long time.

“Mom, you remind me of Joy.”

Deeply touched and amazed by his comment, I fell silent. I had no idea that was how he perceived me. I have always feared since his brother’s diabetes diagnosis that I have come across as a stressed-out, sad, and overwhelmed mom.

Then it occurred to me that in the movie, Joy works her butt off. She actively promotes positivity through each challenge presented to her. She buzzes around frantically to protect everyone and to prevent them from falling into the abyss of anger, fear, sadness, or disgust. Perhaps she unknowingly does this for herself as much as for others, to maintain her own survival. I can connect with that as the mom of a child with type 1 diabetes, striving to make a happy, near-normal family.

My little conversation with William gave me much to ponder about emotions, particularly joy, as Jack returned from diabetes camp and the summer went on. A few weeks later, Joy emerged unexpectedly in a poignant moment of kindness showed to Jack by a stranger who also had type 1. Soon after that, Joy turned up again in the form of my pride in Jack’s athletic accomplishments on our family trip to the mountains, and his diligence managing his type 1 in a new environment.

Even though Joy may not always be instantly recognizable in the day-to-day grind of diabetes care, seek her out. She may present herself simply as a day of in-range blood sugar numbers or a warm interaction with someone who has been touched by type 1. Her relations — anger, fear, sadness, and disgust — will always be competing for your attention as you go through your daily battles with diabetes. But the powerful revelation that Inside Out unearthed for me is to accept all of my emotions as part of life’s smorgasbord. They all have something to teach us. Some days you’ll have to work harder to find Joy, but she’s there if you look.

Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.

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