Peter Arpesella
Hometown: I was born in Bologna, raised in Rimini, Italy.
Age when diagnosed:
I was seven years old when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I had a strong bout of mumps which became pancreatitis, and that turned into diabetes. Nobody in my immediate or distant family has type 1 (or type 2) diabetes. (You can read more about this here.)

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about diabetes, and how did you learn it?

The most important lesson is that in life, it’s not what we have that makes us happy or miserable, but what we do with it. If I have 10 million dollars and don’t know how to manage it, it’ll soon be spent, lost, and it won’t have improved the quality of my life. If I have five thousand dollars and know how to make it work and grow, I’ll create wellness for me and the people around me. The same applies to diabetes. Instead of thinking of it as a disease, a curse, a stigma, a flaw and allow myself to be a victim, I learned that I can use diabetes as a guideline for a healthy lifestyle.

I learned it in several steps, I guess, but the most critical one was after my father’s death. He committed suicide and left the family in major financial and emotional distress. I was 23, and I had to graduate and help fix the family’s financial mess before we all went bankrupt. I had no time for grief and just kept doing stuff and getting things done. My grandfather and my mother kept asking me to do things like I was this machine capable of doing anything they asked. Until one day I said, “No. I can’t. And even if I could, I’m not going to. I have diabetes and I can’t deal with this much stress.” The words came out of my mouth as if I were in a trance. I had never said or thought anything like it before. From that day on, I started looking at diabetes not as a curse but as a guideline for healthy living.

Can you think of a turning point in your life with diabetes?

I had several turning points, but an important one is when I changed my nutrition and I became a macrobiotic vegan. In Italy I grew up eating a lot of everything. My favorite treat was Nutella, by the jar, with a spoon. Luckily I was always active so sports and exercise kept me in shape.

Then I changed my life. I left the corporate world of investment banking, I became an actor and writer, I moved to the United States, and I started to have the first signs of retinopathy. I had also noticed that there was an emotional component associated with my eating. I wasn’t overweight, but, like with Nutella, food was a filler for emotional emptiness, pain, and fear. None of this made me feel good, nor was it good for my blood sugar levels.

I did several things to increase my awareness about my relationship with food and at that time a friend introduced me to macrobiotics (not the “brown rice and beans dish macrobiotics,” but the understanding and practice of how to eat healthily, balancing yin and yang, or acid and alkaline, in my nutrition). From one day to the next I changed my way of eating, and I felt great! Six months into it I was scheduled to get laser surgery on my eyes, but the appointment became unnecessary because the retinopathy had completely healed. I realized how true it is that “we are what we eat.”

Again, diabetes proved to be the red flag that prompted me to become aware of something I needed to change for my own good. The operative word being, aware. Macrobiotics and veganism works for me; others need different nutrition. But I believe we all can benefit from self-awareness—the more the better.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced? How did you overcome it?

I think it’d have to be my tendency to take too much insulin and therefore push myself into unnecessary hypoglycemia. I was in a hypoglycemic coma six times, and I often woke up unable to walk and had to crawl to the kitchen to get juice or sugar. I blacked out while driving and regained full consciousness after the police stopped me in the middle of an intersection after I bumped into a parked car. I rode a motorcycle from one party to another and have no idea how I got there. I scared friends, family, and loved ones with convulsions or almost passing out, and the list goes on. (You can read more about this here.)

One day, I realized that I was using insulin to “keep myself out of life” (like my father did with drugs), or to justify eating what I wasn’t usually allowed to eat (which I now know is a huge lie, because we can really eat anything, in good measure and compensating accordingly). I had a built-in mechanism (diabetes) which I used to abuse and hurt myself: shoot-up more insulin than necessary, crash in hypoglycemia, eat a lot to get out of it, repeat. A very risky, vicious cycle. That moment of self-awareness started the process that helped me become more conscientious and balanced in how I deal with insulin, food, and emotions. More importantly, I because more aware of how I was dealing with life.

What has helped you cope with your diagnosis?

I was seven years old, and I didn’t know about diabetes; I was fine. My parents, on the other hand, had to cope with the diagnosis and they were extraordinarily brave about the whole thing. Until I became an adult I never knew how big of a trauma diabetes was for them. They never made me feel different or sick. My food plan was posted in plain sight in the kitchen, next to a big scale, and most of the times they all ate like me. Every day my father helped me decide how much insulin to take until I became self-sufficient. I also should mention that the doctors who followed me at the beginning, at the Inselspital, in Berne, Switzerland, were a very good team, and they never made me feel “broken” or “less than” because of diabetes.

What’s the biggest change you’ve had to make to live with diabetes? How did you manage to do it?

Just the basic stuff connected with diabetes management. I had to give myself shots, I had to check my blood glucose levels (via urine tests initially), couldn’t eat everything I wanted to, always had to have my supplies with me. In spite of what the general opinion was about diabetes (“Can’t do many things… Will die soon… Your body will break down with horrible complications…”) I always felt, “I can do anything as long as I prepare appropriately and am responsible for myself.”

For example, as a teenager I was a solo sailor in the Italian National Junior Sailing Team for Lasers. Theoretically I couldn’t sail alone with diabetes. “Too risky! What if you go into hypoglycemia? No can do.” In practice, I built a water tight storage locker on the boat where I kept sugar, snacks, a blood glucose meter, emergency contacts, etc. I told everyone on the team that I had diabetes and off I went, sailing and racing. So I just had to do a bit more work to continue doing what I loved to do. And that’s true for everything with diabetes.

I/we can do anything we want, we can eat anything we want, as long as we prepare for it, know what we are doing, compensate appropriately, and take full responsibility for it. (Responsibility isn’t about blame or guilt, but about being response-able. For example, at thirteen years old I took responsibility for sailing by being able to respond to what could have happened as a result of having diabetes, like highs, lows, needing to snack, informing others, etc.)

Is there someone you know … a friend, loved one, neighbor, co-worker, or someone else … who helped you through a difficult time with your diabetes? What happened?

Well, many, but some of the most important ones are (in chronological order), my parents at the beginning; my uncle and my best friend who saved my life twice getting me out of hypoglycemic comas; myself, since I’ve always been driven to find what I can do with myself to be a better, healthier, and happier person; the friend who introduced me to a different way of eating; and my wife for her dedication to getting me to snap out of whatever denial I was still lingering in about my excessive insulin use tendencies. I’m very grateful to everyone, myself included.

Has living with diabetes made you stronger? If so, how?

Yes! Diabetes has made me more self-aware, and it has reinforced the importance of being honest with myself and with others.

Share a short story or memory that is inspiring, emotional, or humorous about what you have experienced while living with diabetes.

I have quite a few, but this came to mind, so here it goes. I had finished a regatta sailing from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. We were celebrating in a club in Ensenada, and I needed to go to the restroom and check my blood glucose level. The mens room was packed. As I was waiting for a stall to free up, I noticed a security guard who was hanging out there who didn’t really seem to have any need to use the restroom. Being an actor and writer I immediately thought, “Ensenada’s a border town, drug trafficking must be an easy bust here.” Finally a stall freed up, I went in and started my procedure to check my blood glucose level. At that time it took longer than five seconds. Finally I saw that my blood glucose level was high and I needed to take insulin. By now I had been in the stall for a few minutes and that’s when I heard the first door knock. “Just a minute,” I answered, while getting ready to take a corrective shot. The second knock was louder. “Open up!” The guard yelled. “I’ll be done in a second,” I answered, but I already knew what was about to happen. The third knock came when I had just finished taking the shot, and the security guard pushed the door open as I was putting the syringe back in the pouch. “What are you doing? You come with me!” The guard ordered. I stood still, smiled, and slowly opened up the pouch to show him the contents. “I have type 1 diabetes, I need insulin,” I said. “I’m going to take my wallet now,” I told him as he kept studying me. I pulled out the wallet and from it I took my medic-alert card that shows I have diabetes. “See? Type 1 diabetes, I take insulin, with this syringe from this vial,” I explained calmly. He looked at me trying to decide if I was for real and finally said, “Okay, get out, people need the toilet!” I went back to my friends and we had a good laugh.

What advice do you have for others who may be struggling with diabetes?

I know how difficult life becomes when I eat too much, when I take too much or too little insulin, when I don’t take care of myself. Diabetes makes everything “louder, more intense.” When I’m not balanced, if I’m sad it’s easy to get depressed, if I’m tense I get anxious, etc. The key is to understand that this happens when I’m not balanced, and that it’s not diabetes’s fault; it’s my responsibility. And that’s the good news because I can do something about it. I can take care of myself, be balanced, and live a healthy life. The simple truth is if everyone (especially in the United States) ate and lived as if they had diabetes, people would be healthier.

So my advice is, don’t hate diabetes. Don’t look at it as a curse. Look at it as an opportunity. Use diabetes as an instruction manual, a set of guidelines for healthy living. Eat balanced, exercise, and minimize stress. Why should this be a curse? Why should we hate this? People pay big money for personal trainers, health workshops and retreats, nutritionists to get in shape and live a healthier life. We, people with diabetes, have to do it every day, so why should we look at it as a stigma?

If you’re thinking, “It’s too late. I’m too old. I can’t do it. I’m too fat. I already lost one foot. Etc.” just know that I’ve seen (and helped) so many people go from that dark hopeless place to a new and better life, myself included. It is very possible. No matter how deeply you think you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, or how desperate your doctors describe your condition, you can always make your life better. All we need is to change the way we think about our condition, and miracles happen.

The key is to understand that it’s nobody’s fault. It’s just my responsibility, it’s our responsibility. If I hate diabetes, it’s only because I don’t want to take responsibility for my own health, and I need to blame something outside of myself. Diabetes doesn’t kill me if I take good care of myself. Diabetes doesn’t make my life miserable, if I take care of myself.