When Amy Stockwell Mercer was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1985 at the age of 14, there were no online forums to turn to. No support blogs, chat rooms, or WebMD. There weren’t even any books on the topic at her school library. Mercer was overwhelmed by her new illness and underwhelmed by the amount of information available on it, and it was then that she decided to one day write a book on diabetes.
Twenty-six years later, Mercer, a City Paper contributor, has made her adolescent dream a reality with the publication of The Smart Woman’s Guide to Diabetes, released by Demos Health earlier this month. Mercer interviewed more than 100 people for the book, which includes personal anecdotes, stories from other diabetic women, and advice from health professionals on living with the chronic disease, which occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to control blood sugar levels. Chapters deal with pregnancy, fertility issues, and the dangers of birth defects; the challenges of traveling, including working around time zones and air travel; and managing aging and adolescence.
As a teenager, Mercer relied on her doctor to give her the information that she needed, and she was continually frustrated by those limitations. “I had to relearn how to live, how to eat, how to do all kinds of basic functions,” she says. “It was a tough diagnosis, certainly.” Back then, the biggest challenge was learning to live on a strict schedule. “In order to live well with diabetes, you really have to live a fairly scheduled life, which is easier for me now as a 40-year-old mom, but it was tough as a 14-year-old girl,” she says. “And it really felt like something had been done to me.
“I rebelled against it and didn’t want to live the way I was told I had to live,” she adds. “It was a long time before I started taking care of myself.”
While training for a marathon and, eventually, giving birth to three sons, Mercer continued to think about her book and started fleshing out her ideas. She initially considered writing an anthology, then moved toward a memoir. She started sharing ideas with publishers, and just a week after earning her Creative Writing MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, Demos Health accepted her pitch for the book in its current comprehensive format.
Mercer started reaching out to women she had met on diabetes forums and websites, resulting in a domino effect until she had dozens of inspiring sources. One example is triathlete Mari Ruddy, founder of the Red Rider Recognition Program and Team WILD (Women Inspiring Life with Diabetes). After watching her father struggle with managing his type 1 diabetes, Ruddy was afraid to be athletic, but she eventually learned to safely maintain an active lifestyle. Another source was Rachel Garlinghouse, who learned to put her health first for the benefit of her family. Mercer says the act of putting yourself first feels unnatural for many women, but it’s an important part of living with diabetes.
“Because diabetes is a big time commitment, it takes focused attention every day,” Mercer says. “I think the biggest challenge for women is balancing their life and making time for themselves. In order to live well with diabetes, you’ve got to make yourself a priority, and I think a lot of women put themselves last whether they’re mothers or they put their work first or whatever.”
Ultimately, writing the book finally helped Mercer shrug off the frustration that had been following her since her diagnosis.
“The thing that surprised me the most is what an emotional journey it was,” she says. “I almost don’t care whether or not it sells, because it was such an unbelievable journey. Just talking to these different women changed my whole perspective. I think I’ve matured in how I take care of myself over the years, but I think when I began the book, I had mixed feelings about living with diabetes and a lot of it was anger and bitterness. When I finished the book, it really changed my perspective. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and have started thinking about ways to take care of myself instead of being angry about living with the illness, trying to be kinder to myself. And that was a direct result of having talked to all of these amazing women.”