Ellyn Spragins found bestseller success with her 2006 book, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self– a compilation of letters written by 41 famous women to their younger selves. The idea caught on, and Ellyn has since written two more books, founded What I Know Now® Enterprises, and been a columnist for the New York Times. She speaks frequently at women’s corporate development events, and leads workshops in which participants are encouraged to write letters to their younger selves.
In 2018, Ellyn acted as editor for an ebook, In Your Own Words, which collects letters that Canadians living with diabetes wrote to their younger selves. This Canadian book is modelled after a similar project in the UK.
Ellyn described the process of creating the book and what makes In Your Own Words uniquely Canadian.
What led you to want to dive into the world of people living with diabetes? Was there a personal interest?
When I worked on my first three books and when I collaborated with people in seminars and workshops, I expected there would be a few more letters about health issues than there actually were. Then, when I undertook this project in both Canada and the UK, I discovered that the long-term consequences of not addressing the challenge of diabetes management were far more serious and devastating than some of the challenges that my workshop participants and previous letter writers from my books had faced. It was a more charged example of writing a letter to your younger self; diabetes wasn’t just an ordinary challenge.
What were the differences you saw, if any, between the British and Canadian stories? Was there anything about the Canadian stories that stood out?
The health-care system was raised a couple of times, and I didn’t hear that at all in the UK letters. In one of the Canadian letters, there were certain kinds of treatment that weren’t covered by the health-care system; in another case the letter writer was grateful for what is covered.
What advice would you give to your younger self when it comes to your own health?
I was a social smoker for a long time, and when I smoked, it felt very much like it did when I first started smoking – it was like freedom, in a way. I would write to myself in my twenties and tell my younger self that this is a misaligned emotion to have about smoking, and that it is still harmful even though it isn’t frequent.
What were some of the key takeaways you had from this project?
For me, it was the personal stories. Mario, for example, who went into the kitchen to call an ambulance because he thought he was having a heart attack, and didn’t want to wake his family. It turned out that he was having a hypoglycemic episode and fortunately, his medication kit was on the kitchen counter, so he could help himself.
Another person had type 1 diabetes and had been rushed to the hospital twice. She ran her blood sugar high, right before bed, as an insurance policy, and her letter instructed her younger self that this strategy wasn’t going to work for her long-term health.
Mostly, I was struck by how the letter writers all felt so validated by the experience of being together and hearing each other’s letters. It was really powerful for them because people with diabetes often feel like they are going it alone. In the workshops, they didn’t want to stop talking to each other, and at the end they wanted to stay in touch.
Letters from In Your Own Words will be available for download on World Diabetes Day, November 14, on the Diabetes Care Community website. The full ebook is available for download from the Novo Nordisk Canada website.
You have a big stubborn streak that is preventing you from truly taking care of yourself. You just don’t want to be told what to do – by anyone.
Education is what you desperately need. Read books and attend seminars. The more you actually know about diabetes and how it works, the less you will be reacting rebelliously against your beloved children’s and husband’s suggestions and reminders. Knowledge is power.
Cindy, take charge of your life! You are going to find this hard to believe, but managing diabetes will empower you. You will determine your destiny. You will lose 38 pounds, hit the gym almost every day and feel better than you did in your 40s. You will become a truly different, authentically confident person. Goodbye doormat!
I’m not saying this path will be without bumps. But you have the self-reflective tools you learned in managing depression. You list your thoughts and feelings, and the cascade of concerns that they trigger. Then you question the accuracy of those associations. For example, just because your blood sugar level is not where it is supposed to be, and you feel defeated, that does not mean that you are a poor performer or a failure.
You are spending all day, every day, scolding yourself. You’re overweight. You should stop cooking and baking so much. You don’t deserve to be here. You don’t deserve anything.
But, Fatima, heaping blame on yourself won’t change anything – and it certainly won’t make your condition better. Here’s what will: opening your mind. You will have the chance to attend a seminar that will help. You’ll look around at the other “students,” who will be people your age, but also older people, babies and children, too. You will realize: Diabetes can happen to anyone.
You will have days where you forget what you went through. I want that for you. But be careful with your carb loads and remember that insulin is not a cure that lets you eat whatever you want. You will have that cheesecake once in a while, but please don’t make it a weekly habit and load up on insulin to compensate – you could develop a pattern of high and low blood sugars and create future damage for which there will be no compensation.
Think of insulin not as a burden but as a backseat passenger in the vehicle you will use to drive through this life. Get to know it. Understand what makes it cooperate with you and what makes it go rogue. Learn to work together and do it soon. The road will never be even, but you have so many places to go.