ChronicBabe 101
How to craft an incredible life beyond illness

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Kerri Morrone Sparling: Build Positive Habits

Accountability and thoughtful rewards reinforce positive behavior…

An interview with Jenni Grover and Kerri Morrone Sparling about building great habits when you have chronic ilness. Kerri Sparling has been living with type 1 diabetes for over 29 years, diagnosed in 1986. She manages her diabetes and lives her life by the mantra “Diabetes doesn’t define me, but it helps explain me.” You can find her at www.sixuntilme.com

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Kerri is a passionate advocate for all things diabetes. She is the creator and author of Six Until Me, one of the first and most widely-read diabetes patient blogs, reaching a global audience of patients, caregivers and industry. Kerri speaks regularly at conferences and works full-time as a writer and consultant. 

Kerri’s first book, Balancing Diabetes (Spry Publishing), was released in the Spring 2014. She and her husband, Chris, live in Rhode Island with their daughter. 

Jenni: Today I have with me Kerri Morrone Sparling, of SixUntilMe.com. She’s a diabetes advocate, a good friend and a sassy lady. I think she’s going to have great tips, advice and personal experience to offer us.

Kerri: I am thrilled to be here, Jenni. Thanks for having me!

Jenni: It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Kerri and I do a lot of speaking together; you may have seen us at a lot of events or seen us cross-posting on our blogs and all other kinds of stuff. Kerri has been online since about the same time I started ChronicBabe.com.

Kerri: Yes, I started in May 2005, I think we started just a couple weeks away from each other.

Jenni: Yes, because I started in June, so we are like online health advocate sisters.

Kerri: I thought you were going to say dinosaurs, because in Internet years, that’s like forever!

Jenni: It’s true, Today we’re going to talk about building good habits. It’s one of the things I think is really challenging; I work on it all the time, and I’m always trying to re-learn good habits.

One of the things I’ve found is that having bad habits can really derail me even when I have the best of intentions. We already face negative situations all the time and we try to do what we need to do to stay healthy, but sometimes bad habits really just get in the way. Can you kind of fess up a bit—and I will too—what kind of bad habits have you tried to kick to the curb over the years?

Kerri: With type 1 diabetes, it’s one of those chronic illnesses where every single day comes with a laundry list of things you need to do to keep tabs on your health. So an average day for me includes testing my blood sugar somewhere between seven to 10 times, doing either insulin injections or using my pump treatments for insulin, calculating food, keeping note of what my blood sugar is on my continuous glucose monitor.

There’s always something to worry about, something to look at. It’s not like I think about it in the morning and again when I go to bed; this is an all day party. So, super fun and you’ve seen it in action! We’re at conferences together and you’re like “Again? We’re doing this again?”

Jenni: Yup! “What’s that beeping sound? Oh it’s Kerri!”

Kerri: And it’s always me!

Jenni: She’s a robot!

Kerri: And when you’re trying to keep tabs on a million different things every single day, burnout is almost inevitable and you have to kind of allow yourself to have a little burnout and gosh—I’ve gone days without testing my blood sugar throughout the day and I’ll just test in the morning or maybe test at night and just try to keep tabs. I’ll go use my insulin without calculating the carbs, or I think one of the worst things I do is that I’ll put off doctors’ appointments because I don’t want to go—talk about negative reinforcement or negative information we get, sometimes I don’t want the doctor to tell me “Hey, your A1C has gone up” or, “Oh I see you’re only testing four times a day,” so I’ll avoid them.

Jenni: Ah, that’s a tough one. I’m kind of with you on that. I’ve definitely had times when I’ve not wanted to go see my doctor because I’m not excited about what I know they’re going to tell me. For me, I’m a stress eater and I’ve been working on losing weight and it’s so challenging. Every time I go to the doctor, I know when he weighs me, I know what he is going to say and it just kills me.

Kerri: You’re right though, you know what you weigh, you don’t need the doctor to tell you. It’s like you go into that appointment knowing, “Oh, boy.” I do the same thing with the diabetes stuff: “Told you.”

Jenni: I hear what you’re saying, burnout is so hard—I don’t have to do the testing and tracking that you do, but I definitely have a lot of things to do throughout the day to maintain a good baseline of health: flexibility by stretching a lot, drinking a lot of water, making sure I exercise everyday, meditating—all that stuff.

You know, I will totally fall out of that habit. I love to meditate but I am not the best about doing that every day because I often feel strapped for time and it seems like the kind of thing, “Do I really need to?” which is so silly, but: “Do I really have 10 minutes to devote to this?” and I’ll be like “yeah, you do.”

Kerri: Right, because later on in the day you find yourself devoting 20 minutes to checking some ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile, and it’s like “wait a minute, what are you doing?”

Jenni: Exactly!

Kerri: Not that I’ve ever done that…

Jenni: No, no, we’ve never done that. We’ve never sat over each other’s shoulders and done that. Well, it’s good to know I’m not alone. I think all of us have bad habits we have to work on continually or that we’ve gotten rid of.

What kind of good habits have you have developed over the years to manage your health issues? Can you give us some specific examples?

Kerri: Oh totally. I’ve been diabetic since just before I started second grade, so it’s been 29 years—basically, I can’t remember life without it. It’s been forever.

Since I’ve started immersing myself in online health communities, I feel like connecting with other people who have diabetes, instead of trying to be an isolationist about it, has been the best habit I’ve formed for myself. We were talking about those moments of burnout. I bounce out of them faster knowing I’m not alone, seeing proof of that in these blogs and communities online and having that community reinforcement of, “OK, pick yourself up, keep on going.” So, this has to be good habit number one for me.

Jenni: Yeah, that sounds like a great one.

Kerri: And I think it’s something a lot of ChronicBabes can tap into. You can’t do this by yourself and there’s this huge emotional component to living with a physical chronic illness and you have to do what you need to survive.

That leads into good habit number two. I think being a part of these communities and putting my health information out there, and letting other people see what I’m doing keeps me accountable. I can admit the bad stuff, we’re talking about bad habits right now, but something about putting it out there almost makes me examine myself emotionally and physically and make a change. I’ve already said that this is my problem, admitting it is the first step, but doing something about it—I’m hoping—is the second.

Jenni: That makes a lot of sense. Accountability is so huge; the weight loss thing is a big goal for me. My boyfriend and I have been texting each other every morning with our weigh-ins, which sometimes I am mortified to tell him, except that it’s great because we have accountability to each other and we’re both aware of it.

We’re not freaking out about each other if we don’t reach our goal each week, but I know he is going to keep me in check. Even just the simple task of texting him and saying “I gained a pound” reminds that somebody is keeping an eye on me, not in a judgmental way, but in a supportive way.

Kerri: But I’m also sure when you text him and say “I lost two pounds,” the celebratory moment is even more sweet because you have somebody to share it with.

Jenni: Seriously, there is a lot of over-texting on those days. “Yay!” It’s great, and I know he feels the same way. I think accountability is great. I have the same kind of thing I do with a lot of ChronicBabes online too and other friends of mine. Checking in, being honest about what’s going on. I think it’s hard to be honest sometimes.

Kerri: It’s amazing that you and I are living with different chronic illnesses and we’re not even talking about the pills you take or the pills I take, we’re talking about emotional support, we’re talking about a really emotional side to a physical thing. It’s crazy how that really spans across all different health conditions.

Jenni: Yeah, it does. In one of the other lessons on isolation, I talk about how it can be so easy for us to get isolated. I spoke with Lisa Copen, in the lesson about teambuilding, about how even when you have family around, you can feel isolated because maybe they don’t have the same condition. They care and are compassionate, but they don’t understand exactly what you’re going through, and having that accountability and having people you’re touching base with is such a good habit to have. It keeps you feeling connected.

Do you have any other habits you have formed that are not strictly related to diabetes, but kind of keep you healthy in general, or keep your sense of humor going, or keep you from getting bored?

Kerri: Well, diabetes being a disease that so revolves around food and lifestyle and—well, you’ve seen it, hardware—it’s kind of like an all-day thing. Everyone says, if you want to be healthy, you have to eat right, exercise and take good care of yourself. That is really the core of what living with type 1 diabetes is all about, aside from taking insulin.

My husband is very tuned into his own physical fitness and is dedicated to a workout, so being with someone like that, it is very easy to make exercise a part of my life. I know I don’t sound like I’m smiling because I’m like “Aw, exercise?” but still, it is a plus to have someone who is so dedicated to it. You almost get swept up in it like, “OK, fine, I’ll go be healthy too, you jerk.”

Then on the eating front, diabetes fuels me to be a healthier eater because if I eat crap, then my blood sugars reflect that and my weight reflects that, so I try to eat as healthy as I can. We have a daughter and there is something about wanting to be a good example for her.

So, we don’t sit down in the morning and have chocolate cake for breakfast. We don't do the chocolate cake thing because we want her to see her parents, you know, taking care of their bodies and I want her to pick up on that. Even though she’s so young, I know that she does. She’s the only kid I know who eats avocado.

Jenni: That sounds so good though, you’re right—that ingrains a good habit right from the beginning. Some of us didn’t have that and then it takes so long to build that new habit into place, if you’ve had that long history of not doing it.

Kerri: The kid’s had more than her fair share of doughnuts, but she understand the difference: that’s a treat, and now here’s the regular food.

Jenni: That’s interesting. I do think about that when I’m around my nieces, or my best friend has sons and I really consider them like my nephews. When I’m around them, I do watch everything I do because they’re just like little sponges; they absorb every nuance.

Kerri: Every doughnut!

Jenni: Every doughnut, exactly! So I want to be a really good role model to them. And again, a lot of what we are talking about is accountability.

Kerri: And support. Because not all accountability, in my opinion, should be negative. Like “Oh you didn’t lose the weight.” Or “No, you didn’t check your blood sugar.” It’s more like “Hey, you did!” And that—even if it’s a virtual pat on the back—makes it easier to do it again.

Jenni: I think you are so right about that, and I think negative reinforcement does not work very well at all for me. So even if I text my beau and say “I gained a pound,” he’s not going to come back and say “That really sucks.” He’s going to come back and say “Well, you know what? Progress is not linear, I bet tomorrow will be better, let’s make salad tonight.” There’s positive feedback in there.

I know all of us have negative people in our lives, but if you find the most positive person you can to be accountable with, I think that will give good results.

We were talking about how long it takes to build a habit, at least for some of us. Like the healthy eating thing: I grew up and we ate doughnuts all the time. So, I’ve tried over the years to build good habits and I know some people say it takes 28 days to learn a new habit. But I’ve actually heard a recent speaker say it takes 90 days to build a good habit.

So I’m wondering if you could think of a time you tried to create a new healthy habit: How do you commit to it? I know we’ve talked about accountability, I know we’ve talked about talking with your husband or friends and stuff. Do you ever use any other tools? Like calendar reminders or notes to yourself or anything like that?

Kerri: I hate to sound like I’m using social media as a total crutch, but I think one of the biggest things for me is using my website and Twitter tools and that sort of thing—to say that I have a goal and to hold me to keeping that goal. Again, it comes back to that accountability, and it’s documented.

I know that before I wanted to have a baby, it was a two-year planning process—to get my diabetes under control, to get my life under control in a non-health related sort of way. But part of preparing my body for pregnancy was logging blood sugars. We talked before about how many things I do in the course of a day to keep track of my diabetes, writing down my blood sugar in a book and keeping track of it was like, the last thing I gave a shit about. But I had to make it a priority, right?

I used a spreadsheet that I had on my computer, but then I would put that spreadsheet on my blog or on some kind of public place where someone would see it and say, “Oh girl, you did not fill that out. You don’t even use it!” I needed to—I wasn’t talking about my own health, but kind of working toward my future child’s health, so there was a goal at stake. And having a goal like that, and having people watching me try to achieve that goal, inspired me to really do it.

Jenni: Wow. That’s pretty brave. I think a lot of people would be pretty shy about putting themselves out so publicly, in that way. You do it a lot, which I have a lot of respect for.

Kerri: I don’t put my weight out there, and I’m not really specific on advertising my, you know…

Jenni: I’m not gonna put my weight out there either, even though I’ll put pictures out there so people can see when I’ve gained a lot.

Kerri: But I mean, if you’re looking at blood sugars, those are quick snapshots of a moment. So I don’t feel defined by those, you know?

Jenni: Yeah, that makes sense. So what do you think is the equivalent, then, for people who maybe don’t have a big online audience? I’m trying to think about how I might do something like that in a more private way. I guess maybe if I were keeping track of good habits —like, in this chapter, one of the worksheets I have is a “You’re a Good Habits Goddess,” a checklist that people can print out.

I’m really excited about these and I’ve been using mine a lot, very consistently. I’m going to say that publicly, everyone can hold me accountable. I’m using them and I keep a list of the good habits I want to maintain every day, and I keep that thing in my pocket, and every time I achieve one I check it off. It feels really good to do that, even if it’s just for myself. And I’m wondering...

Kerri: Well, why not though? There’s a power in doing it for yourself, too. It’s not like everything has to be public and this big like, social media mess. Sometimes it’s as simple as—honestly, buying a pack of those stickers teachers have, and sticking one on the calendar every time you exercise. Which I definitely did after I had the kid when I was like, holy moly, I definitely need to get to the gym. You know what I mean? And no one saw that calendar.

Jenni: What did your stickers look like?

Kerri: They were the little gold stars that you would get on a spelling test. I wanted to keep it as second-grade as possible, because when I looked at the calendar, and it looked like a constellation, I felt like I was empowered, just by that visual. Something about that was the positive reinforcement.

I’m so motivated by hope, not by negativity and fear, so when someone’s like, “Oh well, once you have a baby, it changes your body forever.” It’s like, “Oh hell no, we’re gonna go back!” You know what I mean?

Jenni: Right.

Kerri: And my gold stars prove that I’m doing that. The same goes for my diabetes. If people say “You can’t do this, you can’t do that,” it’s like, “Oh yeah, well, I can. Watch me. See those stars?”

Jenni: That’s so great. I love a visual reminder, too. Something that you can look across the room and see immediately has got to make you feel good. Especially if there’s a day where you can’t achieve that goal, or maybe you feel like you’ve slipped back a little bit, you can say “Well, look, I had two whole weeks where I did it every day, or five days a week, and I can do it.” It helps you remember you have been able to do it, so even if you slip back a little bit, you can come back to that good place where you’re doing it every day.

Kerri: Exactly. And even just looking at the calendar when you’re in that week, you can see forward to where you can—like, next week that’ll be all gold stars. It doesn’t have to be going to the gym, it can be as simple as, in my life, testing for every meal.

For someone else, it might mean making sure they weigh themselves and keep themselves accountable. I know we’re hitting the same things over and over again, but they’re resonating for a reason.

Jenni: Yeah, I think so. For anybody reading or listening, I think it’s a good idea for you to think about: What do I need to do every day to maintain my health? And that’s why I have the checklist worksheet, so people can go through and make that list for themselves, and think really carefully about all the things they want to achieve throughout the day.

It can sometimes feel overwhelming. Except when you start looking at them and checking them off, it’s like, “Oh, well that was a small thing, I was able to do that.” I have really simple stuff on my list like “wash my face before I go to bed.” It sounds so junior high, but I can be really lazy about it—I’m tired at the end of the day and I fall into bed and I don’t do it. Honestly, how long does it take to wash my face? A minute. So it’s like, let’s get that going again. Especially because I’m not 25 anymore, I gotta take good care of my face.

Kerri: And you have a good face, so you don’t want to wake up in the morning and be all, “Hey, that’s yesterday’s face! I want today’s face.”

Jenni: Yeah, you don’t want raccoon eyes and stuff.

Kerri: You’re talking about putting simple things on there. My husband and I do that all the time because we both work for ourselves, so the to-do list for an average day can be pretty significant; I always find myself sneaking in to find his paper to-do list and adding things like “hug your wife.” You know? Because that’s something that takes two seconds to do, it’s really simple, you can cross it off afterwards and it makes you feel good. It’s a nice thing on your list instead of a daunting item.

Jenni: Totally. Instead of this huge, monumental goal that you have every day. Breaking it up and having nice little chunks and stuff that’s not even health-related, like you said, hug your wife.” You want those positive habits. One of the things I have on my list is “put on a cute outfit.” Because like you, I work for myself, and because I’m often working from home, it’s really easy to just sit around in old pajamas.

Kerri: They’re never new pajamas, either. They’re always old. What is that?

Jenni: I need some kind of service where people deliver new, cute pajamas to me on a weekly basis. Anybody reading or listening, if you know about a service like that, let me know.

Kerri: I love it.

Jenni: But you know, I feel better when I put on a cute outfit. Even if I’m just going to the grocery store. I don’t wanna just put my coat on over my PJs and go down there. I mean, I could, but… you never know who you’re going to run in to.

When you’re building those good habits, do you have ways to reward yourself, besides the gold stars or the positive reinforcement? Like verbally, from friends, online… do you have other ways you reinforce those good habits?

Kerri: This might sound totally weird, but I know the day I was diagnosed with diabetes, so we call it my dia-versary. And people in the diabetes community kind of celebrate their dia-versary. I know, that sounds totally strange, right? I realize how counter-intuitive it is to do this, but my anniversary is in September, and every anniversary my family and I—now my husband and I—we get a giant cake, and it says something about diabetes, either “screw you, diabetes!”

And then we eat that cake. That is what we do. That’s the reward for another year of good health. And it sounds crazy and so weird but there’s something really really awesome, you know, about slicing in with a giant knife to a cake that says “screw you, type 1 diabetes!” And then you eat it. And it’s awesome.

Jenni: That’s so funny. I love it. I think maybe we all need to take a moment and think about some kind of good, positive, reinforcement, like a congratulatory “screw you!” cake.

Kerri: Yeah, for a diabetic. Rock and roll!

Jenni: Yeah, for whatever. Everybody reading or listening has different stuff, so I think they could probably come up with something like that.

Kerri: I mean, a lot of times, it’s kind of instinctual for people to want to reward themselves with food, and that’s not a habit I want to make—because that’s a disaster for someone like me. Sometimes I will buy a new camera lens or something as a reward for reaching a goal that I’ve set for myself.

I try not to constantly reward myself because—this is going to sound super cheesy—the reward of this work is to have good health in the first place. It’s hard to kind of quantify if nothing’s changed. “Here’s another day, and nothing’s changed.” How do you really wrap your head around that, you know?

Jenni: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I understand it’s a little cheesy to say the reward is good health, except it is a super-awesome reward. I’ve gone through months where I haven’t been able to do much of anything because my health is so crummy, so to feel good and be able to be active and make creative things and help people, get out there, travel… all those things are awesome. And if I can do that, that is a great reward for taking care of myself.

Kerri: And I know not all illnesses are sometimes as invisible as the ones you and I live with—it’s not like people look at us and say, “Oh hey, you have such-and-such!” Because it’s not much of an external condition. But it is kind of empowering to have someone say, “Oh, I didn’t know you had that!” Like, “Ha ha, you didn’t know until I told you!” Win!

Jenni: I did a speaking gig—kind of like a spoken word presentation—a couple of months ago, and I stood up on stage in front of a couple hundred people and talked for a couple of minutes about basically kicking fibromyalgia’s ass. I did it with a big visual behind me, lots of images and stuff, and I got in front of people and was really honest about it. And I had kind of a new friend in the audience who didn’t know that I had fibromyalgia. I’m not really sure how he didn’t know, because I tell everyone.

Kerri: He didn’t Google you?

Jenni: Yeah, I guess he just—we’d met each other at social events and stuff. At my performance, he turned to his friend and said “I had no idea that she had to deal with that every day.” And it’s like, well, that’s part of the point of getting in front of people, to let them know. Not in a bitter way, not in a “woe is me” kind of way, but in a kind of “I’m an ass-kicker” kind of way, which is really good.

And you’re right—having somebody who knows me and sees me around and doesn’t even realize that, that’s a great reward actually. Because I don’t want to walk around and have everyone be like “Oh, there goes fibro-girl again!”

Kerri: That does make it sound like you should have some sort of cape or something, let’s be honest.

Jenni: I really should. We need capes. That’ll be the next phase of ChronicBabe 101. Everyone gets a cape. It’s like Oprah. “You get a cape, and you get a cape, and…”

Kerri: Now you’re like Oprah!

Jenni: Kerri, it’s such a joy to talk to you, as always. We always have such a great time, and I really am so thankful to spend this time with you.

Kerri: Oh, thanks, Jenni.

Jenni: I’m wondering if you have any last thoughts about good habits?

Kerri: Actually, what you just said about having someone not see your disease first or your health condition first… I think that’s a good mental note to leave this on.

You might be really focused on your health, and thinking about “Oh, my diabetes is making me do this,” or “I have to do this and this and this,” but it’s not who you are. And that’s such an important thing to remember. You have a condition, but it’s not the core of who you are. Even on the days when it feels the crummiest and like it totally is. It still isn’t, and you are way more than your disease. Remembering that helps put everything else into perspective.

Jenni: You’re so right about that. Kerri, you’re the best!

Kerri: And you get a cape! And you get a cape! And you get a cape! Everybody gets capes!

Jenni: I kind of want a cake with a cape. We’re talking about cake and I’m getting hungry

Kerri: Come by next September. You can have dia-versary cake with us.

Jenni: Thanks! I’m going to be good now and have an apple and then I’ll feel really good, like I’ve earned that cake. Kerri, thanks again!

If you’ve stuck with us for the whole conversation, awesome! Reward yourself with something healthy, keep building those healthy habits, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this chat with Kerri.  

For everyone who’s been reading or listening, I hope you'll head on over to the ChronicBabe 101 website and listen to some of the other lessons. (Links are available for download at www.ChronicBabe101.com.)

Jennifer E Grover