Mary Van Doorn was just 21 when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. She had no symptoms at the time, and her diagnosis was discovered during routine blood work during a physical. Van Doorn tells Yahoo Life that her diagnosis felt “random,” given that she felt fine. So she “basically pretended that I didn’t hear anything that [the doctor] said.”
Van Doorn got married soon after her diagnosis. “I felt really guilty that I was putting my health issues on my soon-to-be new husband,” she says. “I cried a lot ... and then I proceeded to do nothing.”
Van Doorn was given medication, but she only took it “sometimes.” She also didn’t regularly go to doctor’s appointments. “I didn't really get a whole lot of education or support or anything like that,” she says. “When you're 21, you're like, ‘I don't need anyone's help. I'm invincible. Nothing bad is going to happen to me.’ And so I didn't really do a whole lot to help myself then.”
Van Doorn’s marriage ended after the birth of her son. “My life kind of imploded,” she says. “You kind of pick up the pieces and the last thing that you’re thinking of — at least for me — was well, ‘Let me make sure I’m eating healthy.’”
But Van Doorn says her mindset started to change when she met her now-husband. “It makes a really big difference when you have the kind of support that makes you want to be a better person,” she says.
It wasn’t until she had her daughter that Van Doorn decided to take action for her kids. “I was probably close to my highest weight ever,” she explains. “I wanted them to have a childhood that they looked back on where they remember their mom, not just watching them play, but actually playing with them.”
Van Doorn signed up for Zumba classes. “I started in the back of the room and I couldn’t keep up with anything,” she says. But, eventually, she became more confident and even decided to get certified to become a Zumba teacher. “At that point I had lost, like 85 to 100 pounds,” she says. Van Doorn also started training for a 10-mile run.
But when she went back to her doctor, she learned that her blood sugar levels were high, an indication that her diabetes was not under control. Her cholesterol was also “sky high,” she adds. “You're going to have a heart attack if you don't fix this,” she remembers her doctor saying.
Van Doorn was confused. “At that point in my journey, I was a fitness instructor. I was a certified personal trainer. I had done a triathlon,” she says. But, she learned, her diet needed to change, too. “I wasn't addressing how I was thinking about food and how thinking about myself and just the mindset that it takes to live with this disease.”
Van Doorn says she decided to “hold myself accountable” and that meant acknowledging that she struggled with “food issues,” including binge-eating. Now, she says she’s “very simple” with what she eats. “I tend to eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch every day typically because I don't like to cook.” This may include having sunny side eggs, low carb bread and cheese in the morning, followed by tuna salad with cucumbers and mixed berries for lunch.
A new form of support
Van Doorn decided to create Sugar Mama Strong, a diabetes support group for women. “I was like, ‘I need a positive place where I can share about my experiences, where people are going to be like, I get you. I support you. I see you,’” she says.
Van Doorn started the group with her mom, who also has diabetes, and a few friends, and would do a “daily accountability post,” where she and others would share their blood sugar numbers. “I need that accountability. And so I know other ladies need it too,” she explains. “And it has become such a positive space of my world.”
Sugar Mama Strong has grown — it has 4,100 members on Facebook — and now has a library of workouts led by Van Doorn. “I have ladies in the group who have severe complications with diabetes — they can do it,” she says. “The goal is to make fitness accessible for everybody.”
Van Doorn is hopeful that her support group can help other women as much as it’s helped her. “There are so many sources out there and people out there who minimize what it’s like to live with type 2 diabetes,” she sys. “We should be empowering people, we should be loving on people, we should be supporting them and celebrating every little change they make because it’s hard.”