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Young poet supports Diabetes UK Cymru for big push on mental health awareness

Duke Al Durham from Vale of Glamorgan, who lives with type 1 diabetes, is adding his distinct voice to Diabetes UK Cymru’s efforts to get the nation talking about mental health, diabetes and social issues.

Duke is 26 and has struggled with his mental health – particularly Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – for some time.

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Growing up in the village of Dinas Powys, Duke threw himself into sports at school, competed in athletics and played rugby and football. He studied sports coaching at Cardiff Metropolitan University and kept on exercising and playing rugby locally.

But secretly, he wasn’t coping and felt lonely. “I was inspired by the wordplay of artists such as Eminem, The Notorious BIG, 2Pac, Jay Z, 50 Cent. Rap became my escape mechanism and I admired the way these artists used lyrics to tell stories.

"I started writing at 11 years-old and the raps developed into poems to explain what was going on in my brain. Having OCD from an early age wasn’t easy. I couldn’t articulate how it made me feel, especially with the stigma attached to it. I felt that, if I talked about the tormenting bad thoughts attacking me, the relentless compulsions I had to do, in order to feel satisfied that nothing bad would happen, people would think I was crazy or just not understand. Writing gave me the freedom, to express how I felt.”

A first, Duke hid his rhymes, but his passion for writing was overwhelming, as well as his realisation of the power of poetry to soothe and challenge discrimination and unfairness.

He said: “As I got older and more mature, I started to write about topics which I felt an urge, a passion to voice my opinion about, to try and change the world for the good. I now write about racism, which I have experienced over the years, inequality and mental health. Although I struggled immensely growing up with a lonely mental health illness, using and abusing alcohol which got me into a lot of frightening moments, my family have always been my rock.”

At the age of 21, he finally got the help he needed after being referred to Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT), or talking therapy, on the NHS. It gave him the ability to look at his intrusive thoughts in a different perspective, combat them and not let them rule his life.

Diabetes diagnosis throws in another struggle for Duke

When Duke was 22, he travelled to Thailand and Bali with his partner and at the end of the trip he started to feel unwell. When he was back in Wales, his health deteriorated very quickly and he was rushed to the Heath Hospital in Cardiff, where he was diagnosed with salmonella and sepsis infection. After being hospitalised for six weeks and then suffering over a year of ill health, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes:

“It was a complete shock to go through all this, because I was young and fit. I remember feeling very lethargic all the time, I used to tell myself to ‘man up’ and get on with it. I was still playing rugby, my jobs were physical, (landscape gardening and personal training), and still studying at University. I also went through a period of distress and trauma which left me with traits of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), which healthcare professionals believed could have been a second trigger.”

The symptoms heightened around two weeks before his diagnosis: “I had dry mouth, I kept on urinating, any liquid that would touch my lips, I could not help but drink the entirety of it. My breath started to smell like pear drops, and I lost weight, but the strangest symptom for me, was that when I would go to the gym. I would work out as hard as I could battling the lethargy trying to overcome this feeling of fatigue, yet I would get no pump in my muscles, they felt squidgy when usually they would feel tensed, this hit me hard and I knew something was wrong. I eventually went to the doctors and a week later I was diagnosed.”

The power of poetry, one rhyme at a time

Duke found it hard to accept his diagnosis and his mental health had to cope with the extra burden of diabetes management, which caused him to experiment with self-harm and insulin withdrawal.

Diabetes became a huge part of his creative drive when writing about mental health and he writes about hidden hypos, highs and lows, burnout and OCD.

“I am striving to use my poetry to tell vivid, impactful stories, where people can relate to them so they don’t feel alone and I can help educate those who do not understand mental health illness and type 1 diabetes.” Duke

Duke is now supporting Diabetes UK Cymru to raise awareness of mental health and the lack of psychological and emotional support services (Too often missing campaign) He is releasing a book of poems next year called “Bittersweet” to mark the centenary of the discovery of insulin, developed to treat diabetes for the first time in 1922.

“Writing rhymes is my therapy. From a young age, I’d scribble raps and poems in my old lyric book. It was my way of expressing myself; an escapism to challenge my OCD. A passion of words, flow and rhyme flared. Now I aim to make an impactful change using words, one rhyme at a time”, he said.

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