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Liz's story - from personal tragedy to competitive powerlifter

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Liz Cromwell

Diagnosed with gestational diabetes in 2009

Liz, 47, from Berkshire, was diagnosed with gestational diabetes in 2009. She went on to develop type 2 diabetes. Following a tragic bereavement, she became depressed and began binge eating, making her diabetes more difficult to manage. She says her healing process began five years ago, when she joined a gym. Now, she is a competitive powerlifter and no longer has to take medication to manage her blood sugars

Warning: This story talks about miscarriage and bereavement. 

Diagnosis

Getting diagnosed

I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes in 2009, when I was around three months pregnant with my ninth baby.

I’d previously been told my blood sugars were in the ‘pre-diabetic’ range. My mum and one of my brothers has type 2 diabetes, but they live in Jamaica and I had no understanding of what it meant when I was diagnosed. It was a shock.

I was put straight on insulin. Everything was new to me. I followed the instructions that were given to me about changing my diet, but I was having hypos and would stuff myself with sweet foods to get my blood sugar back up. I didn’t really understand that I could adjust my medication. It felt like I was feeling about in the dark. 

My pregnancy seemed to be going well, until just before my due date. I just felt like something was wrong. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, but something just felt off. I hadn’t felt her move much, so I rang the hospital. They told me to come in for a check the next day. When I went in, I told them that I was really worried, and they checked the heartbeat. They had a really good look, and everything seemed fine. I was so relieved. They did think I should deliver sooner rather than later though, so they booked me in for an induction the following week. 

"I went for a scan ahead of my planned induction, and I could tell from the looks on the doctors' faces that something wasn’t right."

They took me into another room and asked me to lie down while they scanned me with more sophisticated machines. It took about fifteen minutes but felt like a lifetime. 

Loss

Eventually, they told me my baby’s heartbeat had stopped. I don’t really remember what happened next, but I remember feeling really angry. I think I went into shock. It just felt like my world was falling apart. That night, I gave birth to my beautiful baby daughter. I kept praying and hoping that the doctors had been wrong, and that she’d start breathing, but she didn’t. I held her for a few hours, and then they took her away. Hearing other babies crying on the ward was just awful, and all I could think about was leaving the hospital the next day with an empty car seat next to me. 

We had a huge burial for her – I can remember it like it was yesterday. I think it did help me find a bit of peace, but losing a child isn’t the sort of thing you get over quickly. I was devastated, and in many ways I still am. I never got a reason for her death, either. The hospital performed an autopsy, but the results were inconclusive. I carried on going to the diabetes clinic, and they said I was still living with type 2 diabetes and told me to carry on taking my medication. 

I felt that my daughter had come into my life, and she had left me with diabetes. I think I went into a form of postnatal depression that I didn’t get or seek help for. I just didn’t care about myself or my health.

Get support for pregnancy and baby loss.

Emotions

Living with diabetes and depression

After I lost my daughter, I just didn’t feel like I needed to look after myself properly. I stopped taking my insulin and my metformin. I was completely in my own world, and I started to find comfort in food. Binge eating can be really hard to understand, but for me it was the only thing that made me feel better. 

Growing up in Jamaica, I was used to eating big portions of stodgy foods, like rice and peas, fried chicken, and plantain. When you are used to eating the same foods for years, it’s not easy to change. But because of my eating habits, my diabetes got worse.

Weight gain

After the loss of my daughter, I put on more weight, and people would ask me if I was pregnant again. Comments like that reminded me of all the trauma I’d been through. When that happened, I’d comfort myself with food. At one point I was eating 3 or 4 chocolate bars a day. When I was eating them, it was total escapism. I didn't worry about anything. I didn't remember that I had diabetes, and I didn't really care. 

I would take my other kids to our local athletics track five times a week. While they were training, I used to watch them from the stand, binging on crisps, chocolate bars and cola. 

For me, the turning point came when a relative came over from America. They told me I'd put on a lot of weight, but I just didn't believe them. I was in denial at the time, I think.

"I asked my daughter whether I'd put on much weight, and she said I had. That was really hard to hear, although I think it gave me the kick I needed to make my first steps towards getting active. " 

A few weeks later, I was watching my kids from the stands at the athletics track, and I saw some adults doing a bootcamp type class. I thought it looked quite easy, to be honest! So I asked about it and the coach was so supportive, told me to come and try it out for free the next week. 

It was most definitely not easy! A few minutes into the class I was panting and sweating and couldn’t wait for it to end. 

Food and healthy eating

Making changes

One day, I shared a photo of myself on a family WhatsApp group. My brother replied with a comment that my smile looked ‘forced’.

I felt like he must have seen that something was wrong with me. It was the final straw.

For the first time in years, I wanted to change how I felt. I threw away all the junk food in the house and signed up to a ‘boot camp’ class.

I’d never done any exercise before. Boot camp was geared towards working to your own personal capacity. So, if I couldn’t do something, I didn’t feel the need to push myself. After my class, I’d come home and eat a big plate of heavy food. So, although I felt a bit fitter, it wasn’t having a huge impact.

Activity

Finding the right type of physical activity

I’d been doing boot camp for a few months when a friend told me her husband was setting up a CrossFit gym. CrossFit is a form of high intensity interval training that combines strength and conditioning exercises.

I signed up to a 10-week plan along with nine others. I decided I wanted to be the person on that plan who lost the most weight. That gave me a focus.

But the 10-minute trial session felt like an hour! I asked myself whether I should keep going with CrossFit, because it was really hard.

But I found that it was something I enjoyed, despite the pain. I liked feeling the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It made me feel like I was doing something that was having a real effect. Plus, my children were training at the track anyway, so I felt like I might as well do something while they were there. Instead of eating junk food, my time was taken up with CrossFit.

I followed the meal plans and nutrition advice I was given by the CrossFit trainers. It was the first time I’d ever tried to understand food. I started using MyFitnessPal and weighing my food. That was all new to me.

"At CrossFit, I discovered talents and abilities I never imagined I’d have. I think that’s where my healing process after the loss of my daughter really started. I felt good in myself. After a while, I realised I was progressing."

The first time I did a bench press, I lifted 60kg. People at my gym were saying, ‘you’re strong, you should enter a powerlifting competition’. I thought they were probably joking, but I didn’t care. I was proud of myself. I held onto that feeling and registered with the British Powerlifting Association.

Now, I’ve competed in – and won – national powerlifting competitions.

Life with diabetes

Understanding type 2 diabetes

One thing that really helped me was being referred to a diabetes clinic that I had to attend every three months. Having more regular check-ups helped massively.* 

I didn’t realise I could request extra appointments and when you think you have to wait a whole year between appointments, you can fall off track so easily. Me and my nurse became so connected. She talked to me about how to manage my diabetes better, using food and activity.

I also started to do my own research into type 2 diabetes, using the Diabetes UK website to learn more about food and nutrition. In late 2020, I was able to stop taking my metformin tablets.

Covid has had a big impact on me. My gym was forced to close for good, and I really missed the community we built there. 

During the lockdowns I tried to carry on with my training, but it was hard. 

Support

I realised I didn’t need to struggle on my own though, and I called my old trainer. He helped me realise that I could keep my fitness levels up, and carry on powerlifting at home. Actually, that’s been really great. 

It’s helped me realise how strong I am, mentally as well as physically! I already knew how important exercise had been in helping me manage my diabetes.

Now, I realise that exercise has played a massive part in helping me to manage my depression, as well as my binge eating as well.

 

"I’ve been really surprised by how many people have contacted me over the last few years to say that I’ve inspired them. It’s been so amazing to hear that I’ve helped other people make changes to their lifestyle. On my bad days, that really helps me keep going." 

I’ve had a lot of people ask me what I want to achieve next. I honestly think the sky is the limit. I really want to make the Commonwealth Games. I entered the British Masters earlier this year and finished fourth. 

My kids were cheering for me, and people couldn’t believe it – someone with diabetes is powerlifting and has all these kids! It was an amazing experience. 
 


If you've been affected by Liz's story, our helpline advisors are here if you want to talk.

*Type 2 diabetes care differs across the country and since Covid-19, many face-to-face appointments are now virtual.

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