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Liz's story - from personal tragedy to competitive powerlifter

Liz crouches on the floor holding some heavy looking weights

Liz Cromwell

Diagnosed with gestational diabetes in 2009

Liz Cromwell, 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. Image credit: White Lights Media

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 told that in some cases, it goes away after you have the child. But in some cases, if it’s not treated properly, it remains.

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.

I had just passed my due date and I went for a scan ahead of a planned induction and was told my baby’s heartbeat had stopped. It sent me into a frenzy. Afterwards, 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

Food can be really hard to understand. For me, it was comforting. 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.

After my daughter was born, my diabetes didn’t go away. 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.

I would take my 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. 

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.

Journey with diabetes

Coping with coronavirus restrictions

At the beginning of 2020, I had my sights set on the English and then the British Powerlifting Championships. I also hoped to qualify for the Commonwealth Games in 2022. 

Then, coronavirus struck. When my gym closed at the start of the first lockdown, the coaches posted workouts on Facebook and the community continued to encourage and offer each other support. 

After the gym reopened, it was like starting all over again. The good thing was that I didn’t lose my strength. That was brilliant.

When the gym closed for a second time, staff loaned me equipment such as barbells so that I could keep training.

I also kept my activity levels up by taking part in Diabetes UK’s One Million Step challenge. I wanted to raise money for research, and it was a brilliant way to stay active when I wasn’t able to go to the gym as often.

When my gym was forced to close for good in December 2020, it felt like my heart had stopped for a moment. That was my community and my home. I kept in touch with my friends from the gym and would speak to people who were down. 

I had to adopt very positive thinking. I know that if negative thoughts take over, things can go down the drain so quickly. I’d put five years into the gym. I wanted to rise above the circumstances. So, I set up a makeshift gym in my garden. I found a CrossFit and ‘strong lift’ app and started training at home.

Now, I work within the government guidelines. I stay at home and only go out if necessary. But every day, I get up, grab my bag and head to the garden at the same time I used to go to the gym. 

Every week, I’ll call the people I used to train with, see how they’re getting on and try to keep them going.

I used to feel older than my years and I had no energy. I never imagined I’d end up as a competitive sportsperson. I thought I was at the age where I’d leave it to the kids.

Now, I’m so glad I took steps to try to understand my diabetes. If you know how to take care of your body, there are so many positive changes you can enjoy.

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