Libby Russell Is Doing Things With Her T1D Diagnosis
As the creator of I Have the sugars, libby russell is taking a proactive stance to provide a candid and community-driven platform for managing life after a diabetes diagnosis. Learn how her life with t1D has taught her to do, stay driven and bring others with her along the way.
Occupations, affiliations, and projects.
Creator of I Have the Sugars, a lifestyle brand for type 1 diabetics and copywriter, Peloton
People Who Do focuses on those who take action to pursue meaningful life passionS. why is it important to you to “do”?
When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, it was a really lonely experience. It felt like there were no other young women with aspirations like mine who I could connect with or learn from. All I saw were distasteful pharmaceutical ads and sad pamphlets at the doctor’s office. With time, I felt a fire slowly starting to burn inside of me, and eventually realized that if no one else was going to step out and be a visible 20-something-year-old woman with this disease, I might as well give it a go.
I couldn’t stand the thought of another girl sitting sad and alone in her college dorm room, wishing she could hide her disease forever. I wanted to create a platform where, as young women, we could bring our full-selves, diabetes and all. I feel really lucky that it’s even grown beyond that and I’m able to have a voice for change within the policy of diabetes care as well. For example, selling a shirt that donates to the organization T1International, a cause that works around the globe to lower the cost of insulin and improve affordable access to quality care.
Doing is really, really hard sometimes. And there are so many days that I wish my creative brain would just settle down, and wrap itself up in the comfort of status quo and boredom. But then I realized that by not doing, I would be letting life happen to me and my diabetes. I would not be playing the star role in my own existence. I would just be a bystander. Doing allows us to be fully invested, fully present, fully open to the possibilities of connecting with others and making a positive impact.
To date, what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Moving to New York City.
When I came here, I put myself so far beyond any sort of comfort zone I had ever lived in. I was in so much pain, I was so vulnerable, I was so out of my league. I felt like a shell of myself for the first several months. Walking around like a disoriented zombie who’d been dropped in a blender. I was subjected to all the colorful experiences that start to shape you as a New Yorker. Sounds were louder. Colors were brighter. Everything smelled. I made a lot of mistakes. I cried. I whined. I made and lost friends nearly overnight. I spent money I didn’t have. But I didn’t give up. And eventually, the shock wore off and with it, my imposter syndrome began to fade. I’ll never forget the morning I woke up, put my feet down on the floor and said, “I’m ready. I’m committed. I deserve to be here. Let’s f*cking do this.”
What was the initial goal when you decided to start The Sugars?
To take my shallow, 17-year-old “popular girl who had just been handed an ‘embarrassing’ disease” attitude, and find a productive place to sort out my complicated feelings so that I could help other women feeling the same way.
Then, it was to turn that collective anger and embarrassment, fear and sadness into fuel and the appropriate amount of humor to destroy the stigma of “who” and “what” women with diabetes are. Oh, and then it was take over the world (obviously).
What's the biggest misconception about managing T1D?
That it’s a food thing. It’s sooooo sooososososososo so much more than a food thing. It’s actually an incurable autoimmune disease that impacts our entire endocrine system, wakes us up 2-100 times per night, affects nearly 100% of our day-to-day lives, and costs a fortune because of no reason other than big pharma greed. We’re all swimming upstream with a smile on our face.
Because of this, I really struggle with explaining to people or admitting to myself why I’m so tired...most of the time. I have to dedicate a really large percentage of my brain power to keeping myself alive every single day and not getting discouraged. It takes a lot of fancy medical equipment, and a really expensive synthetic hormone to function as the high-performance, professional, social adult that I try to be every day. Anything can disrupt my blood sugar. Stress, food, hormones, exercise, alcohol, coffee, you name it. So the elements of an average day can all be interferences in my quest for balance and sanity, so I have to strategize and deal with them accordingly. A quiet mind is not something I have the luxury of living in. It’s awfully chaotic in there some days. But what choice do I have? My circumstance is just like anyone else’s who’s been dealt a challenging hand. I try to make the most of the lessons it teaches me, instead of bask in the miserable mindset of being a victim.
People also don’t know the difference between type 1 and type 2. Which is fair, because as type 1’s we only make up roughly 5% of all people with diabetes.
Type 1: Autoimmune. No cure. It’s usually triggered out of the blue after some sort of immune response gone wrong in our bodies. I repeat: there is no cure. We need insulin like we need oxygen and get it through shots or an insulin pump. We have to test our blood sugar 4-10 times a day, or we wear something called a continuous glucose monitor. If our blood sugar is high, we feel hungover and cranky, and we need more insulin. If our blood sugar is low, we could faint or have seizures, and we need sugar, fast. Our bodies can be extremely thin, or fat, fit or not. Body types have absolutely nothing to do with type 1 diabetes, so please don’t tell us “we don't look diabetic” (You’d be surprised! It happens all the time!).
Type 2: Your pancreas is old, tired, or genetically predisposed to tuckering out and not working at full-strength. You can reverse type 2 diabetes in some cases with diet, exercise, or lifestyle changes. Type 2 is what most people with diabetes have. You do not always need insulin when you’re a type 2, some people control it in other ways. Type 2 is often developed in adults or elderly people, or children who are extremely overweight or have a very high sugar, high carb, and high-fat diet. There are terribly mean stigmas around type 2 diabetes, and we need to be kinder about people living with it. It’s still a disease.
No matter what type of diabetes we have, we also deal with the emotional strain of having to beg corporations and the government to allow us to take the best possible care of ourselves by lowering the cost of insulin, incentivising preventative care, and improving affordable access to diabetes technology that prevents long-term problems. Sounds heavy, I know. But...that’s the name of the game, people!
What’s your favorite thing you’ve learned so far this year?
That I can choose not to feel anxious and sad. I can choose joy and silliness and gratitude even when I’m overwhelmed and stressed beyond measure.
I used to really struggle with keeping my mental health in check. And, never felt like I had a choice about that. I thought my anxiety and depression was just part of having diabetes (we’re 4x more likely to experience depression and anxiety) and I had to just accept that.
This year, I’ve really applied the tools I’ve learned over time to make sure that the symptoms of my “diabetes burnout” doesn’t get the best of me. To do that I practice gratitude, I work out a lot more frequently, I spend and cherish alone time, I stretch and meditate, I paint, drink wine, talk through my feelings in a more productive way, I listen more, make it a priority to lock negativity out of my apartment so my fiancé and I can just laugh and be stupid and funny when we’re home, and I unapologetically binge watch Vanderpump Rules. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to sustain a really healthy head and heart so far this year and hopefully forever more!
How has starting your own movement changed you?
It has empowered me to step into myself in ways I never knew I could. As a kid, I was a B+ person at most things. I never really finished anything I started. I was never quite the best at my hobbies or the sports I played. I tried, but not so hard that I’d burn out or break down. I’d eventually lose interest in whatever I was pursuing, and just...move on to the next thing. You can’t do that when your call to give back through a small business is also centered around a disease you live with every day. I can’t give up. It’s not an option for me, and that has made me more ok with being vulnerable, more patient, and more accountable in more ways than I can count!
#1 motivating mantra to get through tough moments.
Remember why you started.
Also, the sun will rise tomorrow, and we’ll begin again.
What’s your favorite lesson you’ve ever learned?
When I first moved to NYC I was the most negative, terrified Libby that’s ever Libby’ed. And, after draining my battery and everyone else’s battery around me with those mega downer vibes, I learned that my energy can really affect others. I learned that I needed to do a better job consciously walking through life with grace, care, and an awareness that my words and actions very much affect those around me. I always want to be a safe space for myself through positive self-talk and thoughts, and therefore a safe place for the people around me.
What's one thing you would tell someone who wants to make a change?
Manifest that shit, baby. Put your ideas and wishes into the universe. You’d be shocked what will come back to you. Tell yourself you’re doing it, not that you might do it. Even if you haven’t started. Also, write a list of all the things that could happen if you do it, and all the things that might happen if you don’t. If doubt or regret are on the list of things that will happen if you don’t do it...get movin’, sister!
What's your go-to song to put you in a better mood?
Ok, wait I have like 3, and I use them for very specific instances.
Kanye West, Famous: and I admittedly fast forward to 1:47. I listen to this when I need to ride out something that has rattled me. It brings me back down to earth. And fills me up with energy.
MØ, Pilgrim: because it reminds me of when things started to turn around for me in NYC. And hell, if that time period of my life could turn around, anything can.
Kygo, Passenger: This is my pensive travel song. I always listen to it on the Amtrak pulling into NYC. It’s so joyful and lighthearted that it always pulls me out of a funk. It also makes me feel immensely grateful to be where I am.
Who are your heroes?
I have many, but one of the first women I ever idolized, and admire deeply to this day was Elaine Benes from Seinfeld. I know, what’s not to love?!
She was progressive enough but never in a political way. She hung around the guys, but was always a little bit smarter than them. She was always a little bit of a mess behind the scenes, and it was never a problem that she was imperfect. She smacked her gum. She was an open-minded, hard working and good friend, and she was frickin’ hilarious.
I always appreciated how relaxed and genuine and true she was to herself, and didn’t really live according to other people’s standards. Plus, her hair was epic. Thank you Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus for bringing her into my life!
What’s the best piece of advice that you can give someone right now?
Surround yourself with positive, empowering influences. Flush the negative trash down the toilet, and focus on the tools that make you feel stronger because with time, you will actually be stronger.
What’s the next goal?
Honestly, put The Sugars and my workaholism on the back burner for a minute! I’ve earned the right to give my brain some down (re: screen-free) time. I’m getting married in September, and I want to make sure that I’m investing my time and energy to being a baller wifey. Seriously. This is a really cool and challenging time of life because it’s not just about me, my career, or my work with The Sugars anymore. It’s about us, and whatever our partnership continues to grow into. As it stands, we are massive support systems for one another, especially when it comes to our goals and aspirations. But I want to invest less time on my Instagram posting cadence and re-branding strategies more time learning how to be a sustainably epic partner to Sean.
How do you make your own history within what you do?
I absorb everything around me, whether that’s culturally, socially or politically. I feel like a sponge and I’m always teaching myself about life as I go. I think it’s important to remember that we’re never ready for what we’re doing, we just go. And that’s lead me to some pretty amazing places of having a voice and a platform and feeling like a real person in a sea of not-so-real-people. I just have to keep following my heart and looking forward, not back.
By "do-ing", you create your own unique legacy. How do you want your legacy to look?
That I was kind. That I helped. That I was a part of why someone decided to stop leaving a piece of who they are at home, and that by living a little louder and prouder, they also were living more fully.
Do you have any female historical or present-day heroines?
When I was younger, I loved a lot of women, but three women stand out (other than Britney Spears): Rachel Carson, Mia Hamm, and Brandi Chastain.
Rachel was a marine biologist (I’m from Maine and wanted to be a marine biologist, too, don’t @ me). She did a ton of work to advance the global conservation movement, and I really love this quote of hers, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” which really inspires how I’d like to approach all things and people.
And Mia Hamm, well. Hello and duh. She is an American treasure. She and Brandi Chastain changed my perception of female athletes when Brandi ripped her jersey off after scoring the winning goal in the world cup in 1999. It was like this crazy moment of femininity and athleticism being embraced by the whole world all at once. I loved that soccer team so much (and still do!)
Can you explain why it's important to you to specifically help support young females who have been diagnosed with T1D?
Tangentially related to the complicated feelings around of religion, race, gender or sexuality, type 1 diabetes makes people, especially women, feel marginalized.
T1d can make us feel less than, other, ugly, anxious, at-risk, sick, and not able. But that doesn’t mean we are any of these things.
By spotlighting women who are living well with type 1 diabetes, younger girls can see how much positivity and opportunity is out there for them. The goal is for them to never be emotionally impacted by, say, a misguided pharmaceutical ad, or an ignorant person who is uneducated about diabetes. I want them to feel so safe, known, and empowered by our community of other strong t1d women.