After Weeks of Symptoms, This Person Was Diagnosed With Type 2 Diabetes

The story of Sydney Williams' type 2 diabetes diagnosis and the nonprofit she created to help others heal through hiking.

Sydney Williams is always seeking the next big adventure. When she was in college at the University of Kansas, she was on the rowing team. She also became a competitive skydiver, participating in national competitions.

"Initially, I enjoyed skydiving because it gave me a break from my stressful career in corporate communications," Williams said. "I didn't have to be worried about client deadlines, responding to emails, or back-to-back meetings at the office. All I had to do was be present, focus on the task at hand, remember to breathe, and land safely."

Staying Active

When Williams and her husband, Barry (who was her skydiving instructor first), moved to San Diego from Chicago in 2011, Williams saw it as another adventure. She took advantage of the nature around her and began paddleboarding to offset the stress of her work. "Physical activity really helped me manage my emotions," Williams said.

In December 2016, Williams' life took a turn. She was worn down from her job, gained weight, and experienced personal tragedy when her close friends passed away. So she and Barry booked a trip to hike the Trans-Catalina Trail on Santa Catalina Island in Southern California. This rugged and difficult hike is 38.5 miles long. She saw the hike as a challenge to help her process her feelings. "I had no training, but I was armed with delusional confidence," Williams recalled.

First Symptoms

Soon after she completed the grueling hike and returned to San Diego, her body began signaling something was wrong. "I was overweight and tired all the time," Williams said. "I figured my exhaustion was from eating and drinking my feelings, the lack of sleep that occurs when you're stuck in a grief cycle, and workaholism. I never suspected physical disease. I just knew I was fat, burned out, and tired."

By September 2017, things hit a catalyst. She and Barry spent the day paddleboarding, and she felt dehydrated and sick. She thought she had heatstroke or heat exhaustion. But when she wasn't feeling well two weeks later, she suspected something was seriously wrong.

"I was super thirsty and had intestinal distress," Williams remembered. "It felt like I was wearing a corset, and it was cinching down on my internal organs. It was the most pain I could handle."

The Diagnosis

Williams went to an urgent care facility, where blood tests revealed that she had high blood glucose levels. After a few more days of tests, she was given a diagnosis: Williams had type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is when your body doesn't make enough insulin, or your body does not respond appropriately to the insulin that your body produces although you do make enough insulin, according to MedlinePlus. Insulin is a hormone that allows blood sugar into your body's cells. When there isn't enough insulin, the sugar levels in your body will increase, which can be dangerous.

"I started crying," Williams said. "One of the first things I remember asking the doctor was, 'So I can't have bread anymore?' I had heard of diabetes, but I didn't know what was happening to my body. I had so many questions for my doctor. Would I have to be on medicine for the rest of my life? Can I reverse it? Is it genetic? What's the deal?"

Lifestyle Changes

Williams immediately went into learning mode to figure out what she would need to do to get healthy. She was prescribed Metformin, a medication that helps control the sugar level in your body, according to MedlinePlus. She also moved to a plant-based diet and stopped drinking. She began experimenting with different foods to find out which ones helped her maintain her blood sugar. "As I found foods that worked, those became staples in my nutrition plan," Williams said.

Part of her diabetes recovery plan was to lose weight and reduce stress. Her healthcare provider suggested she get at least 30-45 minutes of exercise each day. Hiking was the perfect solution. "After my diabetes diagnosis, I swapped unhealthy habits for hiking," Williams said. "And hiking helped me calm my brain. I was left alone with my thoughts, and I couldn't run away from them."

She also made the difficult decision to leave her stable, six-figure salary job in marketing and take a position helping a friend's startup company. But she continued to struggle physically.

"My body was sounding the alarm. It had been trying to get my attention," Williams said. "Spiritually, emotionally, and energetically, I knew I needed a reset button. I was working 16-hour days and was living in a pressure cooker." Williams left the startup and began training for another go at the Trans-Catalina Trail.

She had lost 60 pounds when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. "When I hiked across Catalina again, it was like an emotional excavation. It was the hardest thing I've ever done emotionally," Williams said.

Starting a Nonprofit

Physically, she felt so much better, too. She was inspired to reach out to the Catalina Island Conservancy, hoping to become a trail ambassador and share with others how the trail had changed her life. That led to a short speaking tour with REI stores and then the creation of Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit organization that encourages people to get out on the trails to experience the healing power of nature. "I want to help others change their lives with whatever they're dealing with," Williams said.

The nonprofit group raised money to build and open a retreat center. Williams kicked off the major fundraising initiative: the 'Hiking My Feelings Virtual Campfire.' "It's a combination of a virtual book tour, campfire chats with special guests, live performances, and guided self-discovery exercises."

"I want to create a place where we can share our stories and lift each other up, so we can each thrive," Williams said.

In November 2019, she published her memoir, Hiking My Feelings: Stepping Into the Healing Power of Nature. She and Barry launched a book tour where they traveled across America in a van, gave speeches, and led 69 group hikes.

Life in Remission

As of February 2019, Williams' diabetes has been in remission. "I made dramatic (and sustainable) lifestyle changes right out of the gate, and I made managing this disease my number one priority," Williams said. "In my current condition, my pancreas produces enough insulin to manage my blood sugar without the assistance of medications or injectable insulin."

Hiking has continued to be the biggest factor that kept her in remission and feeling healthy. Her passion for her nonprofit organization has helped other people navigate their health journey.

"To keep my diabetes at bay, I now hike as much as I can to get my heart rate up, clear my mind, and connect with something bigger than myself," Williams said.

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