Diabetes Difference Makers Spotlight: Hiking My Feelings


Sydney Williams was a recipient of a grant through Diabetes Difference Makers. Diabetes Difference Makers is made possible in partnership with Abbott, makers of the FreeStyle Libre 2.

September 18, 2017 started with me waking up in the worst pain I had ever experienced and turned out to be the best day of my life. I woke up and it felt like someone had taken a corset, shoved it in through my belly button, wrapped it around my internal organs and was cinching it down. I was scared, so we went to urgent care. 

Three days later, I returned my samples to the lab and went about my day. I was pulling into the arrivals section at San Diego International airport to pick up a friend I hadn’t seen in several years when my doctor’s office called. 

“Hi, Mrs Williams?” the person on the other end asked. 

“Speaking,” I replied reluctantly, holding my breath. 

They introduced themselves as someone calling from my doctor’s office and let me know they had my test results. 

“You have type 2 diabetes,” they said. 

I hurried through the rest of the conversation, trying to keep it together, listening to them talk about medications and a prescription for a glucometer. My mind was racing with questions—all I knew about type 2 diabetes was the stigma. I didn’t understand why, at 32 years old, I had just been diagnosed with a chronic illness.

Once the car was parked safely, I tried to wrap my head around what had happened. I had a choice. I could see this diagnosis as a death sentence, or I could take this opportunity to really take control of my health and make myself a priority. I went with the latter. 

Taking control

In the weeks that followed, I made some radical lifestyle changes. I did a total overhaul of my nutrition plan, started walking for 30 minutes five days a week—eventually graduating from walks around the neighborhood to local hiking trails—and I was taking my medications as prescribed. In an effort to manage my stress, I quit my cushy (read: stressful) corporate marketing job to join a friend’s startup, then left the startup after 95 days when my stress (and glucose) levels went through the roof.

So I was sitting there, doing everything “right” and not getting the results I wanted. Four days after leaving the startup, I was training for a backpacking trip when I had what would be a life-changing realization.

Standing at the summit, I felt calm. Considering I had just quit two jobs in the span of five months, was now an uninsured newly-diagnosed diabetic and had no other plans or jobs lined up, the feeling of ease was disarming. Why was I so relaxed? 

Hiking My Feelings is born

“Hiking my feelings” came to me as a slogan of sorts, a realization that thanks to my diagnosis, I was hiking my feelings instead of eating and drinking them. Then, my marketing brain kicked in. I’m a natural storyteller, and if I could share my story with someone—anyone—perhaps they could find something that helped them within my experiences. 

Hiking My Feelings has evolved from a mountaintop idea, and since our first tour around the US in 2019, we’ve hosted more than 300 events to share the story of how hiking helped me heal my mind and body and introduce people to the healing power of nature. I published a book that outlined my experiences, we incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit and we had a great tour through the US and Canada scheduled for 2020. Then, the pandemic hit. Everything we had built was centered around getting people outside, off their devices and into the healing power of nature. Now, we had to literally flip the model. No more in-person gatherings. Devices in everyone’s faces. 

We decided to start the Take a Hike Diabetes campaign to solve a couple problems:

One: when we were on tour in 2019, we consistently heard from people of color that they didn’t feel safe or represented in the outdoors. We wanted to change that. I wanted everyone, regardless of race, class, or ability, to be able to experience what I had found in the outdoors. When digging into the prevalence of diabetes by racial group, it became clear that there was an invisible line connecting these two problems. Marginalized communities are most heavily impacted by diabetes and they don’t feel safe being outside. As an organization on a mission to improve community health, it seemed pretty clear—find ways for folks in these communities to feel safe outdoors and community health will improve.  

Two: awareness of and access to local recreation opportunities. Our 2021 Take a Hike Diabetes tour highlights three urban adventures to demonstrate that you don’t have to travel far to experience the healing power of nature—you can find healing in the outdoor spaces in the cities and towns where you work, live and play. We’re partnering with organizations who are committed to increasing accessibility to recreation for marginalized communities, and while we hike on their trails, we’re interviewing the community leaders, organizations and brands who are doing work to make the outdoors more inclusive and accessible, as well as those who are supporting the local diabetic communities. 

We’re on a mission to hike one million miles together as a community for diabetes awareness, and you can learn more about the activity challenge, free 30-day program and 2021 tour at hikingmyfeelings.org/diabetes.

Whether you were recently diagnosed with diabetes, have been living with it for decades, or are caring for someone with the disease, I encourage you to start with a fresh outlook today. What is one way you can love yourself today? What is one action you can take to make life with diabetes a bit easier for you or your loved ones? 

Our hope for the #TakeAHikeDiabetes campaign is that we’ll hike one million miles for diabetes awareness, yes, but more than that, we want to show people that the healing power of nature is available right in your own backyard in the cities and towns where you work, live and play. When we give ourselves an opportunity to disconnect from the distractions of a technology-driven life, we can reconnect with ourselves and the world around us. We all deserve to feel safe, welcome and included in the outdoors and know that if you’re looking for a space where you can find support and encouragement on your journey, our community of big-hearted adventurers is ready to welcome you home. 

Let’s defeat diabetes together, one step at a time. 

WRITTEN BY Sydney Williams, POSTED 05/03/21, UPDATED 10/09/22

Sydney Williams lives with type 2 diabetes and started Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit dedicated to improving community health by creating opportunities for folks to experience the healing power of nature.