~This is the tenth chapter of my year-long exploration of
living with Type 1 diabetes for 50 years. This is the last in the series. ~
It wasn’t until I was teaching English in Thailand that I finally understood how young I was at 7 years old. That’s when I was diagnosed. It was so simple: a moment that I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school. My mother, presciently made me pee in a cup before packing me off to the bus. My dad picked me up at school, a highly unusual circumstance, and told me we needed to go to the hospital. The sky was clear in the parking lot. I can’t remember if he hugged me. But I know, eventually, I got in the car, went to the hospital, and my life changed.
There were tests. I was admitted for two weeks until I got stabilized. I was taught new skills and practiced using syringes, filled with water, on oranges. I was rehearsing for how to insert the short needles into my body. I was presented with a comic book that cheerily compared my body to a car. Insulin was the gas that allowed my body to process sugar. Clearly, if I wanted to live let alone arrive at any destination, using insulin was my new reality and injecting it was the only solution.
When I returned home, the shelves were cleared of the stuff that would escalate my blood sugar to unsafe levels. The family adapted. Then, just a couple of weeks later, I was in the kitchen alone when the turkey roast my mother had placed in the oven was done. The timer buzzed and through the glass on the black door, I could see the fat bubbling up from the meat. I decided that I would help. At the moment that the roast tipped, too heavy for my small arms, and spilled the hot fat on my wrist. In searing pain, I knew I, once again, had caused more disruption.
I was back in the hospital, now in the burn unit. The skin was lifted from my butt to heal the tissue and I needed to stay face down on the bed for a couple of days until it healed. In the hospital for another three weeks, I remember now an indelible moment. I looked out on the lights of the city below and called my mom in the suburbs just to say hello. That deep, dark longing to be back at home, normal again. When I finally returned to home and school, still bandaged, everyone else knew how to read a clock. I needed to catch up. That’s when the whispers began. I was different, something had happened. There was something more than the bandage, but no one could see.
The next summer, I went to a camp for diabetic girls. There were regimes at the camp. We were forced to collect our urine in large numbered plastic containers, stacked up in varying shades of yellow on a shelf near the bathroom, eventually analyzed but without the results shared with us. One year, I returned with a small bald spot over my forehead from twisting my hair out from the roots. There was a big barn with a huge trampoline and a pond where I learned to inflate my pants as a floatation device and collected the Red Cross swimming achievement cards.
Despite those glimmers of community with girls like me, there were differences in the remaining 50 weeks of the year. It was just clear that I couldn’t eat like the rest. Birthday parties involved negotiation with parents. Each overnight outing with the Girl Scouts required my mother’s diligence. By the fifth grade, it appeared that I was isolated. What I remember is that the teacher took me out of the classroom and finally explained to the other students what I needed to do to live. They were nice to me after that, in a fake nice way, somehow things hadn’t changed that much.
My seven- year old self is still present today, of course, always wondering if my life path evolved the way it did because I live with diabetes. Or, what would have happened if I had more challenging symptoms or made any number of worse choices.
In this 50th year, I am still alive with relatively few complications. I am strong, moving forward with whatever path remains in the years ahead. I am a survivor.