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Life With(out) Diabetes
When I was very young, there was nothing peculiar about my family's meals being on a strict schedule. It didn't seem strange to me that we planned our trips around our dinner and lunch times. It wasn't weird, and it wasn't normal. It just was. When I got a little older, I started to understand that most families didn't eat lunch at exactly noon and dinner at exactly six pm, and I understood that diabetes was more than just a name that I associated with my mother. I started to ask my mother more about diabetes and what exactly it meant when I told people, "My mommy is a diabetic."
According to diabetes.org, a website run by the American Diabetes Association, diabetes is a disease in which the body either does not produce or properly use insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to convert sugar and other food into energy.
It’s hard to explain to a child the definition of diabetes though, so my mommy sat down with me and explained that there was something wrong with her pancreas. She told me that there are two types of diabetes and explained it in such a way that I still remember it today, over ten years later. She told me she had type one diabetes. “The body needs insulin. Think of it like a key and a keyhole. In type one diabetes, like I have, I have the keyhole, but there’s no key. The shots I take are the key.” She explained that type two diabetes was a little different. “In type two diabetes, the body has the keyhole and the key, but the key doesn’t fit the keyhole. It’s the wrong shape and size.”
My mother explained to me that she’d be okay, when I got concerned. She injected herself with insulin three times a day, she tested her blood sugar regularly, especially before driving a car, She watched what she ate, and she exercised. As a diabetic, the amount of exercise to food is an ever varying ratio and one that needs to be monitored carefully. “It’s like a seesaw,” she told me. “A balancing act. I can’t have too much sugar or too little.”
You’d think that as a child of someone with diabetes, it would make a significant impact on my life. You’d think that I could recite statistics and facts pertaining to diabetes off the top of my head. I can’t. It’s not a new thing in my life and it’s not something I think about everyday, so I don’t have a never-ending pool of knowledge. I still have to ask my mother what a normal blood sugar is sometimes, and she laughs as she explains what’s normal, what’s high, and what means she can eat a bowl of chocolate ice cream.
Diabetes was a story time topic for me. Just like children ask their parents about what they were like as kids, I would ask my mother to explain the differences between the types of diabetes frequently. I probably heard the key and keyhole metaphor a good dozen times when I was young. The seesaw comparison was another redundant explanation my mother gave me. Like a mother telling her daughter about joining the cheerleading squad, I would sit on my mommy’s bed and she would tell me about learning she was diabetic over twenty years ago.
The thirst would gnaw at her throat, and she would be so thirsty that getting water was the only thing that mattered. She could chug an entire bottle of water. Then another and another. She’d have to go to the restroom all the time. The clock would be ticking away on her class and there’d be ten minutes left, but she had to go then, and there wasn’t time to wait. A half an hour later, she’d have to excuse herself again to go to the restroom. I remember the eerie warning my mother gave me. A small bladder and a great thirst that you can’t quench can be a sign of diabetes. I would look at her with my solemn little eyes, and I would say I was sorry, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. I wanted to hear the stories, and my mother didn’t mind telling me, but still, it wasn’t about entertainment anymore. It was about understanding.
My mother’s diabetes didn’t effect my childhood negatively, but there were some noticeable differences between mine and my friend’s life styles. I always asked my mother, “Do you feel sick?” because if she did, that was the green light to share some of my Oreo’s with her. If we were going on a trip, we’d pack snacks in the car in case my mother’s blood sugar fluctuated for the worse. Containers of candy shaped glucose sat on my mother’s desk. A test kit sat at her place at the kitchen table or in her purse at all times. Chocolate chip cookies could only be baked when her blood sugar was low, because as she said, it’s cruel to taunt her with the wafting scent of them.
Despite the normality, part of me always wondered what it was like to be told you have diabetes. Does it feel like the world is falling out from under you? Do you wonder if you’re going to die? Do you cry? I didn’t ask, because it was a scary topic for me.
For all the stories my mother has shared, the tidbits into the end of the world feelings have always been the hardest to imagine. She told me it was scary. She mentioned that back when she was diagnosed, doctors knew a lot less about the disease. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to have children. She once told me doctors said to her, “You’ll still be able to live a normal life.” I imagined how it must have felt to hear that said to you, when you’ve just received life altering news.
When I was young, and diabetes was just a word, and I hadn’t committed the key metaphor to memory, my mother and father took my brother and I into the kitchen. They pulled a chair over to the cupboard with the glasses and showed us a container hidden in the back of them. They explained to me that it contained a needle, and they showed me how I would inject it into my mother’s upper arm. They showed me that the directions were right in the box. They said if I ever found my mommy had collapsed, it could be from a lack of glucose, so I could give her the shot to make her feel better. I wondered how I would know she had fallen from diabetes. “What if she just bumped her head?” I asked in a hopeless sort of voice, “Couldn’t I just call 9-1-1?” They told me that I could do that too, but the operator might have to talk me through giving her the shot anyway.
I don’t know how old I was, but I know I still had play dates and watched cartoons. I remember feeling that I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t possibly stick her with a needle. My mommy stuck herself with a needle three times a day at that point, but I couldn’t possibly do that. I realized that I wasn't nearly as strong as her. She never whined, cried, or complained. I was scared, and she never was.
The years have passed and so have the times of play dates. I've moved on from cartoons and play dates to the days of surfing the web. I read forums and blogs, and in my readings, I saw rather hateful comments about diabetes. Comments attacked diabetes, saying diabetics are overreacting. You just take a shot. There are worse things, cancer and Aids, they said. Diabetes isn't even a big deal, they wrote. There were many comments, and I was shaken with a type of sick anger in the pit of my stomach.
Diabetes isn’t serious, they had said, and those types of comments are ignorantly said all the time. Still, I looked at the comments incredulously, knowing they were at home on the computer eating candy and other foods denied to diabetics. I read their mean spirited words, and the little part of diabetes that I avoid thinking about came to the front and center of my mind.
In a way, they were right. Diabetes doesn’t effect you immediately. It’s not even a death sentence if you take the proper precautions and have a bit of luck. My mom is one of the lucky ones, having faced almost none of the side effects of diabetes, despite being diabetic longer than she’s not been. It can cause heart disease, stroke, high blood sugar, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system damage, amputations, dental problems, increased severity of curable diseases, diabetic comas, and pregnancy complications.
It’s not something I think about a lot, but from a very young age, I’ve always known that diabetes can be fatal. It can kill you from directly related problems, if you don’t take your insulin. It can come out of the blue, when your poor circulation begins a downward spiral, as it causes you to lose a limb.
As the people minimized the severity of diabetes, they insulted my mother and a disease thousands of people suffer from. Not as bad as cancer, they said. Perhaps they were right. That’s a poor consolation to any diabetics though.
A few months ago, I had to go the restroom in school during first period, but I held off until second. Fourth period I had to go again. At lunch I scrambled to the restroom. It went on and on. At home, I went to the bathroom, and twenty minutes later, I went to the bathroom again, telling my mother I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, hoping to God it wasn’t what I thought it was. As she shouted back to me, “Don’t say that. You’re scaring me,” I got a little scared too. I remembered my mommy sitting with me, telling me how she had to go to the bathroom all the time.
My mother told me if I was so worried, she could test my blood sugar, but I declined. The next morning, I woke up thirsty. That’s not newsworthy to most people, but to me it was odd. I didn’t normally wake up thirsty. Normally, waking up thirsty would just be an odd blip in my day, but after that, I went downstairs in tears, and I asked my mom to test my blood.
The machine pricked my finger, so lightly that we didn’t even get the necessary drop of blood, so my mother did it again. It hurt for a moment, and I winced, and I was reminded of the hundreds of times I had seen my mother prick herself. Ten minutes later, I was crying, despite my mother telling me that my blood sugar was perfectly normal.
My bladder was back to normal that day and the thirst did not return. To this day, I do not know what caused the eccentricity, but I do know what resulted from it. I was sobbing, and my dad was laughing, saying it was okay, I wasn’t diabetic. I was hiccupping and blowing my nose, and feeling ridiculous, because I was fine. I remembered wondering when I was younger, what my mommy had felt like, learning she wouldn’t be able to eat chocolate all the time anymore. I had been terrified, thinking I had diabetes.
I later joked to my mother that it was like a twisted placebo effect, a hypochondriac-like reaction. I talked myself into thinking I was sick.
At a young age, I had to accept the fact that my mother might die from diabetes or diabetic complications one day, far, far in the future. At the age of fifteen, I faced an equally difficult knowledge. My own mortality. I realized that the world can fall out from under you at any time and at any age, and despite the fact that it quickly realigned itself for me, I will never forget that feeling.
I know so much about diabetes, but still in biology class, it took me a minute to answer insulin when the teacher asked about it. It still takes me a minute to remember whether low blood sugar means eat more or less. I still am afraid that one day, I’ll have to administer an emergency needle to my mother.
I still remember the stories, and I’ve pieced all the information together over the years. The memories blur together though, and I don’t know when I first learned my mother had diabetes. I don’t know how old I was when I learned of the complications associated with it. The memories don't have dates connected to them, only emotions and feelings.
I do know that I walked a mile around a local park raising money for the American Diabetes Association. I know I tell friends of my mother’s diabetes with a proud tone in my voice, because she is strong to make it through that. I know, I will never, ever, minimize someone else’s illness. Cancer, Aids, diabetes, or even the flu. None of it’s fun.
In the few seconds it took for my blood sugar to be calculated though, I learned that diabetes is scary and terrifying, no matter how normal of a life the doctors may say you can lead. You may lie in a diabetic coma. You may walk around with a prosthetic, because your leg was amputated. You could die.
Or you could be my mother, and end up happily married with two children, and none of the more terrible side effects. It doesn’t matter.
As your blood sugar is tested and the doctor opens his mouth to tell you yes or no on the diagnosis, the room spins a little. I was lucky, but most people aren’t. I overreacted; most aren't. The emotions I felt were probably less than a tenth of what my mother felt that day in the doctor’s office. I still can’t possibly hope to imagine what she felt.
The difference is: Now, I’m not so sure I want to. It’s not a bed time story topic. It’s not a joke to be minimized. It’s scary, and it’s so very real.
I still only think about it once in a blue moon. My mother doesn’t have the possibility to push it to the back of her mind though. She keeps her cool and doesn’t whine about the unfairness of it. Now, whenever she checks her blood sugar, I realize that the normality of my childhood and the fact that my life doesn't revolve around her illness is a testament to her strength.