On Being Sick and Young.
Yesterday, I wrote about the conundrum of whether to consider yourself “suffering from” or “living with” diabetes. For the most part, I said that I think of myself as living with diabetes. I am a happy, well-adjusted, functioning member of society with really great hair. But it hasn’t always been this way. Here is a story of suffering from diabetes:
My first emotional breakdown regarding my diabetes happened when I was 18 years old. It was in the middle of my freshman year at the University of Oregon and I remember sitting on a wide, cement railing outside one of the dormitories and sobbing, while my friend David sat next to me and was most certainly wondering what in the world he had gotten himself into. I remember telling David how tired I was from having diabetes, because I had had diabetes for ten years – ten years – and it was never going to end. For some reason having hit the decade mark actually hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt knocked over, out of breath. I was running a marathon with no end in sight. And I had to keep running.
I hate running.
I remember feeling distraught and discontent with the idea that at 18 years old, I was sick. It hadn’t really occurred to me before then that that’s what I was. Obviously I was intelligent enough to realize my life was on the abnormal side of things, having to test my blood sugar and wear an insulin pump and figure out how many carbs could possibly be in a chocolate malt milkshake. It was the first time, however, that I realized that I almost died. At age 8, my pancreas ceased to function properly, and with that went the life-saving hormone called insulin. Even though I was saved by the miracle of modern medicine, I was sick. The protected bubble of my childhood had evaporated and while the symptoms of low and high blood sugar hadn’t changed drastically, my own personal realization that my health was my own and it’s future destruction could possibly be my fault knocked the wind out of me. That’s a lot of responsibility for someone who was at the same age as the kids getting drunk at keggers and having unprotected sex!
I tried to explain to David what it was like to be 18 years old and to be sick. He was not sick, at least not with anything he told me about. I tried to explain to him what it was like to have a chronic illness, one that sat passively for periods of time before clubbing you over the head when you least expected it. I tried to explain how tired I was of having to worry about how everything I did impacted my health in some way. He thought I was being overdramatic. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t.
I remember realizing that this was forever. I don’t think I realized what forever was until I hit 10 years and I knew how long 10 years felt and I realized that I was going to have to do this four or five or six more times, depending on how long I managed to live. I remember already being exhausted, and sad.
David tried to say something to make me feel better. I remember him smiling, trying to make light of the situation, trying to make me not take myself so goddamn seriously. I glared. He said something about how a lot of things are forever, or a lot of bad things are forever, or something that sounded stupid then and probably still sound stupid. I remember thinking, “He doesn’t get it.” I thought that no one understood what facing forever was like. Most people are not stuck with anything forever. Almost everything that seems permanent can be changed. You can even change your gender. But you can’t change your chronic illness. It’s with you, for life.
Most people don’t understand what it’s like to be young and sick. Calculating the amount of carbs in your vodka cran, and wondering which would hit your system harder: the alcohol or the juice. Wondering whether to ask a friend to grab you an orange juice or if that would make you seem weak and not worth having around if you were going to have an “episode.” Trying to avoid looking like a social pariah. Trying to gauge the reaction of the guy at the bar and whether or not he’ll hit on the pretty blond next to you if you made a sudden movement that reveals an insulin pump attached to your stomach. Sexytime, eh?
There is nothing worse than be young and being different, and having a chronic illness made me different. It was easy enough to hide, and the fact diabetes allows itself to be hidden from view makes me forever grateful to it. But that doesn’t change the inner battle inside. The one where you are screaming with yourself that EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT SO WHY CAN’T I? I should not have to worry about whether or not eating pizza and drinking beer at two o’clock in the morning could kill me. I just shouldn’t.
When I think about what it took for me to overcome my emotional breakdown during my freshman year, I distinctly remember it not being easy. It took a long time, especially since I didn’t have much support at that time. I was – and still am – seen as a Leader! and Inspiration! and Influencer! and a bunch of other titles that suppose to make me seem like I’m perfect and put together and all matchy-matchy with my shoes and handbag. I went to therapy, even, for four months during my sophomore year to help cope with my life. Diabetes made me stressed and overanalytical. It made me think I was supposed to identify the problem in every situation and then fix the problem. Adjust the basal rate and increase the bolus ratio, right? Didn’t work so well in real life, as it turns out. I learned that I can’t dial down people’s emotions and I can’t increase the ratio of people who like to people who don’t like me. You sort of have to take it as it comes.
I am a fan of realizing the good that you have in life, and not taking anything for granted. I am also a fan of a good cry and punch to the pillow.
It took awhile, but I’m starting to appreciate the fact that I am a young woman with a chronic illness. I have the opportunity to speak on behalf of people who cannot, to educate those who are uninformed, and to inspire those who are scared. Through this, I know that I am not alone. I am not alone in worrying about health insurance and despising my lack of freedom to runaway . I am not alone in wondering if that bag of popcorn was such a good idea. I am not alone in wondering how much of my life I will actually get to live. But what I do live, I will live great.
I may be sick and I may be young, but I am cute and kick ass.