November is Diabetes Month. I suppose, like with any National Something Month, the goal is to raise awareness and money to fight the Something. October has Breast Cancer Awareness; February owns Heart Health; April is a double-whammy with Irritable Bowel Awareness and Distracted Driving Prevention. For every health concern, there’s a month, and Diabetics have November.
A Life With Diabetes
I rarely mention that I have Type 1 Diabetes; it doesn’t define me. But it is a regular part of my day. It comes up so often in my memoir that I probably should have given Diabetes her own book. But I’m not sure I wanted to give the disease her own stage. We have a rocky relationship, Diabetes and me. I would much rather write a book about my husband’s illness, giving Diabetes only a bit part in the narrative. And I had thought I succeeded until readers reacted with such horror at my near-death low blood sugar reactions. I guess I didn’t realize it was such a big deal.
So, okay. Fine. Diabetes is challenging. Insulin is a fickle mistress. And yes, far too often I go into diabetic shock, which is, for lack of a better word, a full-blown seizure.
Why is that so hard to admit?
Coming to Terms
For many years after I was diagnosed, I pretended to be invincible and unflappable. I wasn’t going to let this two-bit, penny-ante, no-count, nothing of a so-called disease get the better of me. I would climb mountains, I would kayak big rivers, I would spend weeks in the backcountry. And I didn’t care what Diabetes said; she wasn’t going to stop me.
I remember waking up one night in a remote cabin in British Columbia. Ten of us were sleeping in our bags, batting the mice from our pillows and dreaming of the powder-filled glaciers we’d skied that day. But I wasn’t dreaming exactly. It was more like a drugged reverie. The age-dark beams of the roof bowed up and down. Bats flew around my head, lifting the light fabric of my down bag and threatening to carry me away. I almost tapped into the darkest truths that skiing and remote mountains and a blood sugar-addled brain could reach before I delved into a full-on seizure.
Predictably I started sweating and shaking. I screamed and cried. I closed my eyes and moved my head from side to side. My body reared up a few feet off the ground and slammed down.
My friends knew what to do: feed me glucose tablets and orange juice until I came around. And when I woke up, I laughed. Oops. Sorry guys. Didn’t mean to wake you. But their stares were full of fear. We were remote, at least a day’s ski to a phone. What if they couldn’t wake me? What if a helicopter couldn’t pick me up? The look of responsibility weighed heavily on all of us, and I realized I had to strike a peace accord with my sworn enemy.
After carrying this disease around with me for over 20 years, I’ve had a few scares. Most often it’s not the disease that kills you, but all the complications. Diabetes is hard on your body. The American Diabetes Association has a sobering statistic:
Diabetes kills more people each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined.
Diabetes affects every organ, every blood vessel, every brain cell. If I eat too many carbohydrates without enough insulin, or have too much stress, or get sick, my blood turns to 30 weight car oil, bursting blood vessels and nerves. If I eat too little, or exercise too much, or give myself too much insulin, I can have a low-blood sugar seizure.
Diabetes is a balancing act between exercise, food, insulin, stress, illness and other factors. But it is also a window into my health. Since I check my blood sugar levels several times a day, I can watch with a transparency unavailable to non-diabetics how my lifestyle affects my body.
I can be healthier seeing the fruits of my exercise and the effects of my transgressions. A Chinese proverb claims, “No disease short life; one disease long life.” Because when you have a disease like Diabetes, you have to pay attention. You have to manage your stress and exercise even when your husband is dying. You can’t drink too much, or eat too much or push yourself too hard. Nor can you take a day off and eat a bag of Fritos while watching television.
Hail National Diabetes Month! This is our month and I’m going to celebrate. And by “celebrate” I mean drinking a diet soda, sucking on a sugar-free candy and climbing a peak. What did you think I meant?