Life

The tale of a diabetic: denial and a global pandemic

I’ll be honest, it seems clear now, but for a while – ten years give or take – something just didn’t add up. It took a global pandemic for me to come to terms with the fact that it isn’t normal to act like your pancreas. For those who are confused, I have type 1 diabetes. And yes, I know that your grandparents and Nick Jonas also have it, but that’s a whole different story. This one is about realizing that my chronic condition has a large role in my life.

I can eat cake too!

The diagnosis of my chronic condition comes with a mildly sad backstory. The same one that most type 1 diabetics – who are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare – are likely to experience. So here is the jest of it. I started feeling constantly exhausted, extremely thirsty, and suddenly lost a lot of weight. After going to a GP and doing a urine test, I was rushed to a hospital, got an IV, and a series of wires attached to me. And there it was, the diagnosis: Type1 diabetes.

Now, this is the part where the ones who don’t know about different types of diabetes may get confused. Essentially, my body stopped producing insulin because my immune system attacked beta cells in my pancreas. However, the exact cause is yet to be determined. It has nothing to do with my diet, that’s type 2 diabetes (although type 2 can also be caused by other factors). The point is, I didn’t get it from eating too much cake. 

The treatment for type 1 consists of checking blood sugar levels 4 to 8 times a day and injecting insulin before eating carbs and sleeping. It sounded, and still does, quite simple, and I convinced myself that it wouldn’t have much of an impact on my life. Oh, to be young and naive.

 Dealing with it

Being a member of the dead pancreas society can seem easy on paper. The goal is to keep my blood sugar within a specific range (4.0 mmol/L to 7mmol/L). To do so, I measure my blood sugar and inject insulin when needed. To know how much to inject, I use a ratio, so every x grams of carbs I ingest, I inject x units of insulin. Simple, right? 

The issue is that many things – if not everything – impact your blood sugar and the way insulin affects it. If I exercise, sleep in, have a cold, get stressed or excited, drink coffee … Well, you get the idea. The second issue is that the way those activities impact my blood sugar varies as well. For example, sometimes my blood sugar spikes (hyperglycemia) right after I exercise, only to be way too low (hypoglycemia) one or four hours later, just because.

On top of this, out-of-range blood sugars also affect how I feel and think, and in the long run, they can have serious negative health implications, as people like to remind me with fun remarks like “Oh my grandfather has diabetes and he is blind now” or “I knew a diabetic who died in his sleep because of a hypo”. But I mean, who needs sleep, right?

What I’m getting at is that dealing with type 1 diabetes is an endless rollercoaster ride, but I have spent the last ten years convincing myself of the contrary.

What I’m getting at is that dealing with type 1 diabetes is an endless rollercoaster ride, but I have spent the last ten years convincing myself of the contrary. Denial can be interesting.

 It took a global pandemic to open my eyes 

As you get older, it becomes clear that you can’t have a “normal” life as a type 1 diabetic. You can technically do anything a non-diabetic does, but there’s a lot more thinking and planning involved. And even if you are a “responsible” diabetic, you still have to fight and hope for normal blood glucose levels. Daily. 

As time went by, things got worse. The lack of sleep, the anxiety, the loneliness – it all caught up to me. I started feeling what I can only describe as a burn-out. As it turns out, actively trying to keep yourself alive can be exhausting. But it wasn’t until the COVID-19 outbreak that I began to accept this.

I credit my eureka moment to the combination of a decline in my health condition and some overthinking. The sudden alteration of my daily routine made managing my glucose levels a nightmare. The anxiety of being at greater risk of serious consequences from COVID didn’t help either. Nonetheless, thanks to my avoidance of other humans during the last year and a half, I was forced to reflect on my life. Something I’d avoided for the last decade.

Living with it

It is hard to recognize that a condition I have only so much control over has an endless impact on my life. It can make you feel powerless and frustrated but denying it won’t make it any better.   

There isn’t a magical happy ending to this story. There’s no cure for diabetes. But there are technological developments, good healthcare professionals, and diabetic meme pages (yes, they are a thing). There’s also acceptance. It is hard to recognize that a condition I have only so much control over has an endless impact on my life. It can make you feel powerless and frustrated but denying it won’t make it any better.   

So, I have type 1 diabetes, and most likely, I will always have it. I have to act and think on behalf of my pancreas, and it can be very hard sometimes. But it will be okay… and hey, at least I can still eat cake!

Cover: Nataliya Vaitkevich

Editor: Cecilia Begal

 

Rita Alves
Rita Alves was born in Portugal but is currently living in the Netherlands, where she studies Communication Science.

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