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Public Displays of Diabetes

November 4, 2010

I was out on a run last week, stopped on a quiet leafy corner to take a routine blood check on my glucose meter, when a woman who was walking down the street made eye contact with me. “Oh,” she said as she passed by, her face crumpled with sympathy, “ça doit faire mal.” Oh, that must really hurt.

I was already zipping up my glucose kit, levels to my liking, but I guess she must have seen me prick my finger as she’d been walking down the street. I’m sure she was noticing my fingertip too, trailing still with blood.

“Oui, un peut,” I shrugged, smiling warmly, “mais j’ai l’habitude.” Yeah, I guess, but I’m used to it.

She gave me a few more meaningful, sympathetic smiles before she continued walking on. “Ça pourrait être pire!” I called after her, a bit impulsively. It could be worse! She turned around smiling still, nodding, sympathy still glued to her face.

And that was that. I skipped along on my run, clocking in my longest mileage in months. But I had a lot of time on that run to think about our little exchange.

I’m a no-holds-barred glucose tester, squeezing blood from my finger at dinner tables, choir rehearsals, bus rides, spinning classes. I load up insulin shots in front of strangers without really thinking twice.

No one’s ever stopped and approached me about it. Sometimes people stare, which I admit I kind of like. Like mothers who have fought for the right to nurse in public, I feel entitled (and honestly kind of special about it) to administer medical procedures to myself in public too. The newness of my diabetes, and the jealousy with which I guard it, no doubt feeds that sense of entitlement. Being stopped by a stranger makes me feel special, because I also think it’s pretty special; it’s nice having others treat my diabetes with the same novelty and reverence as I treat it myself.

So what was it about this encounter that really stayed with me? It was partly, yes, the plain old attention. I liked that. But it was what she was sympathetic about. The pain.

The whole needles-thing about diabetes really intrigues people. I know I was fascinated and horrified at the thought of being insulin-dependent long before I ever put the words “diabetes” and “I” in the same sentence. And even when they first diagnosed me with diabetes, I was so fervently praying in those first hours that it would be type 2 – “the type that doesn’t do needles.” And when I gave myself my first injection – the test I had to pass to be discharged from the hospital – I was utterly terrified. Like putting in contact lenses for the first time, when the coordination to poke your own eye out is simply not there. I just couldn’t see how MY HAND could put that needle into MY STOMACH.

But then the little needle just slipped right into my soft flesh, totally pain free. I injected, and was fine. I could do this thing.

Sometimes the finger-prick hurts, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes my insulin injections hurt, sometimes they don’t. I get weird bruises on my belly sometimes from shots, and my fingertips are freckled with black calloused spots. But I honestly don’t mind. J’ai l’habitude. Ça pourrait être pire.

So what is it that is so hard about this diabetes thing? What is it that I relish in sympathy for?  

It’s not about the pain of it all. It’s about the necessity of it. I need these shots and pricks to stay alive, and that, my friends, is way more hard-core than simply sticking a needle in my belly.

And so I take pride in every spinning-class glucose test and mid-rehearsal insulin shot. My glucose meter and insulin pen are like little fancy Brownie badges that tell the world I’m special. They are indicators to the world of my unique Class-D status. I carry them with pride.

Et oui, ça pourrait être pire. It really, really could be a whole lot worse. And really, diabetes isn’t that bad. Not bad at all.

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