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Diabetes Support: How Friends Have Journeyed Where I Can’t

May 1, 2012

We’re coming up on two years since my diagnosis (will be celebrating that fateful day in two Sundays from now, in tandem with Mother’s Day. A fitting coincidence, since my mama was my guardian angel those first few days of being With Slin).

Naturally, because the weather is such as it was two years ago and with it come the sensory flashbacks, and because I am one for nostalgia and anniversaries and any opportunities to take pause and reflect upon milestones, I have been thinking a lot about my dia-riff-raff.

Most things, they say, get easier with time. Diabetes is a big honkin’ exception. I obsess about it less for sure than I did two years ago, and feel less of a need to talk about it all the time, but perhaps that’s because it has settled into the seabed of my identity like a big shipwreck. It’s like there’s a big broken fishing boat at the bottom of my abdomen (much like the deadweight my pancreas is causing me now, stupid useless sack of dead islet cell tissue…), and it’s just corroding with time.

The amount of scar tissue on my body from just six months of regular infusion sets is ridiculous. Stupid pump malfunctions, freak ketone attacks, inexplicable highs followed by the usual obnoxious lows, and a honeymoon period (ie. the few months after diagnosis when the pancreas still produces just a TEENY bit of insulin on its own) that is good and done, and it’s only year two of…how many years have I got left?  I’m now in the trenches of this lifestyle – a word I normally despite (right-wing gay-hating lingo much?), but frankly can’t think of a better one to describe life with this disease.  It’s not just taking a few shots here and there, or a few pills, or even a major surgery. It’s a round-the-clock, I’m-responsible-for-this-disease-myself kinda thing.

I’m in the trenches, and while Year 1 was all about grief, recovery and empowerment, now it’s just about jabbing giant needles into my stomach fat, trying not to get tubing caught on doorknobs, learning to accept unpredictable weight gain, and playing the usual ping-pong game of meal, bolus, correction. It’s about explaining to people why I keep “texting”, or why parts of me keep beeping, or remembering to re-attach after bedroom activities, or simply wondering if I have the emotional capacity to deal with a particularly-carby meal, on a day where I know my insulin-to-carb ratios are about as volatile as a slot machine. There was a time when eating would freak me out simply because I was anxious about gaining weight. Boy am I glad I’m over that phase-of-life now, cuz I’d have some serious problems.

I began this post with the intention of reflecting on something I feel is intensely positive about these past two years. It is not surprising that I’ve needed to barf out a good couple paragraphs of complaint, because dammit, it’s hard to stay positive all the time about something that struck me so suddenly that I never had a chance to digest the news of it before I was knee-deep in its repercussions.

Here is the positive reflection. The thing I am most grateful for about this two-year diadventure – and there are many things – is what it has taught me about … friendship.

There are indeed many things I am grateful to diabetes for. Developing a chronic disease has taught me first-hand that I will not live forever, an epiphany that typically only hits people around middle age, and that usually spurs people to start making the most of things. Becoming diabetic – in Canada – has taught me how lucky I am compared to so many people who struggle with more severe health compromises. My diabetes is expensive, potentially life-threatening, consuming, emotionally exhausting, and just plain shitty, but it’s a reasonable cross to bear compared to the crap other people have to go through. It was also the first major shitty thing that happened to me that I DIDN’T feel I could blame myself for. Discovering that act of self-compassion and self-acceptance in the wake of my diagnosis – recognizing my emotional and physical needs and tending to them, rather than just blame myself for screwing things up – was epic and huge. It has made an adult of me. Also, having diabetes makes me sweat the small stuff a little less. It’s like having a kid – suddenly I’ve got something I’m majorly responsible for, and someone’s life depends on it. It makes me strong, sensible, and just a little less crazy.

But…nothing has been more beautiful than the way friends have supported me through this. There were the friends who made a point of calling and inviting me over for supper, every week, not waiting for me to call them. There was the bestie who was always, always available at a moment’s notice for a walk, a cry, a one-sided venting session, or a cuddle. There was the other bestie who, despite living out of town, never broke the rhythm of calling me on a regular basis to see how I was doing, for months on end. There were the friends who I could always, always count on for soul-nourishing nights of food, Buffy, kitchen dance parties, and love. There was the friend who, when I was in a particularly rough spot, came over and repainted my bedroom for me, while I sat with a cup of tea, recovering from the last bout of tears.

They say that we need relationship in life because it is through others that we are able to see ourselves reflected back. I believe this to be true on many levels in many of my relationships, and feel I know myself through my relationships. While I was processing the shock of my diagnosis (and soon after, the agonizing grief of a not-unrelated breakup) friends were able to take on emotions for me that I was not able to.

It was through the reactions of friends and loved ones – their shock, their concern, their own kind of denial – that my own such emotional reactions were validated, accentuated. They helped highlight the emotions I was too numb to truly access. Numb, because I was so caught up in learning to live with diabetes that it was hard to really process any of it.

There was the phone call from my cousin in New York whose constant repetition of “oh shit, Sarah…” kinda drove home to me the shock of the whole situation that I wasn’t able to access alone. There was the old roommate who, despite now living in far-off Boston, had researched what type-1 diabetes was and had not only considered thoroughly what it was all going to imply for me, but had tons of genuinely concerned questions about my experience (I liken this to when a male partner reads up on what, say, 5 weeks of pregnancy feels like, and eagerly asks his pregnant partner if she is feeling such-and-such symptom).

There was the bestie who flat out had denial at first, and sort of continues to (“but you have GREAT BLOOD SUGAR!” she insisted at first, ever thinking me the winner. And through it all, she kind of thought – maybe like I did – that after a few weeks it would just “clear up.”)

There was my choir conductor at the time, who had seen how sick I was during those last days before my diagnosis, and went into serious “spiritual crisis”- mode when I was admitted to the hospital – the kind of crisis I yearned to have myself, and probably would have had I not been so busy learning how to give myself injections and navigate the public drug plan.

There was a new-ish, KW friend who, upon seeing the ginormous inserter needle I use for my sensors, declared, “you are the strongest person I know.” There was the other new-ish KW friend who, when I first mentioned to him that my diabetes was only a few months old, got suddenly emotional himself and said, “wow, so you’ve been through a lot lately haven’t you.”

I don’t think I ever truly grieved this diagnosis, and don’t really expect I ever will at this point. I think it’s one of those life-things that you just deal with. It’s bigger than grief, it’s my body and it needs to be cared for now in ways I didn’t have to care for it before. And that’s just fine. I motor along with this diabetes thing, having picked up new friendships and new life lessons and new crazy adventures because of it.

But that doesn’t mean that, from time to time, I don’t taste the intensity of this disease’s impact on me. That things like having kids, or living in the states, or my financial needs, or what province I live in, or even just what’s for dinner tonight, have all taken on a new weight. That one day, I started testing blood sugars and shooting insulin, and it hasn’t stopped once, not even for an hour. That my life wasn’t always like this. That there was a time when diabetes was not a part of me.

That’s shocking, and crazy, and I can’t process that shock alone. Thankfully, people I love have been able to do it for me.

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