Living with Diabetes: Diabetes Doesn’t Define Me

As published in Aprl 1, 2009 online edition:

Katherine Marple
Apr 1, 2009

My whole childhood, I was a bit of a pudgy girl. At the age of eight, I weighed over 110 pounds, wore a woman's size 8, and stood a mere five feet tall. I wasn't grossly obese, by any means, but it was enough to keep me off the cheerleading squad and out of the popular crowd at school. I didn't really have any health issues besides the weight.

Then I started feeling weak, but only little by little. When I turned fourteen, I suddenly was seven inches taller and a lot lighter. My mother feared I was bulimic. I was just excited that I was finally a tall, skinny girl whom others wanted to be around. I ate to my heart's content-enough to make a grown man jealous-and drank more than my own body could possibly use.

Sometimes, I'd wake up in the night to drink four or five glasses of water, but I never felt refreshed no matter how much I drank. Sometimes I drank until I vomited, never feeling the relief of being no longer thirsty.

The morning after I woke up from wetting my bed, I cried as I changed the sheets. "What's wrong with me?" I whispered over and over, while sneaking the sheets into the washer. I was humiliated and frightened. I weighed 115 pounds and was 5'8" tall. I wore a size 0 that was still too big for me.

After dinner, my mother and I took our usual two-mile walk around the neighborhood. She told me that in a phone call she'd received, the doctor had suggested that I might have diabetes mellitus. Diabetes did not run in either side of our family bloodlines. Where did this disease suddenly come from, and why did I have it?

The following few days seemed to go by in a blur. I went through the motions of learning how food and exercise affects the body and how to dose and inject insulin. Everything happened so quickly that I didn't even have time to cry. The doctors congratulated me when a pound was added to my emaciated frame. I began slowly gaining weight, but I was emotionally dying inside. I was selfishly scared to go back to school fat and to become unpopular again. Suddenly, I was "different" from everyone else. I overheard one of my best friends telling another girl: "She's only skinny because she's diseased. Don't share food with her or you'll catch it." After that, I alienated myself from everyone. No one in the whole world could comfort me through that time. My life had changed so quickly!

I hid my medications from everyone around me. I swallowed hard when I felt as if I was going to faint due to low blood sugar. I tested my limits and took only as much insulin as absolutely necessary for me to live. I stopped eating so that I would have to take fewer shots. It was the only thing I could control. I grew angry and tired. People generally associate diabetes with old or obese people, but I was neither. It was an embarrassment of a disease. I was ashamed to tell anyone what was happening to me because they instantly assumed that I had "type 2." So I didn't talk about it. I was too scared to be different from everyone else.

Eventually, I learned how to fight for my life. No longer playing the diabetes games of skipping injections, skipping meals, and skipping my sickness, I learned that I had grown antibodies against the insulin. I switched between medications numerous times. Among them, the Humulin R and N combination made me take over ten shots per day, which was painful and frustrating. I was raising my insulin intake dosage almost monthly, yet my eating habits hadn't changed since the last prescription. I then went to Lantus. It only required a once per day injection, plus additional shots of Humalog for food intake. But sometimes Lantus worked too well for me, and I would slip into insulin-shock mini-comas. I'd take the injection before bed, and then I'd awake to paramedics at my side with IVs of sweetened saline solution to raise my glucose. My fiancé has, quite literally, saved my life on countless occasions with those 911 calls. I was terrified of dying and cried myself to sleep almost every night.

Then I was affected by the other side of diabetes: high blood sugars. I slipped into near fatal bouts of ketoacidosis. These episodes would land me into the ER within two hours of the first symptoms. I felt too weak to stand and my blood felt like it was coursing with fire. Sometimes I could still walk my way into the ER; other times I needed to be carried. Once there, I'd usually be staying in the ICU for three days or more. My fight with diabetes was tough, and I wasn't winning it.

My parents, along with insurance, invested in a five thousand dollar insulin pump. Because diabetes is not considered a life-threatening disease by insurance standards, there was a very large co-pay for my parents to settle. I am thankful every day for their purchase. It uses only quick response insulin like Novolog and Humalog, and it inserts through a catheter under the skin. It is the size of a large pager (from back in the day!) and can be carried in a trouser pocket, on a belt clip, or sometimes even concealed in a bra. My insertion site is sore and I have a few ugly bumps and bruises from keeping the catheter in too long, but it's better than being afraid to go to sleep. I get self-conscious about the long tube from time to time, but mostly I actually forget that it's there, saving my life every second of every day.

We "type 1s" are often forgotten. There are so few of us that it seems we get left behind. Lack of TV commercials and advertisements about us leave America in the mindset that our disease is "no big deal." It is a struggle, and I become very disheartened. I have been in denial about my disease for a very long time.

I was told through my teenage years that I wouldn't be able to have children due to stress on my body during pregnancy. Recently, I found out that I can have children. I look forward to what this life brings. I look forward to the advancements in technology that will allow us to research and learn about autoimmune diseases such as this. The amazing challenges that lie ahead are great.

On my ten-year anniversary with diabetes, my fiancé and I joined three walkathons for the JDRF and ADA. I cried with joy over how many people were there. It felt like a place that I fit in. Fellow diabetics understand what I'm going through. I'm not an outsider any longer.

I am 25 years old. I am a dreamer, I am accomplished, and I have diabetes. My disease does not define me. It is a part of who I am and who I will become. I am not alone. This makes me stronger.

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"Being brave is being afraid, but doing it anyway." - Katherine Marple