“Are you sure you can eat that?” my cousin leans over, eyeing the slice of pumpkin pie I put on my plate. He continues, “That probably has a lot of sugar in it,” he chuckles. And I sigh. You’d think I’d be used to the interrogations—but they still get under my skin sometimes. Especially around the holidays when everyone seems to get a free gluttony-pass but me.
I’ve been a type 1 diabetic for 13 years. Ironically, my diabetes onset happened over Thanksgiving break. I came down with a strange virus resulting in stomach cramps and a severe headache that lasted about three days. Things just went downhill from there.
Over the next 18 months, I just got sicker and sicker. I had lost close to 30 pounds—while eating quadruple the amount of calories a person my size should have. I was always thirsty, and if I couldn’t find my water bottle, I would panic. I could barely walk—making the short trek from my car to my building on campus an excruciating journey. Every part of body ached, and of course, I was becoming more and more depressed.
I was very hard on myself during that time—well aware that I was literally skin and bones. And others noticed too—some being downright cruel. A man walked by me at the gym and seethed, “Eat a hamburger.” I caught my students whispering about me on multiple occasions—falling into awkward silence when they noticed I was nearby. A few of my grad school peers followed me into the bathroom during class breaks to see if I was purposefully vomiting. An acquaintance of mine told me, “Enough with the weight loss.” And another woman asked me, “What are you? Like a size 00?”
I went to five different medical professionals before I was diagnosed, and I attended a total of close to 20 appointments. My primary care doctor was frustrated with my chronic sinus infections and finally suggested that I was either anorexic or a hypochondriac. The registered dietitian told me to eat more—handing me pamphlets on high-calorie foods. The optometrist couldn’t understand why he couldn’t correct my blurry vision with a stronger contact lens prescription.
The message was clear. There was something wrong with me—and it was probably all in my head. No one was willing to throw me a life preserver, so I succumbed to the fact that I was drowning.
On a balmy Friday morning, I took a nap on the couch and didn’t wake up until my husband was at my side, having rushed home from work, and put me in the car. In the emergency room, nurses took several vials of blood from my arm while I shivered uncontrollably and couldn’t catch my breath. One nurse strolled in and told me bluntly, “You smell sick.”
After an hour, a doctor came into the room with my labwork cradled in his arm. And then he told me I was a type 1 diabetic—with some terrifying numbers. My blood sugar was 700—seven times the norm. And my A1C, a blood sugar average, was 16.9—so high it wasn’t on any medical charts. I was going to the ICU to hopefully save my life—because my body had gone toxic, into a state called diabetic ketoacidosis.
Over my five-day hospital stay, I learned that type 1 diabetes is a chronic, invisible, autoimmune disease in which a person’s body ceases to produce its own insulin. Insulin is a hormone necessary to regulate blood sugar. No insulin means certain death. So diabetics like myself have to administer insulin via injections or an insulin pump, check our blood sugar, and calculate the number of carbohydrates we consume. There’s no cure.
Type 1 diabetes—formerly called juvenile diabetes–make up about 5% of cases. There’s also gestational diabetes, which happens to some women during pregnancy, and type 2 diabetes, which was previously known as adult-onset diabetes.
No matter the type of diabetes, uncontrolled blood sugars can result in some serious health problems. Side effects of diabetes can include blindness, kidney and heart damage, sexual dysfunction, amputation of limbs, hearing impairment, and more. And for me, any little thing can send my blood sugar on a roller coaster for hours or even days–including the weather, exercise, hormones, and sleep.
Having a near-death experience changes a person. Which is why I don’t think any of the jokes about diabetes are funny—at all. I’ve been on the brink of death, and it was not only terrifying, it was traumatic.
Social media is kind of the worst when it comes to making fun of my life-altering, 24/7/365, expensive AF disease. I’ve seen so many memes and GIFs poking fun at diabetes—especially starting around Halloween and continuing throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. Many of them promote the idea that all diabetics are overweight sugar addicts who have no self-control.
It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor. I crack jokes about my own disease all the time—but when I’m talking about myself on my terms, that’s far different than a non-diabetic rendering a verdict about my daily struggle.
The holidays are particularly challenging for me. While those ahead and behind me in the buffet line are loading their plates with carbohydrates covered in gravy and sprinkled with salt and pepper, I’m scanning the options. Then I’m mentally calculating the carb grams, how much insulin I will need to take—and when, and praying I’ll get it all perfectly right so I can have a sliver of the sweet potato pie I brought.
And it doesn’t help when someone asks me, after I’ve already made my selections, if I will actually be able to eat that. Sometimes I’m met with a story about their diabetic great aunt who had her foot amputated because her diabetes wasn’t “in control.” I clap back, controlling one’s blood sugar is about as easy as controlling a tired, hungry toddler in a crowded toy store. Good freaking luck.
I’ve overheard loved ones loom over the dessert table and crack jokes like, “Just looking at all this sugar is going to make me diabetic.” And perhaps the worst is someone impersonating Wilfred Brimley saying “diabeetus”—in a slow, deep drawl. As if that’s even clever.
I can’t separate myself from my disease, because every single thing I do—or don’t do—is tied to how I’m feeling in that moment. There’s no vacation. But just like everyone else, I want to enjoy the holiday season. And when I’m feeling all kinds of festive, enjoying some holiday cheer, the last thing I need is for someone to make a joke about my disease.
I’m thankful for how far I’ve come—and I celebrate the fact that I’m alive. But if you can leave the diabetes humor to me, I’d be even more grateful.
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