I have a memory of being 7 or 8, in elementary school, and seeing a girl in my class– her name was Brittany– standing in the hallway with a teacher. She was pale, shaky, clutching a bottle of Sprite. I knew she had diabetes, and intuitively I knew she had the Sprite because of the diabetes. But I didn’t actually know why. I didn’t actually know what diabetes was, how it worked, why her disease allowed her to consume such a delicious carbonated beverage.
I remember being confused, I remember wanting the Sprite. I do not remember wanting the diabetes.
I had a friend named Athina in elementary school, and her younger sister, Alex, had type 1 diabetes. Diagnosed very young. I remember, in 4th or 5th grade, going to the nurse’s office once with a nosebleed.
I got nosebleeds quite often as a child, I was used to them. I had a friend, Tara, who’d never had one before, and she asked me once if they hurt. I thought it was a strange, silly question and I told her no. I said that she would probably have one one day, and could then understand and see for herself.
I was sitting in the nurse’s office in a plastic chair, holding a paper towel to my nose, head slightly tilted back, while I watched Alex draw blood from her own little fingertip and give herself a shot. I wanted to ask her if it hurt, but I didn’t. Maybe she would have said no. I doubt she would have said that I would probably have to do it one day, too, and that I could then understand and see for myself.
But if she had said it, she would have been right.
Before I was diabetic, diabetes, to me, was sitting next to my Grandaddy at the small, round dinner table and watching in awe as he pricked one of his fingers with trembling hands. Diabetes, to me, was quickly looking the other way as he squeezed out the blood.
It was, a week before I was diagnosed, overhearing a 16-year-old camp counselor ask one of my bunkmates if they knew how much sugar was in a packet of ketchup. Being slightly impressed that he knew such nutritional facts, I asked him how he knew. “I’m diabetic,” he answered. “Ah,” I nodded my head, as if I understood completely. “Gotcha.”
I’d lived 13 full years before I was diagnosed with diabetes. I’d gotten through my whole childhood. I’d transitioned into the weirdness of teenagedom.
I have at least a decade of diabetes-free memories–memories where I was all, “yeah, I’ll race you around the entire neighborhood 3 times no problem” and “why WOULDN’T I have a second bowl of ice cream cake!” At least a decade of being carefree and innocent and somewhat clueless to the fragility of us all.
I saw no reason why I wouldn’t live to be 100. How sweet is that?
At age 12, before I was diabetic, I was the girl on the left of this photo.
One year later, several weeks before I was diagnosed, I was the girl on the right.
Before I was diabetic, the word ‘diabetes’ was just another medical term I nodded my head to without having any real definition or attachment. It was a weightless word. “Something to do with sugar in your body and blood in your fingers,” I might have said, and then shifted my thoughts back to what directly affected me: the impossibility that was Algebra 1, what I would wear to the upcoming 8th grade ball. I didn’t know what a pancreas was, or even that I had one. I didn’t know what insulin was, how gravely essential it is to our beings. I didn’t know people counted carbs for reasons other than the Atkins Diet. I didn’t know, I didn’t know. I didn’t need to know.
Before I was diabetic… I wasn’t, and I didn’t yet have to fill my head with such realistic, medicinal things.