Updated: Dec 18, 2020
By Michelle Guan
Image via Pinterest.
TW: Mentions diagnoses of chronic illnesses
I celebrated my sixteenth birthday this past April; although it was during the beginning of quarantine, I was filled with joy due to all the things my loved ones had planned for me. Barely a week after that, I found myself traveling in two different ambulances and being hospitalized for a week, later receiving news that would turn my whole world upside down. Here’s my experience with being a diabetic at age sixteen.
It all started when all of the sudden I had to pee multiple times throughout the night and constantly felt thirsty. I didn’t think much about it because I assumed that it was due to stress, so I drank more water. But my thirst was unquenchable. Besides that, I suddenly lost ten pounds and couldn’t get out of bed without feeling a tingly sensation all over my body. One day, I collapsed and had to be hospitalized; there, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. In fact, I was actually showing the majority of symptoms for diabetes. These symptoms occurred because my blood sugar level was abnormally increasing. When I arrived at the hospital, my blood sugar level was over 500 mg/dL. To compare, a normal blood sugar level ranges from 60 mg/dL to 100 mg/dL (milligrams/deciliter). After I could stay conscious for long periods of time, I had to learn some self-management skills, such as monitoring my blood sugar levels, taking/adjusting my insulin as needed, and carb counting for my meals.
The positive atmosphere at the hospital forced me to try and believe that this was all a dream, and that when I was discharged, I would suddenly be cured and wouldn’t have to deal with any of this. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I remember cheering the first time I gave myself my insulin shot at home because something was finally going my way. But then I remembered that this was my reality. Doing all of my self-management tasks at home made everything seem even more real, and that was what scared me the most.
I don’t think that I gave myself time to truly process this news because processing it would mean that I would have to accept that diabetes was a part of my life now. I grew up listening to my grandfather’s experiences as a diabetic; this illness always seemed so untouchable, and I had always perceived it as something that I would never have. Because of my denial, I tried to move on with my life by drowning myself in work as a way to prove to myself and others that I wasn’t this sick and helpless person who couldn’t do anything for herself. Now, I know that this was an unhealthy way to cope with my situation, but back then, I didn’t have anyone to talk to since none of my immediate family and friends could relate, so I felt alone in my situation. This went on for several months until I watched Midnight Gospel on Netflix (I highly recommend this show). The last episode centered around the main character learning to cope with his mother’s diagnosis of progressive breast cancer. In the episode, he asks her how he should respond to her diagnosis, and she simply replies, "You cry." This scene had me reflecting on my life and my personal experience with a chronic illness. It felt incredibly weird to finally be able to classify diabetes as an illness/disease in my mind, but it made me feel more at peace. That night, I realized that a diagnosis of an illness can cause grief for the loss of one’s old life -- when a person was living a ‘healthy’ life before the diagnosis. I learned that it was normal to feel resentful of all of the things that diabetes had taken from me and that the best way to move forward was to accept that this was a part of me now, but to not let it consume me.
Diabetes reminds me of an endless race. Sometimes, there are no obstacles in this race, so I trudge on forward. But oftentimes, there’s quicksand, giant walls, poisonous snakes, and other obstacles that require my attention endlessly. Just like this race that has no end, diabetes doesn’t allow me to take a vacation. There are times when I feel so emotionally drained by all the self-management tasks I have to do multiple times a day, which is referred to as diabetes burnout. This is common among diabetics, so therapy and emotional support for anyone combating the illness has become more available over the years.
My diagnosis has taught me that there is pain in life, but somehow, there’s beauty in that pain. Diabetes has served as a significant burden in my life, but it has also opened doors to more opportunities. I have had the privilege of joining a youth group that consists of teenagers who are all type 1 diabetics; I have developed meaningful connections through this group that I know would not have been possible without my diagnosis. A few weeks after I came home from being discharged, I received a cat who has become one of my best friends over time. He reminds me of the hope I still have for my life. Although I have been negatively impacted by this experience, I won’t allow it to conquer my whole life. Of course, this doesn’t mean that my life is perfect. I still experience failures, and I don’t always feel positive about diabetes. But I have accepted that it’s valid to feel negative, because feeling a range of emotions is a part of the beauty of life.
Written by writer Michelle Guan