Tackling diabetes as a team sport

How I learned to let friends into my life as a diabetic

Eli’s friends and family help her deal with diabetes.
Photo: 

When I was first diagnosed as a diabetic, I thought my condition was a burden to carry alone for the rest of my life. It took me a few years to figure out I had it backwards. 

When I was twelve years old, I abruptly lost an alarming amount of weight. I suddenly looked like I was drowning in my Lululemon leggings, which were skin-tight weeks before. My family and friends were convinced I had an eating disorder, though I insisted I had never been so hungry and thirsty in my entire life. I began eating and hydrating like an NFL player instead of a twelve-year old girl.

My parents made an appointment with my family doctor, but I maintained nothing was wrong except for my insatiable thirst and hunger. Within minutes of identifying the symptoms I’d avoid acknowledging over the past few months, I was rushed to SickKids hospital in Toronto. Within the hour, I was on multiple IVs and officially diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.

I stayed at SickKids for a few nights and learned how to administer insulin needles. Every time I ate, I needed a shot to lower my blood sugar and allow digestion, which was up to 20 times a day. Count how many times you eat anything in a day, and add a needle—I do that. 

Exercise grew more complex, and I realized quickly I couldn’t look at food the same way. Every aspect of my life would now have to be carefully considered, measured and monitored.

Every aspect of my life would now have to be carefully considered, measured and monitored.

When I returned to school the following week, I suddenly looked great after regaining the weight and changing my diet. No longer drained from my malnutrition, I was now able to focus in class and have fun with my friends. I agonized over how diabetes would change my life going forward, and how I’d be perceived. I hid my diagnosis from everyone around me, including my grandparents, friends and extended family. I snuck off every now and then to the nurse’s office to give myself insulin shots and my mom secretly pre-prepared and measured my meals. 

The biggest pain accompanying my new predicament was my fear of appearing weak. I desperately wanted to keep up with my peers, but my disability slowed me down. 

When I started giving myself the insulin my body needed to survive, I experienced the crash of low blood sugars for the first time. I became disoriented, and talking and reading suddenly felt impossible. 

To understand, imagine being at the pier during Frosh Week and everyone is jumping into the water. You go to join them when suddenly you become dizzy, disoriented, light-headed. You try to speak but no words come out.

These episodes began happening to me; I couldn’t reveal my susceptibility to these moments of weakness that only insulin, sugar and time could fix. I hid my condition. However, hiding a part of my everyday life wasn’t a sustainable and I laugh looking back on it.

Now, halfway through my third year at Queen’s, my friends have at least a general idea of how my blood sugars should be, and they can recognize when I go low or high. When I went to a music festival a couple summers ago, my girlfriends were the ones who noticed my speech was off and suggested we spike my blood sugar with Beaver Tails.

While diabetes is something I will always have to live with, and it’s my responsibility above all else, I’ve learned it’s not something I have to go through alone.

While diabetes is something I will always have to live with, and it’s my responsibility above all else, I’ve learned it’s not something I have to go through alone.

I used to become angry and irritated when friends or family inquired about my blood sugar. Whether it’d be out of the blue check-ups or noticing symptoms of low or high blood sugar, the fear of being a ‘bad diabetic’ was embarrassing. I wanted the people around me to think I had everything under control all the time. 

I recognize now my friends’ concerns are an extra set of eyes on a body that is difficult to maintain. There’s no vacation from diabetes and I have to be careful and self-aware every moment, whether I’m asleep, drunk, high, in an exam, working out, or on a date. When my friends check in on me, it isn’t to judge me or my condition—it’s to help me and learn.

When I started dating someone at Queen’s, I mentioned I could wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). The monitor is an adhesive transmitter worn on your stomach that sends your blood sugar to your phone every couple of minutes through an app. Before this, testing my blood would consist of poking my finger to draw blood a couple times a day. A CGM would let me check my blood sugar hundreds of times a day, rather than manually testing six to seven times a day.

While now waterproof and generally comfortable, CGMs aren’t very attractive. The devices are box-like, sticky, and get dirty  fast. Despite its benefits, I worried about carrying a visual representation of my disability. I didn’t want to deal with the added stress of monitoring what I’d wear—I wanted to walk into Stages wearing a crop top without thinking about who was looking at my CGM. 

I weighed the pros and cons with my boyfriend: he was shocked I didn’t already have a CGM. Within weeks, he was helping me insert my first one. Two years later, I still wear a CGM weekly and wouldn’t go a day without it. 

I knew I’d made some great friends at Queen’s when, at the first pool party I attended wearing my monitor, none of my friends batted an eye. Most of them were just interested in downloading the accompanying “followers” app, where they could follow my blood sugars and get alerts. Friends, especially those in life science,  enjoy it.

What I saw as weaknesses proved the strengths of my relationships. I’ll never be able to fully describe how much I appreciate my friends when they take a moment to help me manage my blood sugars, or talk me through having embarrassingly low blood sugar in class.

What I saw as weaknesses proved the strengths of my relationships. I’ll never be able to fully describe how much I appreciate my friends

Diabetes is hard. I won’t sugar-coat it but it’s made easier everyday by the people around me. A weakness only exists if you let it. I choose to see my literal highs and lows as opportunities to appreciate my support system instead of moments of individual failure. I couldn’t be more excited to share my juice boxes with the people I love.

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