You know that feeling when you wake up at three in the morning, pouring sweat, your hands shaking, and in dire need of some apple juice?
Welcome to the fun, fun world of diabetes!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with my auto-immune disease, here’s a quick run down. (For those of you already in the know, feel free to skip the following paragraph).
I’ve been a Juvenile Diabetic since the age of 3 which means that at about that time my body began destroying the cells in my pancreas which create insulin, something the body needs to control blood glucose levels in the body. Basically, my body is waging war on itself. There’s no cure, just treatment which can consist of shots of insulin throughout the day or the use of an insulin pump (connected to a needle or catheter in your body 24/7). Management requires calculating carbohydrates in food and correcting for that with insulin. Too many carbohydrates in the blood means a high blood sugar and requires insulin to correct for. High blood-sugars = thirst, head aches, fatigue, and uncontrollable irritation (at least for me, every diabetic is different). Too much insulin means a low blood sugar. Low blood sugars = shakiness, inability to communicate, confusion, even loss of consciousness.
It actually takes people a while when they first meet me to realize I have diabetes. I try to be subtle when using my meter or doing a bolus with my insulin pump. Over the past year or so, I will admit that I’ve become a lot more comfortable with dragging my equipment out in public. Maybe it has something to do with being a gringa and already sticking out or that my students in primary are convinced I’m half robot (that may have been partly my fault). But as I’ve become more comfortable with sharing this part of my life, I’ve felt more and more inclined to write a post about the experience of living abroad with diabetes.
There are two types of diabetics. There are those who are defined by this auto-immune disease. You will often hear these folks declaring they are made stronger by it; they will even celebrate their “dia-birthday” — the day they were diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes. Then there are those who would rather forget that it existed in the first place, who wish they could just shove their diabetic supplies out of sight and out of mind, and if someone asks them about it will just as likely shut down as tell you what exactly this alien-looking tube is sticking out of your pants pocket.
I like to think that I’m one of those diabetics who is made stronger by the challenges brought on by this auto-immune disease, but this past year and half spent in a foreign country has left me unsettled, frustrated and just plain tired.
During my first January here in Peru, I would often joke that I was cured. At the time, I was out on a mission trip with students from my school where we worked on farms, cleaned roads, and helped with whatever other labor the town we were staying in asked for. I was having so many low blood sugars that sometimes I would take my insulin pump off completely for hours on end, trying to keep myself from having that no-good, shaky feeling that comes of hypoglycemia. Each night I would wake up sweating (which is impressive seeing as nights are cold enough up in the mountain region of Tacna for sweatpants and a heavy-duty sleeping bag). In the dark I would frantically search around for a juice box, trying not to wake the students sleeping all around me. By week two of the mission trip, I was beginning to feel nervous as my glucose supplies began to run low — let’s note here that there were no stores in the town we were in, the next town was an hour’s walk away, and transportation came once a week. It was one of the most beautiful months of service I have ever participated in, but through it all I had this constant, underlying fear of passing out in front of my students or of failing to wake up when my blood sugars dropped at night.
Coming back from the service trip didn’t mean that my challenges with diabetes went away. The school year began and it was now time for me to stand in front of my students and teach…. except… oh wait, my blood sugar is dropping, can you all just wait fifteen minutes for me to feel a little better? Waiting for my body to quit collapsing is not in my nature, nor is it something I can explain to my twenty or so students. It is already a challenge to control a class as a first year teacher and in another language but imagine that your control of Spanish starts to falter along with your ability to concentrate, what do you do then?
Every task I do or activity I participate in comes with a myriad of additional questions: “What are my numbers?”, “When was the last time I checked?”, “When was the last time I ate?”, “Do I need to eat now?”, “Am I just tired? Is it due to my numbers?”, “Where’s my juice box?”. It becomes even more difficult when communicating is done in a different language and the disease you have is rare in this country.
I walked out of my room a few weeks ago to tell one of my community-mates “It’s exhausting to try to keep myself alive”.
It’s hard to admit this to anyone else, especially in a public setting like a blog, but I’m tired of fighting against my own body. It’s exhausting to mold my days around a broken body, to accept I am limited in everything that I do. Diabetes, like any other autoimmune disease, is a shackle. It has made me a better, more compassionate person, but likewise it has left me worn down. To try and balance these two perspectives— the diabetes that strengthens my core values and the diabetes that makes me a physically weaker person— is not easy. I know that I have to accept my limitations in order to move past them, but in this moment and in this country, the odds definitely feel stacked against me.
This is not a cry for pity or sympathy. One of the reasons I think so many people with autoimmune diseases are unwilling to talk about their struggles is solely because of the reactions from others that make us feel “less than” or someone who is only half-alive. We need to be able to share our vulnerability but not be seen as incapable or weak. I continue to fight the fight every day not because I’m some heroic individual, it’s just that, well, what other choice do I have?
Even though I may find myself at a pessimistic point in my relationship with this creature called diabetes, I continue to be amazed by the wonders of life. The setting sun on the bus takes my breath away, the hugs of my students warms the darkest corners of my heart. I still spend time daydreaming about which country I will be living in next and am always on the lookout for a family-run coffee shop. Life throws many challenges our way, not caring if we are a good person or a not-so-good person, and it just so happens that what landed in my lap was diabetes. I’ll keep facing each day head because seeing this beauty around me makes the struggle worth it.
Originally published at www.jvcwithcamila.blogspot.com