2011-08-04

What's It Like Having Diabetes?

When others find out that I am a diabetic, their first reaction is to express condolences. This never ceases to catch me a little off-guard.

From the outside perspective, diabetes is a chronic illness, like cancer or epilepsy. To the non-diabetic, people like me "suffer" from diabetes. They watch us poke ourselves with lancets and needles, they see us react to hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia. They watch us abstain from desserts or too many cocktails. They know we cannot join them for spontaneous fun if we are not prepared for that kind of fun, or if it otherwise conflicts with our regimented needs.

From these observations, they quite rationally conclude that we diabetics feel diabetic all the time. They're wrong.

What Diabetes?
The truth of the matter is that I hardly think about it. I am not even "constantly aware of it." I wake up in the morning and kiss my wife, work out, take a shower, and get dressed. I go to work and chat with my colleagues. I join them for lunch. I go home after work and pursue my interests: running, music, writing, reading, etc. I take my wife out to dinner, and sometimes we even go dancing (the joke in this sentence is that I'm a terrible dancer). I join my friends at local pubs for a drink. I pay my bills on time. I do the dishes and the laundry.

In short, not only is my life identical to everyone else's, but I might even have a more active and interesting life than some people. There's nothing "diabetic" about it. I am basically exactly like you.

No, You're Diabetic!
In fact, I am so much like you, that I have some news for you: Virtually every symptom of diabetes (except maybe DKA) is something that all non-diabetics experience from time to time. Because they are non-diabetics, they have never associated those feelings with their blood glucose levels. However, I can assure you that they are related and that you quite often feel exactly the way I do, even if you have a perfectly functional pancreas.

That restlessness you feel after over-indulging in dessert is hyperglycemia. That bloated, upset-stomach feeling you get after a marathon session at the local sushi joint; that thirst you get after eating a few too many slices of pizza; that tired, bleary-eyed headache you get in the summer sun after having not done much all day... These are the symptoms of hyperglycemia.

The dizziness you feel when you've exercised a lot on an empty stomach, the jittery confusion you feel when you work through lunch and forget to eat all day, the urge to come home after a long, strenuous outing and eat everything in sight; you guessed it: that indicates that your blood sugar is too low.

You feel these things to some degree each and every day of your life. None of these feelings mean that you are a diabetic, of course; that isn't the point. 

The point is that, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, you already have a good idea what diabetes is like because you have already experienced all the symptoms yourself. 

I reiterate: we diabetics are basically exactly like you.

Come On, Ryan, You're Not Exactly Like Everyone Else
True enough, my life is different now that I have diabetes. Most of those differences involve trivial things. For example, I can't stay out all night drinking beer and eating jalapeno poppers like I used to. I can't gorge myself at Thanksgiving dinner anymore, intent on getting my fill of turkey and pie before I have to return to a normal way of life. I can't just decide to skip my daily trip to the gym. I can't say, "Screw it," and stay up all night watching movies.

I can't really eat pasta anymore, and my pizza consumption is relegated to one or two slices every now and then. When I drink, I have to test my blood sugar beforehand, and every couple of hours afterward. I have to be impolite sometimes and leave the party just when it gets interesting, because I have to go to bed. I have to say no to Auntie when she offers me some home cooked jilabi, no matter how much I love that stuff, and no matter how much she insists that Uncle just had some, and he's diabetic, too.

Most noticeably, I cannot put anything into my mouth without first injecting myself with insulin.

It is true that I feel badly when I over-indulge in food, especially sweets. However, while the headache I get might be more severe than what other people experience, my over-indulgence is no less healthy for me than it is for you. People hurt themselves when they do stupid things like eating half a pie for dessert. It matters naught whether they have diabetes or not. What I feel is what you feel. The impact on my body is not unlike the impact on yours. I may have a heightened awareness of the damage such behavior does, and an added incentive to avoid that damage, but make no mistake - you are inflicting the same damage upon yourself, even if you aren't diabetic.

So Life Is a Little Different, But...
What I want people to know about diabetes is this: I'm not "sick." I'm not "suffering." It's not really even "too bad that I have diabetes." I'm fine. I live a life that is exactly as normal as everyone else's (whatever "normal" means, anyway). In fact, I'm in the best shape of my life. If you can believe it, I've never felt better in my whole life. And I am a diabetic. 

If this is a "disease" or a "condition," we diabetics wouldn't know it from how we feel on a daily basis.  

Similarly, asthmatics have to think a little more carefully about things like air quality. No one would ever suggest, however, that an asthmatic is living a lower quality of life than a non-asthmatic. Even though we don't all have fancy medications and devices to carry with us, we all have special needs to ensure smooth sailing through our daily lives. 

Diabetes is a scary word, but we diabetics are not scared. We pretty much think of ourselves as normal. We hope you think so, too.