Sixteen years of finger pricks, thousands of insulin injections and pump site changes later and right now I wish more than anything I could say that I have all the tips and tricks to flawlessly manage Type 1 Diabetes. Kind of how Samantha played by Molly Ringwald wakes up on her sixteenth birthday in the Hughes' classic "Sixteen Candles" expecting to be a wise woman with all the answers to life. But even after thirty-two years of highs and lows, the answers still won’t be at these calloused fingertips.
Today, in honor of another year since I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes (peep the picture on the left, at age 7), I wanted to share the parts of my development as a diabetic learning to be a diabetic in the past year and what I hope for the future.
Learning the importance of good nutrition
Since March 31st of last year, I’ve decided that I want to pursue a degree beyond my B.A to be a Registered Dietitian. I have always wanted to work with Type 1 Diabetics because diabetes was one of the few things that I was really good at doing. At the time of this realization, I had already survived 11 years with diabetes so I figured that I must be doing something right. At first I wanted to work as a Registered Nurse but my B.A led me down a path towards food when I wrote my dissertation on the Slow Food Movement. Being a Registered Dietitian also allow me the opportunity to be a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), just as being a nurse would've but then I found myself to be more passionate about nutrition. Studying nutrition has so far taught me the crazy things that our bodies are capable of doing to keep us alive and the things that we often take advantage of. All of this remains intriguing to me despite having a pancreas that isn't fully capable of keeping me alive. Even though poor nutrition wasn't the reason behind my diagnosis with diabetes, I still see the importance of good nutrition now in order to keep the communication between organs optimal to prevent and be therapeutic for chronic illnesses.
I already have the upper hand here because as my blood glucose (BG) levels are my constant responsibility, I’m forced to pay close attention to how my body feels as it reacts to the foods I feed it. I know what it’s like for my body to be deprived of carbohydrates resulting in low BG levels, and I’m far too familiar with the headache that accompanies a fast spike in my BG from a fast acting carb like juice, candy, and other sweet delights. I hope that in the next few years that I’m studying nutrition and even the years beyond where my career revolves around it, I am constantly listening to my body about the energy I’m providing it. This kind of attentiveness to my body’s response to carbohydrates, will only result in a more controlled homeostasis of blood glucose levels. That’s always the goal.
Allowing the advancements in technology to better my life
In the past year I’ve upgraded my insulin pump from the 630G to the 670G, a Closed Loop System (pictured left), both from Medtronic. This system requires a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM)(1) that keeps track of my BG and communicates with the insulin pump to increase or decrease the amount of insulin the pump puts into my body. This works to stabilize my blood glucose levels between my target range of 90mg/dL-120mg/dL.
This wasn’t my first time using a CGM, but the last time I tried one of these in 2007 (ish), it was like shooting a harpoon into my leg. Eleven years later, Medtronic has minimized the size of the needle, making the insertion process significantly less intrusive. If the next year can introduce me to even half the technology I’ve experienced in my entire time with Type 1 Diabetes, then I have hope that a life where diabetes is less of a pain in the back (or thighs, arms, wherever you put your site) is just around the corner.
Accepting that I control my diabetes, not the other way around
One of the most standout things that I’ve seen in my development as a diabetic is my acceptance of this disease. This is especially true in the past year. In the past year, I’ve put myself on the path towards a career that will help other people like me whose relationship with food was impacted by their diabetes but also worked to disguise it as just a normal part of growing up around food fads and diet trends.
Diabetes is manageable so I think it’s easy to forget the impacts made on our mental health, our views of food, and relationships with people who aren’t dealing with the same chronic illness. I try so hard to be a healthy and normal person with no strings (or should I say, wires) attached. Because of this I would make myself think that my mood swings were just part of who I am rather than being a side effect of poorly managed blood glucose levels. I’d skip testing my blood glucose before eating in order to avoid the drawn attention to my bleeding finger and questions like, “Doesn't that hurt?” But being ignorant towards my diabetes care doesn’t help anyone, especially me.
I hope to further my acceptance, but I want to be clear that this doesn't mean that I'm not still participating in the search for a cure. My acceptance means that I want to be positive in the time left before a cure so that I can live the life I want. I started this blog five months ago as a platform to share my life with Type 1 Diabetes. I love being able to create a safe space for other diabetics to reach out and know that I’m likely to understand whatever emotion they’re going through because of their diabetes. I have hope that one day there will be a cure, but for now the best thing we can do is accept diabetes as being part of our lives for a while and run with it. Ignoring this disease is detrimental to our health even if it’s just for a day, but accepting that our lives are just different than the majority can allow us to do things like run marathons, travel the world, and pursue our dream jobs.
How exercise was a challenging learning experience
In the past year since my fifteen year diaversary, my mindset towards working out has changed drastically. I’m grateful for that actually. In college, as a way to deal with stress and as a way to make me feel better about myself I would work out a lot. Alarms set at 5:30 A.M and then I’d squeeze in some steps on the treadmill between classes or after work. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. My relationship with the gym seemed “healthy” because how could something like working out be “unhealthy”? But I really wasn’t getting the most out of my workouts because rarely was I enjoying what I was doing. This excessive time spent exercising led to a lot of hypoglycemic events (low blood glucose levels). With these kind of drops were a lot of moments of feeling weak and inadequate because I couldn’t complete a workout. Since graduating college, I’ve learned the importance of working out when your body feels GOOD and ready to put in the work for an hour. I now thrive in group exercise classes 3-4 times a week and go on evening strolls in between.
My exercise routine is something that is constantly changing for me. I get bored pretty quickly but I do like routine so I like to keep exercise as part of my schedule but change up the form of it often. I’ve slowly learned the different ways I have to adjust my insulin rates to prevent high blood sugars (these make me feel fatigued and nauseas while exercising) and low blood sugars (these leave me feeling dizzy and weak). With classes focusing on strength training (pilates, yoga sculpt etc.) my blood sugar trends increase slowly but with intense cardio (spinning, running etc.) my blood sugar drops FAST. With the rise of group exercise studios, I’ve had to do a lot of experimenting since classes are not just yoga and not just muscle targeting but are now a mix of everything to guarantee that full body workout. In the next year of diabetes, I want to continue to monitor my BG numbers well enough so that I can leave workouts feeling stronger physically rather than weaker mentally.
Where I would be without diabetes
If you’ve had any kind of conversation with me about my diabetes career then you’ve probably heard me say that if I went back in time, 16 years from now, and someone gave me the option of having diabetes or not then I would take diabetes with open arms. Now if a cure was available tomorrow I wouldn’t hesitate to say "see ya later" to Type 1 Diabetes. The thing is, I really don’t know what kind of person I would be writing this blog post if I wasn’t diagnosed. Maybe I’d still have a blog because diabetes didn’t give me my love for writing, but what in the world would the blog be about? I’m sure I’d still be determined, and maybe along the way I would’ve learned how to take care of myself but diabetes was a catalyst to those qualities of mine. It showed me how important my health is and what my body is capable of from an early age. Yes, it’s far more important for me to take care of my health because my pancreas won’t do it for me, but everyone can benefit with more knowledge on their health and what our bodies do.
The sixteen years leading up to today have been filled with tears, frustration, denial and resistance to this disease. I think I’ve made it clear that diabetes is a full time job with no salary. My pancreas clocked out from producing insulin and I had no choice but to clock right in for what’s been a sixteen year shift.
A Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) is also commonly referred to as the sensor
Hemoglobin A1C test (HbA1C) is a blood test that looks for the hemoglobin (red blood cells) that have attached to glucose molecules. Since red blood cells have a life span of three months, this test results in a three month average of a diabetic’s blood glucose levels reflecting their control.