Diabetes is a Double-Edged Sword

(or, I’m surprised it took five posts on here to mention my permanent medical condition that is undoubtedly the single most important factor in affecting my daily routine, and whose diagnosis was the most self-defining moment in my life)

I’m not going to go into the biological causes and implications of Type One Diabetes on my body in this post; you can Google that or click here if you want to learn more, but anyone can tell you about that – I’m gonna talk about how this easily-manageable, albeit potentially life-threatening, condition has impacted my life, right up from when I was first diagnosed at seven to the present day, ten years later. And, contrary to urban legend and popular belief, it’s really not that bad.

No, seriously, it’s pretty alright – yes I can’t eat cakes all the time, but who the hell would want to – do all you 57 million non-Diabetics in the UK spend your free time easting sugary foods, and I’m just missing out? No, you do not. Essentially, I need to take an injection of insulin every time I eat foods with carbohydrate (basically sugar) in them. This means that, practically, I inject with every meal, because I’ll eat some kind of carb (potatoes, rice etc.) with every meal, as we probably all should. On the one hand, this does mean I end up with up to five injections a day and the same number of blood tests to monitor the amount of sugar in my blood (the stuff the insulin is trying to control), which can suck at times: ‘Hey James, wanna go get some chips?’ ‘Sure, let me stab a needle into my arm first!’. Obviously this stuff hurts – by its very nature, a needle breaks the skin and so causes pain, meaning that I can ‘get used to’ the injections, but the pain won’t really go away. Furthermore, I end up with weird-looking arms and legs; constant injections in an area cause lumps to form, and after around 28,470 blood tests and injections over the last decade (not counting walking expeditions, hospital visits and illnesses, all of which force me to do more of the damned things), it looks like I have disproportionately large thighs and triceps, compared to the rest of my body. This isn’t really a problem for me, because I could be covered in faeces-stained scales like an incontinent lizard, and still not care about my body image, but this could be an issue for some folks. Conversely, the constant injections do have a benefit – I can maths! The injections aren’t just a matter of slicing my arm open for a blood sacrifice like a Mesoamerican heart-ripping Priest, but are applications of a dosage of medicine, a dosage I must work out the appropriate volume of, based on the size of the food I’m eating, and its carbohydrate content – I will need more units of Insulin for a large portion of fries than I would for a small one. This sounds easy enough, but often those monsters who make the nutritional information tables on the backs of cereal packets only include carb information per 100 grams of cereal, so I’ve got to weigh out the mass of cereal I want to eat, then calculate the amount of carb in that mass by dividing it by a hundred and multiplying it by the mass of the cereal I wanna eat … (honestly, sometimes I’ll say ‘Kill me now’, only to ironically realise that if I don’t do the maths, I will actually die). On a serious note, I’m able to do, seemingly basic, operations like multiplication and division competently – considering I forgot how to do every other mathematical operation a week after finishing GCSE Maths, this is significant – which genuinely helps in daily life, like working out the number of injections and blood tests I’ve done over the last ten years. To be honest, I’ll take the lumpy, occasionally-bruised arms to get an incentive to keep up with practicing maths.

Diabetes can mess with your health – when I’m playing sport, there is a genuine concern that my blood sugar will fall so low I’ll pass out, because I can’t regulate that myself naturally, and it’s difficult to do a blood test while keeping goal. Furthermore, I will have to drink energy drinks every four seconds when playing, to keep my sugar levels up – if in doubt it’s better to be too high than too low – which can also be inconvenient. However, this is a minor problem in reality – I’ve not had any real complications from Diabetes with exercise, and I do sport fairly regularly (I started running five days a week last month for no particular reason, and on one of the ‘off’ days I play football) – perhaps this would be an issue with more high-endurance sports, like long-distance running, where you can’t stop to do a blood test for several hours on end, but the diabetic cycling team, Team Novo Nordisk, suggests otherwise. I’ve found that, like the maths thing, having Diabetes has forced me into good habits: drinking regularly when exercising, paying extra attention to how I’m feeling during sports, and so forth; it’s similar to the maths work in that it may be difficult to do initially, but it gives you good habits, which ultimately outweigh the negatives. One major problem (relatively speaking – I’ve never been hospitalised with Diabetes-related illnesses or anything) I’ve had with Diabetes was on my Duke of Edinburgh’s expeditions, a scheme involving 3-, 6- and 12-month voluntary commitments in the local area, culminating in a walking expedition; on these, I’ll be out walking for eight hours or so a day for up to four days, meaning that managing blood sugars is impractically frequent – it’s hard to not be an hour behind where you thought you would be because you’ve spent 45 minutes waiting for your blood sugars to rise up to a non-dangerous level. With my final, end-of-season-finale-esq expedition in just three weeks, my current plan is to eat chocolate hobnobs throughout the walking, where the chocolate will give me short-term energy for walking, and the hob-nobbiness will give me the long-term energy I need for the duration of the trip. Again, there are potentially serious medical dangers that can arise from walking without a functional pancreas, but the presence of several trained members of staff in a mini-van full of spare hobnobs and 7-Up bottles means that I should be safe (I have been so far); like with the maths again, this danger is worth it for the genuine fun and sense of accomplishment that this, frankly awesome, scheme give you.

Thirdly, there is a weirdly social element to Diabetes, as there is for, I presume, all long-term medical conditions – while some people may be understandably opposed to sharing their condition with people, like that dyslexic guy in the show Britannia High, who doesn’t want anyone to know that he struggles to read words (I promise I only know this because I was re-watching old episodes of Screenwipe. See?), I kinda use my diabetes as the basis of all of my conversations with people. Seriously. Like I said a few days ago about Sport being a great ice-breaker with people, its much more interesting to talk about a medical condition that you’ve got than stand around leaning on the wall of a Hollywood Bowl for your first time going to a youth club where you don’t know, or want to know, anyone else there. I understand that problems like terminal or embarrassing conditions might be harder to talk about with strangers, or even friends, but personally, I find my lack of ability to eat Mars bars when I want a source of pathetic jokes, aimed at myself, rather than something to be hidden: ‘Hey you got that question wrong,’ I’d say, pointing out the inadequacies of another human being, ‘that idea doesn’t work here’. ‘You know what else doesn’t work?’ my friend would quip, ‘Your pancreas!’ There would then be universal high-fives and gasped laughter from around the room like they’d beaten me in an Eminem-style 90’s rap battle. Ultimately, the only difference between your friends and your enemies is that while the latter will laugh at the stuff you consciously choose to do, your mates will light-heartedly take the piss of the inherent bits of you that you can’t change – why not give them a bit more ammo and talk about your Diabetes? Hell, you could even turn it on yourself and say someone’s logic is as flawed as your pancreas, as I have done many a time.

Like all long-term factors of life, from romantic relationships to Football Manager addictions, Diabetes has its ups and downs; I feel that medical problems in general get a bad press, and are all seen as social taboos that we can’t discuss openly in public, for fear of offending either a real sufferer of the disease, or just because its ‘politically incorrect’ in some vague sense. Diabetes is by no means representative of all medical conditions, in that some are much more dangerous and traumatic for those that have them, but my pancreas’ early retirement is easily manageable, and has taught me a lot of things – I attribute getting diagnosed and spending a week in hospital alone with nothing but medical books and an old PS1 to my current love of reading, and Crash Bandicoot games. Saying there are jokes to be had at my expense is an idea that isn’t applicable to everyone with a long-term illness, or even every Diabetic, but just remember that not all Diabetics wanna be given apples in place of birthday cake, because you didn’t even ask us first so as not to offend us.

And hey, even if you think this article is unnecessary because Diabetes-discrimination is hardly a widespread problem in society, just remember that it’s not as pointless as my pancreas.

Links:

Diabetes UK (for the factual bits)

Team Novo Nordisk (for being badasses)

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (if you like walking. A lot.)

McVities Chocolate Hobnobs (OH MY GOD THEY COME IN RESEALABLE TUBES)

Charlie Brooker on Britannia High (seriously, check out all his series: Screenwipe, Newswipe, Gameswipe and Weekly Wipe)

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