All of us, of course, engage at times in "magical thinking." The widely held suburban conviction that lawns, if ignored long enough, magically will restore themselves to their ideal state is an example. But while tall grass probably never killed anyone, magical thinking becomes scary when people use it as their way of dealing--or not dealing--with disease. The power of positive thinking notwithstanding, few diseases have been cured through efforts to wish them away.
Juvenile diabetes, a peculiarly diabolical disease that strikes an estimated 15,000 children and adolescents each year, almost seems to invite experimentation with "magical thinking." While newly diagnosed diabetics are assured they can lead a "normal" life, even children soon realize that a lifetime regime of carefully timed and balanced meals, frequent blood and urine tests for sugar, and twice-daily injections of insulin is not exactly normal. Little surprise, then, that at some point most diabetics rebel.
Lawrence M. Pray, author of "Journey of a Diabetic," was 7 years old when he was diagnosed a diabetic. But it was not until adolescence--the age of testing and experimentation for most teens--that he embarked on an eight-year effort to escape diabetes through denial and magical thinking. Before this experiment "ended on my twentieth birthday," writes Pray, "it would test the full extent of my emotional and physical limits."
The first part of this remarkable book is a highly readable chronicle of Pray's adolescent odyssey, and his later effort to understand his experiences and learn from them. Like countless diabetic rebels, he tested the limits by ignoring diabetes, not taking his shots, and eating rashly. The result, with a disease that quickly calls to account those who ignore it, was inevitable. "As I look back, it is amazing I didn't come to the logical conclusion that ignoring diabetes wouldn't work," Pray writes. "Magical thinking, however, isn't a matter of logic."
Pray's "epic struggle" is far from unique. My teen-age daughter, in her fourth summer as a diabetic, is completing the third year of her adventure with magical thinking. Her refusal to take insulin shots frightens and baffles. Can she remember, one wonders, what it is like to feel healthy? Intellectually, she understands perfectly the disease and the implications of its non-care. Emotionally, diabetes remains after five hospitalizations an abstraction--an unfortunate affliction suffered by others. Like Pray, she remains trapped between a compliance he "couldn't buy and a denial that wouldn't work." On her infrequent visits to her doctor, the dialogue is identical to that of the adolescent Pray.
"How's everything going?" the doctor would ask Pray.
"Fine," he would answer, "just fine."
Of course, it was not. But it wasn't until magical thinking took Pray "to the brink of death" that he abandoned this course, and his "road to acceptance entered a new stage." In his early twenties, Pray substituted force of will--a determination to take total control of his life--for magical thinking. "A strong person could control diabetes, and a weak person let diabetes control him," Pray reasoned.
Pray ultimately found his efforts to be the ideal diabetic as frustrating as pretending not to be a diabetic at all. "Perfection is usually short-lived," he observes now in retrospect. "Diabetes lasts a lifetime." Not until the age of 31, however, did Pray manage come to terms with this disease. It was the realization that "it needn't be separated from the rest of my life, and that accepting diabetes wasn't giving in to a weakness," that helped Pray turn diabetes from an enemy into a teacher. "Diabetes, which had for so long been a matter of success or failure, simply became a gently accepted fact," he writes. "Most important of all, I could talk about my diabetes as though it actually belonged to me."
This fine memoir is unique among the more than 200 books that have been written on this subject. Many guides to life as a diabetic offer an idealized fable of life that rightfully is found suspect by those who know the reality of coexisting with this disease. The few earlier books that have dealt with the dark side of diabetes have been all bitterness and grim foreboding. Now comes a sensitive, witty book that deals with the phenomenon of magical thinking, and suggests there is light at the end of this lonely tunnel.
The year's other new autobiography of a diabetic, "No Time to Lose" by Gary Kleiman, regrettably advances understanding of the diabetic's struggle not at all.
For all the havoc diabetes has wreaked on Kleiman's 28-year-old body, the disease seems less his problem in this book than an incurable case of the cutes. Kleiman's flip collection of smart-alecky, expletive-laden one-liners has the pace of--and is about as relevant as--a Las Vegas nightclub monologue.
Pray's book stands out in particularly sharp contrast. Whether it will help any diabetic break through to the light Pray ultimately found remains to be seen. But I am encouraged to find juice stains and a broken binding on a copy left lying around the house.