I still remember that stupid orange.
I was 8 and in an intensive care unit.
The nurse told me to practice sticking a syringe into the fruit. The orange was supposed to simulate my stomach. The syringe would give me the insulin I needed to live.
She didn’t mention the scars from sticking the same spot or the little dots of blood from hitting a vein with the syringe.
Over and over again, at least three times a day, for the next 18 years.
I am 26 now, and recently, my new endocrinologist asked me to tell her my story of being a diabetic.
Like a needle, certain parts stick out the most: The dangerously high 954 blood sugar reading (Hint: It wasn’t a stomach virus after all, the “just drink Gatorade” suggestion from a physician a few days before only raised my blood sugar) that brought me to the ICU late one night by ambulance. The tubes of blood that ran down my neck in an attempt to lower my sugar. The eventual diagnosis: type 1 diabetes.
In 2015, approximately 1.25 million American children and adults had type 1 diabetes, and every year, about 40,000 people will be newly diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Diabetes Association. Also, despite being known as juvenile diabetes, more adults have type 1 diabetes than do children.
Having type 1 diabetes means my body cannot produce insulin, which all humans need to survive. My pancreas — the organ that generates insulin — is basically a cellphone without a charge. It’s physically there, but I can’t use it.
The cause of my diabetes is still unknown. Was it my environment? Heredity? I don’t know, and I won’t speculate.
Before being discharged at the end of two weeks in ICU, I kept hearing I could eat everything “in moderation.” I asked the doctors when I could cheat and eat unhealthy but didn’t get a definite answer.
I thought being a diabetic would mean a regular diet, not a permanent lifestyle change, so I didn’t think much of the diagnosis at the time.
I wanted to get back to second grade as quickly as possible. My mom was a substitute teacher at my elementary school, so older students knew me. I was popular.
I remember one get-well-soon card from a classmate telling me not to rush back, but I wanted to return to my life as an 8-year-old.
But I couldn’t be the carefree child I thought I would continue to be after leaving the hospital. You grow up quickly when you are told of the complications of diabetes.
My mom and doctors warned me that a high blood sugar average, called an A1C, could lead to other complications, such as amputation of a leg or losing an eye.
At first, my parents did most of the injections and the finger pricking to test my blood sugar. But at school, I had to do them myself. School nurses and teachers saw the gold bracelet on my wrist, medical information on the back in case of emergencies, and gave me time to inject myself away from the other children.
I learned the signs of high and low blood sugar. Being thirsty and needing to urinate signaled high blood sugar. With low blood sugar, I shook subtly.
I was quickly introduced to Diet Coke. Sugar-free syrup on pancakes. Even sugar-free medicine when I got sick.
Trick-or-treating meant clearing out last year’s uneaten candy when reaching for my bucket; I could never eat it all.
I couldn’t pig out on junk food at sleepovers or on overnight field trips. Getting those activities approved by my parents was difficult enough. They were concerned about having the insulin refrigerated; I needed to carry a lunch box with my insulin on ice.
The choice to do these activities, even if I didn’t want to, was never there because of my diabetes.
I learned early on that no two carbohydrates are alike. The 21-carb Krispy Kreme doughnut needed more insulin than the 21 carbs of trail mix. The doughnut glaze always spiked my blood sugar. No dietary book or nutritionist pointed out that footnote.
Sometimes I overcorrected when injecting insulin, such as when eating fried foods. I would think, “surely those onion rings will push my blood sugar into the 300s (my target blood sugar number is 120),” but sometimes it would not.
Then, because of low blood sugar, I would be left scrambling for the first high-carb item I could find — usually ice cream or a Coke.
If I sneaked a piece of candy or didn’t test my blood sugar, there were consequences from a raised blood sugar. Not doing the right thing as a diabetic, even at 8, was more than just disobeying my parents, it hurt me in the process.
Initially, I liked the attention from being a diabetic. After a while, I didn’t want it — people commented on things I ate or asked, “Can you eat that with your sugar?”
As an adult, I don’t hide my diabetes, but when I don’t need to, I don’t mention it. I can work long hours, travel across the country (33 states and counting) and eat anything, in moderation.
I can have the blood sugar-spiking slice of pizza, apprehensions aside, but I’ll hit the gym after.
A red-eye flight? I’ve got to make sure I have enough insulin to cover me through the night.
It’s hard at times, but I am fortunate.
I can afford health care, many others cannot, especially with rising insulin costs. Other chronic illnesses are not as simple as injecting insulin either.
Diabetes remains a moving target, at least socially, despite the advancements in technology.
My continuous glucose monitor looks like a smoker’s patch on my arm, but it automatically reads my blood sugar. So no more finger pricks in front of people.
But what about that first date? Do I tell her I have diabetes? And, what about any children I would have? Will they genetically get type 1 diabetes?
The odds of my future child getting type 1 diabetes is 1 in 17. If that happens, by then I think I’ll be an expert at managing a child’s chronic illness.
I can dwell on the difficulties of being a diabetic, but I choose not to. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Today, if life gave me an orange, I’d use it as a zest or garnish.
Or, if I’m feeling adventurous, make orange chicken.