Two years ago, I was a different woman. I was just beginning to come out of my diabetes shell, assessing my confidence with strangers by testing in public and telling friends about my disease. I can still feel the panic rising in my throat as I told people that I have diabetes and need to take injections multiple times per day. I was afraid of rejection, afraid that they would treat me like a sick person. But after eleven years of fighting for my life with type 1 diabetes, I was tired of being afraid. The more people I told, the easier it got.
It took some time to take the next step: crafting a tattoo. I spent about a month sketching designs that declared boldly, yet tastefully, that I have diabetes. I wanted the tattoo to represent all of the hardships, both mental and physical, that I have gone through with this disease. I wanted it to portray the sleepless nights of basal adjustments, the victorious days of A1C breakthroughs, the haunting knowledge that my sight is going, the anxiety-filled days of watching my medicine dwindle long before my insurance will cover a refill, and the joyous two-hour postprandial readings of 103. I wanted this tattoo to drag me from my diabetes hideout.
My tattoo consists of a one-inch by two-inch medic alert symbol with the words “USE ONCE & DESTROY: INSULIN ONLY: TYPE 1 DIABETES” (much like the declaration on syringes), followed by my diagnosis date. I chose those words because they describe how I believe the medical industry sees us: as expendable. With no cure in sight, we constantly come up against outrageous insurance premiums or flat-out denials and medication band-aid after band-aid. Every ten years, we are asked to wait another ten. Getting this message inked onto my arm reminds me that I am vulnerable, but it gives me the motivation to keep fighting until I can be cured.
The design is placed on my left forearm, where it can be seen by EMTs should I be alone when an insulin shock takes hold. Because I am right-handed, however, it is not noticeable when I shake hands in formal office situations.
In January 2010, I liberated my diabetes self and took the plunge. I remember that day clearly. I wasn’t nervous about being under the needle because I had three tattoos already. I was nervous about the fact that, after keeping quiet for ten years, I would no longer be able to hide my diabetes. I remember pacing while waiting for the tattoo artist to clean his instruments, wondering if I would be comfortable wearing this brand on my body for the rest of my life.
What I concluded was this: While diabetes doesn’t define me as a human being, it is an enormous part of who I am. I am Katherine: an author, a singer, a violinist. Being “Katherine With Diabetes” doesn’t mean that I am weak. In fact, it’s the opposite. I am the bravest person that I know. I have survived over ten insulin shock comas, three pump failures that led to ketoacidosis, layer upon layer of scar tissue, thousands of dollars in medical supply debt, and eight insulin brands that led to sleepless nights of medication adjustment. Diabetes helped bring out that strength and fight in me. When I realized that, it was easy to sit down for 45 minutes to have my badge of courage, my medal of honor, inked onto my skin.
I got my tattoo hoping that it would force me out of diabetic hiding. Two years later, I’ve published a personal poetry collection on living with a chronic illness, released a fictional love story with a diabetic narrator, and written several articles about my experience with type 1 diabetes. I am definitely out of hiding, and I boldly declare that I’m a diabetes survivor. Having this emblem on my arm gives me courage. It reminds me that I am strong, that I’ve been through a lot, and that I can keep going. As my mantra, a quote from Winston Churchill, says: “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.”