By: Curtis Harling
I hear voices in my surroundings as the cloud of confusion gradually begins to lift. “Curtis, can you hear me?” “Curtis, what was the score of the football game?” “Curtis, do you know where you are?”
I see the familiar white-collared short sleeves with darkened crests, the short hair, and the bushy mustaches as the outlines of paramedics’ faces become clearer. I look up from where I am half-lying, half-sitting against the avocado-colored couch surrounded by video game equipment. The television screen stares blankly back at me, offering no clues as to what just happened.
My first hypoglycemic reaction occurred when I was 14. It was not long after I had been diagnosed with type 1 in the fall of October 1994. I remember that it was the same weekend that I finally convinced my parents to let me rent the latest and greatest video game console. I don’t know whether or not my hypoglycemia was the result of my inattentiveness due to sensory overload or just my poor judgement about my new low blood sugar symptoms. My poor parents found me that dreadful morning in October in a near diabetic coma, writhing away with my head banging on the carpet.
In the years that followed, my parents had to deal with the constant fear that their son might not wake up from sleeping or that they would not be around to help him when he had a severe low blood sugar. I can vividly remember staying over at a friend’s cabin and waking up in the middle of the night shaking so badly that I barely made it downstairs to polish off a carton of orange juice to try and prevent myself from blacking out. It was not until I awoke on the kitchen floor staring at my friend’s feet did I understand what had happened. It was around this time that I realized I did not ever want to feel like that again. I did not want to be so out of control that someone else would have to be responsible for me.
Ask anyone who has ever awakened completely unaware of where they were, surrounded by people. They will tell you it can be a very odd and even shameful feeling, one that they wish would quickly end. The incident at my friend’s cabin did have one unintended positive consequence-it washed away any doubt my friends had about the severity of my condition.
Having diabetes, especially as a teenager, is not very much fun. Along with the obvious societal and peer pressures, a teen has to juggle a meal plan, injections, exercise, and the constant mood swings that a change in blood glucose levels brings. What I used to forget, however, was that it was not just me who had to deal with the consequences of a severe low blood sugar reaction. I was not the one who had to hold me down, call the ambulance, or estimate when to rub honey in my gums or when to use the dreaded glucagon injection kit. These were all decisions my parents and other people around me had to make under a heavy amount of stress.
As I grew older and my diabetes stabilized, I realized the impact my diabetes had on those people, particularly my family. While my condition is treatable and does not even come close to the realm of other illnesses that many people suffer with when they are young, it was still a struggle in those early years for my mom and dad. I became more aware of this in the last few years as I matured and moved in with my partner. While we have gone over all the procedures and safeguards and supplies in the event that I do have a reaction, it was my exposure to a friend of hers who also has diabetes that shined even more light on my past experiences.
At 23, my partner’s friend still has no control over her diabetes. Living a dangerous lifestyle of late-night boozing and drugging and forgetting her insulin injections has resulted in numerous bouts of severe hypoglycemia. She has not acknowledged what this could do to her health and continues to rely on her mother to bear the brunt of the responsibility for her poor decisions. Every morning, her mother calls to make sure she has not blacked out due to her low blood sugars. More often than not, she has.
I recognize that it takes some of us a little longer to grow out of our adolescent stage, but as a person with diabetes, it is all the more urgent. Not only do the effects of continual alcohol and drug abuse worsen as we get older, but for a person with diabetes, these behaviors can have very serious implications. Our immune systems are already weakened by our condition, so all the consequences of drug abuse-liver damage, heart problems, eye problems, circulation issues, and high cholesterol-are heightened to the nth degree. The effect that this can have on families and loved ones can be even worse.
As a type 1 for the past 14 years, I have had my share of ups and downs with the disease. I am still learning new things about my condition and trying to manage it the best I can in the face of life’s daily obstacles. Pretty soon I will be starting my own family, and I might have to raise a child with diabetes the same way my parents did. Realizing that I was ultimately responsible for my own actions was probably one of the biggest lessons I received from my parents. What I tell my own kids will be no different, especially if it’s about diabetes management. When managed properly, there’s no reason why people with diabetes can’t live a perfectly normal life like everyone else.