Nobody thought for even a second that Crystal Bowersox’s second-place finish on “American Idol 2010” meant that the 26-year-old was headed back to her native Elliston, Ohio, to resume a quiet life.
Instead, she moved 2,000 miles west to a new home in Los Angeles and quickly began a hectic round of recording studio sessions and public appearances. Today, along with her always frantic schedule, Crystal has to manage motherhood and type 1 diabetes. The result is a life without many pauses.
Recently, Crystal was kind enough to slow down and answer some questions from Diabetes Health publisher and editor-in-chief Nadia Al-Samarrie. In her wide-ranging responses to Nadia, Crystal tells why she kept her diabetes a secret from “American Idol” producers, talks about what it was like growing up, and names her biggest musical influences. She also reveals that acting was once her first love, and she describes how her father’s fierce dedication helped her as a young girl and teen in her struggle against diabetes.
Now working with blues legend B.B. King on “LifeFirstTM,” a diabetes awareness campaign sponsored by OneTouch®, Crystal relates some profound lessons she’s learned along the way.
(Crystal’s official website is www.crystalbowersox.com.)
Nadia: Looking back, when did you first sense that something was wrong?
Crystal : My parents divorced when I was two, and I lived with my mom. I was a small kid and weighed about 48 pounds in second grade. That was a toddler’s weight, really, and it was actually my second-grade teacher who noticed that I was taking too many bathroom and water breaks. She punished me by taking away my recess, so I went home and cried to my mom. The thought came up it might be a medical thing, and, you know, it was. They checked my A1c, and it was out of this world. I was hospitalized for a week or so.
Diabetes was something my mom didn’t recognize. She needed help recognizing that it was an issue. Since this was the early nineties, there wasn’t a lot of diabetes education available. So my mom, dad, brothers-the whole family-were coming with me to the hospital and learning a new way of life from the diabetes educator there.
Nadia: What was it like for you as a teen with diabetes?
Crystal : In my teen years, I was often sick. That had to do with the fact that I didn’t really grasp the importance of diabetes management. And, oh yeah, like many teenagers, I could be horrible. I didn’t have a stable home life, and that affected my blood sugar. It’s possible that it was also the other way around, and that my blood sugar affected my behavior. Anyway, it was a struggle growing up with diabetes, but I also know it would have been a struggle even if I’d grown up without it. Teenage years? Come on! With teenagers everything seems so much bigger then it ever really was when you look back.
Nadia: Your father played a big role in your life as a person with diabetes. What was it?
Crystal : Diabetes is expensive, but, thankfully, my father worked in a factory and had been there a long time. So we had good coverage through him. I was really lucky for that, but it was tough for him because it put a lot of pressure on him to maintain the coverage. I definitely admire my dad for that, because I know he didn’t want to work at a factory his entire life. But he did because he knew that’s what we needed him to do. He was always there to make sure we had what we needed.
Sometimes when I had issues, I wouldn’t come to him because I didn’t want him to know that I was struggling. I’ve told stories about how I sometimes used to beg for insulin, but I didn’t want to make that call to him, “Daddy, Daddy, bail me out!” I had my reasons, although my dad had definitely always been there to make sure we got things, Now we’re all grown up and taking care of ourselves [Crystal has a fraternal twin brother, Carl], and I’m doing well. He’s retired now, living in Ohio and riding his Harley all day, but I see him often.
Nadia: How did you start down your musical path? Who has influenced you along the way?
Crystal : I started piano lessons right around the time I was diagnosed. So from six to nine years old I was doing piano, then at about nine or 10 I realized that a guitar is much easier to carry and move around. I found a guitar in my closet and started picking out notes, and from there it just grew into this thing I realized I wanted to do.
My first great inspiration was Jewel and her album “Pieces of You.” She played the guitar and sang in this kind of gritty folk style, and I soon learned how to play every song on that album. From there, other people who influenced me were Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, and Bonnie Raitt. In country, it was Willy Nelson and Patsy Cline.
Acting was actually my original passion. I first wanted to act in elementary school, and all through junior high and into high school I was in the theater and plays. But in high school I had a bad experience with a drama teacher, and that was it for me-I stopped. I just stopped, but kept pursuing music. I think that people who deal with troubled teens a lot should remember to approach everything with positivity, no matter how much of a jerk a kid may be. There were some things that were said that kind of stopped me in my tracks and affected me for life. So, I quit acting but stuck with music. But you know what? It worked out for me.
Nadia: A musician’s life is hard, and there’s always the temptation to find a quick way to relax. Were you ever tempted by drugs or alcohol?
Crystal : Drugs and alcohol definitely aren’t a factor in my life, and I am very lucky that way. I’ve known people with alcoholism, and it’s a scary thing. I certainly was around the drug culture because I grew up playing gigs in a bar scene, but it never effected me. It never seemed productive, just counterproductive to what I wanted to do, especially with diabetes, so I steered clear of those things. I can’t advocate alcohol, marijuana, or any drug usage to help with diabetic issues. I’m an adult woman, and I occasionally have a glass of wine with friends and such, but I do everything in moderation. That goes for food and absolutely anything in life: everything in moderation.
Nadia: People were surprised when you became ill on “American Idol.” What happened? Did the show’s officials drop the ball?
Crystal : Through elementary school to high school, I was told I had to go to the nurse’s offices for all my shots and blood sugars tests because they didn’t want me doing it around the other kids. I never questioned this. I just thought it was something I should hide, which is probably the reason I hid it from the “American Idol” producers.
What happened with “American Idol” was that the schedules were crazy, and my lifestyle was just crazy. I really was kind of embarrassed, and I didn’t want to reach for help. I didn’t want anyone to know I was diabetic. I didn’t want that special attention, I wanted to be on an equal playing field with everyone else there. I didn’t check my sugars enough-I just let it go, and it almost cost me everything. My priorities weren’t set straight. I had made music the priority when my health should have come first. Otherwise, how would I be able to do anything? So, when I had a whole day of dizziness and craziness from going here and there, I realized that I hadn’t checked my sugar at all. I’d just let it go.
Away from home, I’d learned to go into a bathroom behind closed doors to take shots. I never thought about being outspoken about diabetes until I got stuck in a public way and had people asking about my medical history and wondering when I went to the hospital on “Idol,” “Oh, my gosh, is she pregnant?” It was just ridiculous. People said I was rushed to the hospital, but I wasn’t rushed. I walked in and did what I had to do to get better. It was a decision to be real about diabetes and the struggles that come with it.
It was also to let people know that they’re not alone and they don’t have to live that way. If you are checking your blood sugar, and eating healthy, and exercising, you can live life on your terms-nothing can get in your way-diabetes won’t get in your way. If you control your diabetes, it can’t control you, and you can live your life to the fullest. That’s the bottom line to the message I’m trying to send people. And if you’re not doing it for yourself, do it for your children, for your family.
Nadia: How important is a support group or community to you?
Crystal: It’s nice to have a community because it gives you the comfort of knowing you are not alone, that you’re not the only person experiencing these kinds of troubles.
Growing up was hard for me because I lived in a rural area, and there was no way to know who or if anyone had type 1 diabetes like me. I thought I was the only kid in my school, although I think toward my senior year there were a few others. If you can’t find support from family or friends, there’s other places to look, like online. There’s a lot of amazing diabetic communities in the Internet world. A good place to go is the OneTouch Facebook page (www.facebook.com/OneTouch) because there is a social network inside of it where you can find out other people’s stories.
One thing I failed to understand on “American Idol” was the importance of having a community of people around you who care about you and know you have diabetes and what that means. You should really educate the people around you so they can be there for you. I realize now my husband is amazing with this. He’s constantly on me, “Check your sugar, honey, check your sugar!” and I love it. I just wish there was a way for all people living with diabetes to have that same level of support from the people around them. There is nothing like friends and family to encourage you to eat healthy and exercise. Still, I have no idea what it’s like to be on my husband’s side of it, like living with a diabetic.
Nadia: What are you using now to monitor your insulin and blood sugar?
Crystal : Currently, I’m on a Medtronic pump. I started pump therapy in my junior or senior year of high school, around 2003, and it helped tremendously. It allowed me to have freedom in my routine and schedules. I was a young working musician at the time, and I had a crazy, hectic schedule-as it still is. I also use a CGM, which doesn’t mean I check my blood sugar any less. It’s definitely nice, but it’s not always as accurate as it could be. Still, checking your blood sugar is really the best information you can get. I’ve used OneTouch since it was the giant square machine, what we called “the blood sugar brick.” I’ve been using it for so long that it was a natural fit when they asked me to come on board with the “LifeFirstTM,” campaign.
Nadia: That’s what you’re up to now?
Crystal: Yes. The philosophy of the campaign is that with diabetes you don’t have to live a life of limitation. Having diabetes is not like it used to be. If you eat healthy and check your blood sugar, you can live your life first. It took me a while to get there, though, When I got sick during “American Idol,” it really drove that home to me.
Nadia: After all that has happened to you-being diagnosed with type 1, living with it all these years, your success since “American Idol”-any insights about living with diabetes?
Crystal : I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Tony. He is really the reason all of this happened. Before I had him, I was pursuing music, but my bar was much lower. Becoming a mom was really the thing that made me take it all seriously.
Looking back on my life, the thing I’m most proud of is my son. Going through pregnancy with diabetes was combining two things that didn’t mix well together. When I was younger, my mother pushed that idea down my throat, and I had a doctor tell me that I should never even think about procreating, which was really sad because I wanted to find the right person one day and have a baby. My son was a surprise and I just faced it head on. He saved my life. Every day with him is my personal proudest moment.
I’ve had type 1 for almost 20 years now, and it’s something that just in the last year has really sunk into me. I have a choice on whether I want to live a long, healthy life or if I want to live a short, unhealthy, unhappy life. As a mom, I really have a responsibility for my son, and not just because I’m now in the public eye. But now that I am, why shouldn’t I bring light to it?
One thing I’m trying to get across is that I’m not perfect. You strive to control diabetes, but you can’t beat yourself up when you have a high or a low because that just perpetuates the cycle of negativity. You always have to strive for good numbers, but not beat yourself up if you make a mistake. It’s really about finding a balance between those two things. It’s all about positive and cognitive decisions.
It’s amazing how I always looked at diabetes as the burden or curse on my life. Yet it has been one of the greatest blessings ever-it has made me so much stronger as an individual and able to work with amazing people like B.B. King and everyone at OneTouch. So it has given me some of my best moments, as well. One of them was when I flew my dad in to watch a shoot. He was crying, he was so proud. I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities in my life, and it’s because I learned to manage my diabetes.