“We knew it!”
My adventure buddies seemed delighted when I confirmed their suspicions of hypoglycemia — as if the speed at which I was devouring cheesecake (for breakfast, no less) wasn’t a big enough giveaway.
Alex and Fran weren’t amazed at the cheesecake itself, oh no — I did my part to educate them about diabetes and they know I can eat and drink “whatever I want” “within reason.” They DO know better. These two particular partners-in-camping got a crash course in Type 1 diabetes when they met me, an American backpacker spending a year in New Zealand. I’m pretty sure they never met anyone like me before, so it was just another quirky aspect of my personality that they had to accept, along with my tendencies to constantly reapply sandfly repellent and over-annunciate words like “AWWEsome” and “YEEah.”
If either of them had called me out on having low blood sugar a few years ago, I would have immediately crawled under the picnic table and gladly have stayed there for the rest of eternity, because, even though algebra was not my favorite subject in the world, I could still do the math for their thought process: Katie has low blood sugar = She is not well = She has no control over her body = She is doing a terrible job at managing a chronic disease = She must be an incapable and irresponsible human.
Fast-forward to a warm October morning at a campsite overlooking Golden Bay on the South Island, though, and there I was, smiling and laughing and trying not to lose too much cheesecake as I shoveled it into my mouth. Did my friends shake their heads and accuse me of being irresponsible? No. They just asked me if I was okay and waited with me until my blood sugar returned to normal so we could proceed with that day’s adventures.
The more I’ve traveled, the more diabetes has become something I share with strangers. When I was first diagnosed as a pre-teen and for many of the 10+ years since, I would rather talk a new friend’s ear off about anything else in the world than mention that I had diabetes because I was afraid it would make me less of the person I wanted to be.
How I still imagine (fear) people will react when I tell them I have diabetes:
- “Oh, you can’t EVER have ‘sugar’ or drink Mountain Dew or eat jelly donuts, what a shame!”
- “Oh, you must not work as hard as someone who doesn’t have diabetes because you have to stop and eat and check your blood sugar every 5 minutes.”
- “If you DON’T stop and eat and check your blood sugar every 5 minutes, you must be irresponsible and noncompliant.”
- And the worst one: “I feel bad for you.”
As many of you know, these fears aren’t so far-fetched. But hiding diabetes from people with whom I was spending a lot of time in the wilderness wasn’t a great idea, so I talked to Alex and Fran about diabetes a lot. And because my friends are awesome and like to tackle the same adventures I do, diabetes didn’t make me inadequate or subpar while I was exploring beautiful New Zealand.
When I told my companions to keep going without me while I juiced up during a hike, they happily stayed behind. Fran teased me about my accent and Alex criticized my wardrobe choices. My friends realized the best thing they could do to help me in that situation involved using gentle humor as a distraction, instead of letting me wallow alone in my frustration with diabetes. I wanted to kill them for making fun of me at the time, but now I’m laughing at that memory as I treat another annoying low blood sugar while sitting on a comfy living-room couch, back here in America, instead of on a mossy boulder in the gorgeous Kiwi backcountry. How lucky I am!
It turns out that my friends still want to climb mountains and ski down them and go stargazing and camping and walking through sandstorms and swimming in freezing cold water with me because that stuff is FUN, and we’ll do it all despite any inconveniences diabetes throws in the way.
Read Emily Wilson’s “Everlasting” for Diabetes in New Zealand.