Talk of the Quad: Pushing my buttons
My sophomore year, I went to a crowded party in a Harpswell apartment. Squished in the sweaty room, I was standing next to a couch. The insulin pump clipped at my waist was exactly at the eye level of the boy sitting there. He, probably confused that some girl was wearing a pager to a party in 2014, reached up and started pushing the buttons. Not wanting to cause a scene, I asked him to please stop and turned back to my friends. A few minutes later, he started again. I freaked out. He was drunk, I was drunk, and he was quite literally pushing my buttons.
That night I went home crying. I have no wish to shame that person or to make him feel bad. I honestly don’t know who he is, and it really doesn’t matter. He had no way of knowing that I am a type one diabetic or that the buttons he was pushing could send insulin into my body. He was unaware that what he thought was a pager or a weird cell phone was actually the machine that allows me to live.
I wasn’t really upset about the medical repercussions his actions could have had. Rather, I hated that he had called attention to my disease in the middle of a typical Friday night, and I was shocked by just how vulnerable that made me feel.
Since my diagnosis with type one diabetes ten years before, I had convinced myself that it was no big deal. My first year and a half at Bowdoin was no different. If prompted I would happily explain my routine to anyone that asked. I never hid my pump or my disease. I thought that meant I had accepted it.
Any time I have explained diabetes, I have invariably used the same line: “I’m so used to it. I don’t even think about it.”
Half of that statement is true. Yes, I am used to it. But I am constantly thinking about it—I have to be. In truth, what I mean to say is, “I’m so used to it. I don’t want you to think about it.”
Every day, I prick my finger to test my blood sugar six to eight times, a test that I fail more often than I’d care to admit. Every time I eat, I take insulin, and every few days, I have to move the port that connects my insulin pump to my body. My fingers are covered in calluses and wearing an insulin pump for ten years has left little scars and little red marks all over my thighs.
I’ve had diabetes for over half of my life now, and as the clichéd posters hanging in my doctor’s office promised, it really hasn’t held me back. But sometimes it does slow me down. Some days, no matter how closely I watch my blood sugar and take insulin, my blood sugar won’t stay where I want it to be. Sometimes, no matter how much effort I put in, I can’t get the desired result.
And then there are the little things. I worry that my professors will think I’m texting on my cell phone when I bring out my meter in the middle of class or that needles and blood will make the person sitting next to me squeamish.
And there are petty things. When I buy clothes, I have to think about where my pump will go—dresses are a particular challenge. I worry that having a machine attached to me, or even telling someone I have a disease, makes me less attractive.
I tell myself that these things are trivial, that it could be so much worse. And I am grateful; I am so lucky to have the support system and resources that I do. But by calling this “no big deal” and brushing my worries off for so long, I’ve unknowingly come to resent diabetes, something I’ve always prided myself on avoiding.
I was so embarrassed that night sophomore year. I hated that something so small could make me the girl sobbing outside the party. I didn’t want to admit that my disease had that power over me. I thought I had accepted diabetes as part of my life, but really, I had never let myself feel anything about it.
I write this now because November is Diabetes Awareness Month, so it seems like an appropriate time. I could list statistics about how many Americans, or even how many people on this campus, are affected by diabetes. Part of me would love to give a lecture on how type one and type two diabetes are so incredibly different or how saying your sugary dessert is going to give you diabetes just isn’t funny.
But I share this experience instead because how I deal with the medical side of diabetes hasn’t changed much in my time at Bowdoin, but my emotional relationship with my disease has changed entirely.
Before Bowdoin, I went to a small school for seven years. I lived with my family, who were intimately aware of my disease. I spent a lot of time trying to convince them not to worry about me, and somewhere along the line, I stopped telling my parents when my blood sugars were off or when I was having a hard time juggling diabetes, track practice, classes and teen angst. It seemed to hurt them more than it hurt me, so I kept it to myself.
For most people, college is a fresh start. For me, that meant that almost no one knew about my diabetes. I could decide who to tell and how I wanted to tell them. I was a little surprised by how few people seemed to notice, and in a way, I was proud of myself for that. I told people it was no big deal, and they believed me. I just wasn’t doing such a great job of convincing myself. At home, I knew that even if I didn’t say anything, there were people that worried about me, that knew how hard I was working just to maintain normalcy. I didn’t realize how important that was to me until I successfully convinced everyone around me that my diabetes wasn’t worth a second thought.
In my determination to maintain a casual attitude, I never used to let anyone know when I got angry or upset with my disease. I kept those emotions to myself until I literally couldn’t anymore. So now, I admit that it is a lot to handle, and it is a big deal. Being diabetic is hard, and sometimes it gets to me. But the biggest thing I’ve learned in the last three years is that’s ok.
Margaret Webster is a member of the Class of 2016