“But, you don’t look sick?” “Whoa! Did you just stab yourself with a needle?!” “Is that a pager on your waist?” “I had to get my finger pricked once. It hurt SO MUCH.” Comments like these hurt more than the finger prick I give myself 6-8 times a day. Having a chronic illness, in my case, Type 1 diabetes, is difficult in more ways than most people realize. Because there are no outward signs, unless you happen to catch me in the middle of an injection or see my insulin pump on my waistband, most people do not think it is that big of a deal. They don’t understand when you say your diabetes is the reason you didn’t make it to class that day. You get puzzling looks when you blame diabetes on your three hours of sleep. Professors sometimes look at you in confusion when you hand them your disabilities letter of accommodation at the beginning of the semester. Diabetes is silent to the outside world, but screaming every day in the mind of a diabetic. It is the thing that keeps them up at night, that determines every action they take, that causes them to pause and reconsider before the indulging in the spontaneity of a moment.
I am a type 1 diabetic. Diagnosed 5 1/2 years ago, at the age of 16, I am still learning and navigating my way around this invisible illness. I have honed my skills in finger pricking, shot distributing, and carb counting. I have developed a tolerance for blood work and a patience for long waits at doctors’ offices. I have learned more about my body and have become more in tune with it than ever before. More importantly, though, I have learned how to be a voice, a support for others, and the best version of myself that I could possibly be. Diabetes may have given me scars on my fingers, sleepless nights spent tending to low blood sugars, headaches, blood tests, and more stress than one should ever endure, but it has also given me so much more. It has given me a voice. It has given me the drive to educate, to encourage, and to empower other diabetics and non-diabetics alike. It has forced me outside of my comfort zones and into a world in which I never thought I would have experienced.
Prior to my diagnosis, I was content with the idea of attending college in my hometown, being fifteen minutes away from the comfort of home and a good meal, able to be on my own but still close enough to home. My diagnosis was a humbling and terrifying experience. Once a fiercely independent and confident teen, I suddenly found myself afraid to go too far from my parents, the ones who knew what to do if my blood sugars went awry. I could not remember the last time I felt so dependent on someone else, so afraid to live my life. It was during this time, as I sat in my dance studio, attempting to explain to those around me what my new normal consisted of, that I realized I needed to regain my independence. I recognized that I could sit back, let my diagnosis limit me from living a life I loved, or I could move on. I could take this disease, this silent and invisible cross I now had to bear, and use it as a tool. I could take my illness and turn it into my platform, develop my voice using the one thing I feared would hold me back forever. So I did.
I chose a college that I fell in love with, two and half hours and one state line away from home. Beginning on day one of freshman year, I educated. I talked about diabetes. I normalized it. I explained to my roommates what a high and low blood sugar was. I showed my RA where I kept my juice boxes. I let my friends watch me as I changed my pump sites. I taught them how to prick fingers and calculate carbs. It wasn’t to make my life easier. I was not trying to train a group of people on how to care for me. Rather, I wanted to make diabetes as normal as could be. I wanted to give my invisible illness a face and a name and a group of people in University Heights, Ohio that understood what it was.
I couldn’t just stop with my friends, though. I recognized that people in general don’t talk about their diabetes. I found an amazing online community and learned that many colleges have organizations for students with diabetes. When I realized my school did not have such an organization, I started one. I recruited diabetics and non-diabetics alike through emails, through conversation, and through happenstance. We were small, fifteen people at the beginning, but we met. We shared our struggles and stresses. We explained our invisible illness to those who wanted to learn. What started as one young woman feeling alone in her battle quickly grew as she did something so simple; talked about it. Before I knew it, at the beginning of my junior year of college, I found myself in the atrium of our student center, passing out facts about diabetes attached to lollipops, as people made those harsh comments that come with the ignorance about the subject, “lollipops?! Diabetics can’t eat candy!” I felt myself glowing with pride on the inside as I explained that was exactly the point of the movement; to prove that diabetics can indeed eat candy, and anything else they want, as long as they take insulin, and this is just one of the many stigmas that surround diabetes.
If I could go back in time to January 4th, 2011, I would. I would waltz into that Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh emergency department exam room, where a scared and confused sixteen-year-old lays on a hospital gurney, with an IV in her arm and a feeling of her everything crashing down around her in her heart. I would dry her tears, hold her mother’s hand, pat her father on the back, and say, “this is a blessing. This will not break you. This will only lead you to the person you are meant to be. Just wait.” I would assure her that she will be okay. She will be great. She’ll learn so much and grow as a person. She will take on this battle with courage and grace. She will become a voice for those who are too afraid to speak of their disability. She will become an educator, an advocate, a symbol of strength and perseverance. She will break down barriers, disband myths, and combat ignorance with facts. She will use this diagnosis as her catalyst. She will have diabetes, but diabetes will not have her. She will be okay. And she is.