Thirty years ago today, I sat in a doctor's office waiting to hear the results of the blood tests I had had done weeks earlier. After a two-hour wait with my mother, I was more than a little cranky and only wanted to go home. The doctor spoke the words that would change my life forever:
"Now I know someone who was just diagnosed with diabetes, and she leads a perfectly normal life."
I was eleven years old at the time, but even then I knew that living with diabetes meant I was far from normal.
I was in the hospital for two weeks that July, while I learned the ins and outs of testing my urine for sugar and ketones (home blood testing was at least four years away then) and how to give myself insulin shots.
One afternoon, while I sat on my bed killing time until I could take a quick walk around the hospital's duck pond, a nurse came into my room, sat on the end of my bed, and told me in her faltering English that I would not live to an old age.
For years, when recounting the story, I gave that nurse the benefit of the doubt: I always told people that if her English had been better (or my French better), that she would have finished her sentence with words along the lines of "…if you don't look after yourself…"
But, she didn't and I spent the rest of the afternoon in a state of panic. I didn't tell my parents or the attending physicians about my fears. But for an 11 year old, 20 seemed like the epitome of old age…and so I spent my adolescence knowing that I was going to die some day…and some day soon. I never had that teenage I'm-going-to-live-forever-nothing-can-touch-me-I'm-invincible attitude that many of my peers had. I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, just how short my time on earth was.
And then in April of 1988, I turned 20. I spent months wondering just when the end was going to come. I never shared my fears with anyone, because I knew they would never understand that I was preparing for my death, just when I was supposed to be starting my life.
Five years later I turned 25. I have a journal from that time, and the entry for my birthday that year starts off like this: "Today I am 25. I never thought I would live this long."
At 28, I met the man who is now my husband. He was (well, is) three and a half years younger than I am, and I thought it unfair to plan a future with him, because by then I figured I was living on borrowed time and that 30 would be the year that I died. In the meantime, he wanted to get married and have children (something that I had been told while still a teenager would probably not be possible for me…oh, sure, I could try to get pregnant, but the odds of me delivering a healthy baby and living myself were not very good…apparently this is why we have a dog today-I told my then-boyfriend that I would probably never be able to have kids and so we should get a dog to compensate. I do not remember ever making this statement, but it is Brian's story too, and that's the line he's sticking with…).
In March of 1998, I started to freak out about the fact that I was turning 30. Many friends and family thought it was because of the year itself. What none of them knew, including the boyfriend who had by then become the fiancé, was that my fears about my demise began to consume my thoughts. I was in the middle of planning a wedding and felt like a fraud, because I was sure that, having been given the grace of an extra ten years, the ride was about to end, and how could I subject my soon to be new husband to that pain? I should just end it with him, let him off the hook easy…rather than make him have to plan a funeral.
By the time my 30th year was up and I was celebrating the fact that I was 31, I had decided to stop worrying about it. Pregnant with our first child, despite the doomsday predictions of 20 years earlier, I finally decided to stop fighting diabetes. For two decades I had tried to ignore it and punish my body for its betrayal of me. I drank my way through my 20's just like everyone else I knew. I smoked pot and cigarettes (briefly) and not only inhaled, revelled in the fact that I was doing something that would speed up the process of death. I took no notice of my blood sugar and ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.
And yet, despite all the abuse I heaped upon myself, my body somehow managed to survive me. It gave my husband and I four beautiful children. It has laughed and loved for over four decades and even though it does not look like some supermodel's body, it is a beautiful thing and I am still learning what it is capable of doing.
Diabetes is a serious disease. The list of complications that can arise from having it is as long as my arm. But diabetes is not a cross for me. It is not a death sentence. Rather, for me, especially in the last ten years, it has become an affirmation of life…my life. Because of diabetes, I have actually stopped while walking down the street to smell the roses; I have lifted my face to the sky, just to feel the mist upon it; I have gazed in awe at the setting sun and realized just how small I am in the vastness of this wonderful world I live in…diabetes has made me appreciate the simple things in life…
The disease that was supposed to be my enemy and shorten my life has allowed me to live more fully than I ever thought possible and for that, I am eternally grateful.
Barbara Lilley is a writer and mother of four living in Ottawa, Canada. She blogs at Don’t Stand on the Watermelon.