I sat down on my bed, the memory foam did its best to hold together all the broken pieces of me. A puddle of tears began to form on the wooden floor at my feet. Intermittent gasps for air my only reprieve from the rainstorm falling from my eyes. I hadn’t cried like this since eighth grade when I found out my brother kissed Chelsea Jennings, the girl I was currently in love with. It was a special kind of heartache — the kind that can only be soothed by a mother’s voice, or a swift kick to a brother’s groin.
But my family was a thousand miles away.
And I was all alone.
In hindsight, I guess there were signs. For the past few years, I’d felt lethargic after cheat days on Sundays at Cici’s and couldn’t make it through a movie without a couple trips to the bathroom. But who was to say this wasn’t how normal people felt? After all I’ve only ever been me. I was at least as healthy as the rest of the people I ran into while grabbing a slice of chocolate pudding pizza at the buffet. And maybe I just had a small bladder.
“I received your blood test results, and it appears you’re diabetic,” the doctor whispered into the phone, as if she were afraid my Bruce Banner constitution might give way to a Hulk. To her surprise, I remained relatively calm. My father was diabetic so it wasn’t a foreign concept to me, although I didn’t yet fully grasp what it meant.
Unfortunately, Google search informed me.
In just 10 minutes I went from a healthy 27-year-old whose only major health crisis was a stubbed toe after a night of binge drinking on the Venice Boardwalk, to a blind double amputee with erectile dysfunction and failing kidneys, who, at any moment, could die of a massive heart attack.
Suddenly, everywhere I looked there were reminders of just how prevalent this disease had become.
- The billboard that read, “Diabetes? A heart attack could be right around the corner.”
- The never-ending slew of commercials advertising the latest and greatest medications
- The homeless man with the eye patch
- The test monitors lined up like trophies behind the pharmacy counter
- The friend whose distant aunt had lost her left foot to the disease
- The offhand remark made by a skinny coworker after she ate a fifth of a cupcake that, “I better stop before I get diabetes.”
Not only was it a serious illness that threatened the lives and wellbeing of millions of people, but the punch line of a casual joke.
Think about the countless movies with people dying of cancer or AIDS: Philadelphia; Dallas Buyers Club; Terms of Endearment; Stepmom; The Fault in Our Stars. Hell, even Deadpool, which won Ryan Reynolds a Moonman at the MTV Movie Awards, follows the story of a man who decides to undergo extreme measures to deal with his terminal cancer diagnosis, all in the name of love.
There’s something poetic about seeing people struggle with these afflictions.
Now, try to remember the last time you saw an actor portraying a food addict with diabetes sneaking off to Krispy Kreme after their dialysis treatment before falling into a diabetic coma. Not even John Candy, who made us care for the unrelentingly annoying Del Griffith in Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, could pull this off.
As far as chronic conditions go, diabetes is impossible to romanticize.
At my follow up appointment, I discovered that I was a Type 2 Diabetic. Though I wasn’t currently overweight, I had been for most of my life and diabetes ran in my family. All the latest research showed that your genes played as significant a role as your lifestyle in determining whether or not you’d develop the disease. The doctor gave me some “informative” pamphlets regarding diabetes, asked if I had any questions, then sent me on my way.
I learned that Type 2 Diabetes is characterized by high blood sugars brought on by insulin resistance. I also learned that, by restricting carbohydrates and engaging in regular exercise, I could greatly diminish the chances that I’d experience any of the long-term complications associated with the disease.
Armed with my new glucose monitoring kit and treatment plan, I set out to conquer my condition.
After maintaining an a1c in the mid-6’s for two years with diet, exercise, and Metformin, I felt I had finally regained control over my health.
Maybe being diabetic wasn’t such a big problem after all.
It had been six months since my last blood test so I was due. In that time, I’d made the move from Los Angeles to New York. I found an endocrinologist in the West Village, a sort of sanctuary amid the hustle and bustle of the city that many of my literary idols had called home. I’d even become stricter with my diet, going full keto. If you’re unfamiliar with that term, Google it, and try not to slip on the bacon grease when clicking on the links.
Because of the changes I’d made and the progress I’d shown over the past two years, I was dumbfounded when I got my results back and my a1c had gone up to 7.5, especially since I hadn’t noticed any increases during my twice daily glucose checks.
In order to bring it down, I was placed on a three-week trial for a new drug called Invokana, a medication specifically for Type 2 diabetics that works to lower blood sugar by making you pee out excess glucose in your system. Like most diabetic medications, the drug had produced great results, as well as dire side effects.
A week into the three-week trial I felt like a new man. My fasting sugars had fallen below 100 and post prandials almost never exceeded 130. This drug was a miracle! And the side effects I was experiencing were relatively mild. Constant thirst coupled with having to pee every thirty minutes seemed like a small price to pay to keep from going blind or losing a limb.
The first sign things might not be as wonderful as they seemed occurred when the trial ended. Because the drug appeared to be working, the doctor wrote me a prescription for a 90-day supply. I was also given a discount card to give to the pharmacist in case there were any issues with my insurance not wanting to cover it. I’d simply drop off the script at Duane Reade and pick it up in 15 to 20 minutes, no questions asked. Right?
When I came back, the pharmacist informed me that my insurance company was refusing to pay for it and that the discount card wouldn’t work unless they approved, which they didn’t because there were three other medications that I’d need to try first before they’d agree to pay for this one.
I had found something that worked, but was told that I needed to go back and make sure these other three medications didn’t work before my insurance would cover the medication that did? It was enough to make a non-diabetic’s blood sugar rise.
It was also right before Christmas Break. Because I was leaving for vacation that afternoon, I decided I should just pay the full price and sort out the details later when the insurance company finally got around to approving it.
“How much is it without insurance?” I asked the lady behind the pharmacy counter.
She looked at her computer screen, back at me, and with a straight face, said, “Eleven hundred and nineteen dollars,” before glancing down at the screen again. “And sixty-four cents.”
“I guess I could write you a check,” I said while stuffing a wad of ones back in my wallet. She stared back at me, blank faced. Apparently humor is a foreign concept at pharmacy counters in Queens. “Just kidding. Thanks, anyway.”
Sans life-saving medication, I ended up shipping off to LA and Oklahoma for two weeks where I resolved to restrict my carbohydrates even further and to increase my morning cardio. I didn’t want to lose any of the momentum I’d built up over the trial period.
For breakfast that first morning, I had a three-egg omelet with salmon and avocado, knowing my body would thank me for it later. After two hours had passed, I pulled out my glucose monitor, confident I’d measure well under 140…
What the fuck?!
I’d ran five miles that morning, had a breakfast with under ten carbs, and my blood glucose jumped up to 182. Was the salmon secretly marinated in maple syrup? I didn’t understand. But I also knew that one reading didn’t necessarily reflect only what I ate.
When you’re diabetic, you quickly learn there are a myriad of things that can affect your readings, like…
- Lack of sleep
- Changes in weather
The bitch about the last one was that nothing currently stressed me out as much as having high numbers.
Over the next few weeks I continued to check my numbers like clockwork. By the end of it, my poor fingertips looked like a crimson hued pointillist painting. And, even with a grand total of 30 carbs per day and running 4–5 miles each morning, my numbers remained high, often staying over 150 for the entire day.
It was exhausting. If this was the life I had to look forward to, maybe the struggle wasn’t worth it.
For two years I’d felt alienated from my closest friends and family. I never realized how big a role food and drinks played in my relationships. Now that I was diabetic, meals were no longer something to enjoy, but a process to endure.
How many times could I lie and say I wasn’t hungry when my friends would order a pizza before sneaking off to the nearest deli to eat a hardboiled egg and cry? How much longer could I put up with the constant apologies from my family whenever they’d eat dessert around me? How could I explain to my date that I really did want another drink but was terrified it might end up with me waking up next to her shaking from hypoglycemia?
Everything was a constant reminder that I was now different, and not in a good way.
The day I got back to New York I received the call I’d been waiting for. My doctor’s office had talked to the insurance company and worked everything out so I could restart the miracle medication.
My nightmare was finally coming to an end. Or so I thought.
Not long after I resumed taking the medication those mild side effects reappeared, only this time with a vengeance. No matter how much I drank I still felt thirsty. Every half hour I had to race to the bathroom before my bladder burst — not ideal when your days are packed with hour-long meetings. My heart rate, which typically rested at 50–60 beats per minute, would jump to the low 100s every morning when I woke up. I started to become dizzy when standing. Sometimes confusion would set in as if a thick fog were obscuring my thoughts.
Researching my symptoms took up the majority of my days. I was willing to do anything to find some semblance of relief. Sure, my sugars were normal, but now managing the side effects of the medication had become a full-time job.
The only problem with this was, I already had a full-time job. And the worst part was, now that I knew how much money medication cost without insurance, I couldn’t afford to lose that job. It would literally kill me!
I pressed on with the medication hoping to discover something to alleviate the side effects. Maybe this was the price of normal blood sugars.
New Year’s Eve rolled around a few days later. Still exhausted from my trip and the constant research, I called it a night early.
At 12:30am, just as some of the longer midnight make out sessions were ending, I stumbled sleepily out of my bedroom for the first of my nightly pees. A few steps in, I realized I was having a harder time staying upright than normal. I held myself up against the wall and followed it into the bathroom.
Mid stream I noticed a throbbing in my head. It was my heartbeat, pounding as if Neil Peart had set up his drum kit in my brain. As he reached the apex of his solo I crashed into the wall.
I snatched my phone from my pocket and opened up my trusty heart rate app. I held my finger over the light while it tracked the beats per minute…
Jesus! My heart was racing like Jason Statham after being defibrillated in Crank and all I’d done is walk a measly 14 steps to the bathroom to take a leisurely leak.
Panicked, I immediately sat down on the toilet seat. I checked my heart rate again.
I stood up.
Back to 160!
Dizziness. Confusion. Fear.
Am I having a heart attack? What if I die? Where am I?
I tried to walk back to my bedroom to get my glucose monitor but as soon as I stood up my entire body felt lightheaded, like the moment right before you lose consciousness during the Pass Out Game.
I was trapped.
It was then that I started to resign myself to the mortifying option before me.
I was going to have to call an ambulance. At 12:30am. On January 1st. In New York City.
“911, what’s the location of your emergency?” the soothing voice of a female dispatcher said.
“My heart rate,” I said, realizing I’d been expecting a different question. “It’s, uhh…” I racked my brain for my current address, finally placing it.
About ten minutes later, two EMTs arrived — a middle-aged white guy who reminded me of my dad and a young black woman with kind eyes and a confident disposition. They instantly put me at ease.
After checking to make sure I was in no immediate danger, they asked what hospital I wanted to be taken to.
“Whatever’s closest,” I said.
As the ER doors opened I was greeted by a husky male nurse with an ornery grin and a big, bald head covered by a bedazzled Happy New Year’s hat. Having to work on the first of January hadn’t gotten this guy down. Half a smile formed on my face. I forced it the rest of the way, trying to appear less pathetic than I felt.
Once the nurses realized my “emergency” wasn’t the kind that needed immediate attention, they had me take a seat. From my vantage point outside the office door, I observed their playful banter, feeling like an extra on the set of Scrubs. They were a family. This relaxed me even more. Which in turn made me more anxious realizing the doctor would almost certainly label me a hypochondriac after discovering there was nothing wrong with me.
Which is exactly what he found.
The EKG showed that, not only was my heart okay, it was in optimal condition. He said that a temporary rise in heart rate was normal, and that I should close my mouth, cover my nose, and attempt to breathe out to slow it down.
I practiced. My heart rate stayed the same, but my ears popped. The doctor smiled. Had Dr. Cox just trolled me?
It was nearly 3am by the time I was released, but the ER was just starting to heat up.
Guttural cries of a young inebriated man rang out from across the room.
“My girlfriend,” he whined. “She hates me.”
“She’ll forgive you,” a sober voice-of-reason said. “You didn’t do anything that can’t be taken back.”
“Noooo!” More sobbing. “Why?!”
I looked over at the hot mess sprawled out on the hospital bed. The friend gazed down lovingly and stroked his arm in a caring manner. He was clearly in love with the drunken fool, and, confident that the object of his affection wouldn’t be able to recall the night’s events, could finally show it.
I laughed a little at the absurdity of it all, then decided to get dressed.
The cab ride home seemed to take one-tenth the time it took to get to the hospital. Even at this late hour, the streets of New York were still abuzz with New Year’s Night Owls who’d yet to begin their resolutions.
That night, I came up with one of my own: Figure out a game plan to manage this godforsaken disease before it kills me. Continue to Part 2.
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