Invisible Illness

The other day I was at the local pool with my kids and I saw a little girl, maybe 7 years old, wearing a pump and a CGM. I cringed. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true. The girl was wearing a two-piece bathing suit and she had one of those little-kid bellies that is still round and pudgy, and the medical devices filled up the space between the top and bottom piece of her bathing suit. She looked like a happy kid, and as soon as her mom had sprayed her with sunscreen, she jumped into the pool with her friends without a trace of self-consciousness. Part of me wanted to introduce myself to the mom and tell her I had Type 1 diabetes. I thought that it might be encouraging for the mom to see a healthy, adult female. Or maybe the mom would be comforted knowing she wasn’t alone. Or maybe the desire to make a connection was for me, not the other mom.

No one knows that I have diabetes unless I tell them. I don’t wear a pump or a CGM. When I test my blood sugar or give myself an injection, I do it discreetly. When my blood sugar is low and I need to ingest a few glucose tabs, I slip them from my handbag into my mouth and chew without drawing attention to myself. I don’t want to be looked at. I don’t want to be singled out, and I don’t want to be different, not really. I think this desire to blend in is a result of being diagnosed as a teenager. As a teenager I was ashamed of having diabetes. I thought that my body had failed me. When I told people I had diabetes they all said “Oh yeah, my grandmother has that.” I got tired of correcting them and believed that when they looked at me they saw an old person, a sick person. Whenever my blood sugar dropped and I started acting “funny,” my friends had to help me, and I hated that. I hated needing help. I hated that I had to get up from the table in the cafeteria to give myself an injection before I ate lunch. Hated that I had to leave in the middle of class at 10 AM to go to the nurse’s office, test my blood sugar, and eat a snack. Diabetes deprived me of the ability to be like everyone else at an age when blending in is tantamount, and I worked so hard for so long to conceal my disease that even now, at 45 years old, it’s a tough habit to shake.

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That day at the pool I never said hello to the girl or her mom. I just watched from behind my book and I resented diabetes for marking that little girl’s skin with its wires. I hated that the equipment was so clunky and obvious. I wanted that girl to be free from the equipment, free from the burden of this disease. I sat there filled with angst and watched this little girl dive and swim with her friends and noticed that they didn’t pay any attention to her pump. I took a deep breath. I realized that maybe this little girl would grow into a teenager who is less self-conscious about having diabetes than I was. Maybe she will have the confidence to advocate for herself without shame. Maybe, hopefully, by the time she’s my age, they will have finally discovered a cure and there will be no more clunky medical equipment. I hope so.

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  • Antoinette

    Nice blog! Greetings from a type 1 mother in Holland. I’m always looking around me for others with t1d, so i wouldn’t have minded if i was that mother and you had spoken to me! šŸ˜‰

    • Amy Stockwell Mercer

      Next time I’ll make sure I introduce myself when I spot someone with a pump. šŸ˜‰