I’ve had diabetes for 18 years. To put that in perspective, Bill Clinton was at the beginning of his first term in office when I was diagnosed. Tom Brady was a backup quarterback that no one had ever heard of. And it would still be six years until I caved in and bought my first cell phone. It got me wondering how many insulin shots I’ve taken in my life. Eighteen years, times 365 days, times four shots a day, for a grand total of 26,280! Oh, how the skin on my stomach must hate me.
Twenty six thousand two hundred eighty! That is a huge number! The circumference of our Earth is 24,901 miles. I’ve taken one shot for each mile, plus a few thousand extra! And it’s not just shots, either. How many test strips have I gone through over the course of my life? Twenty thousand? Twenty five thousand? It’s staggering.
After I calculated all of this, another question popped into my head: How many of those 26,280 shots did I take in public, on a park bench, the sidewalk, a bus, a subway, or similar conspicuous spot? My guess would be at least 4,000. And that brings me to the point of today’s entry: Diabetes in public places!
When I was first diagnosed, I was incredibly self-conscious about injecting myself in front of anyone. Even at home, I would excuse myself from the table, run to the bathroom, inject my insulin, and return to eat. As time wore on, I got a little more comfortable. I wouldn’t leave the table if it was just close family. If I was outside and absolutely no one could see me, I might skip finding the nearest public restroom.
Fast-forward 18 years and things have changed. City bus, park bench, subway, no problem. I’m not saying I’m not discrete about it. If I’m at a restaurant I do it under the table, but I seldom seek out the bathroom anymore. And I’ve stopped caring quite so much what other people might think if they see me. I used to worry about that — worry that they might think I was doing something illicit, or see me as somehow “weird” if they caught me injecting myself out of the corner of their eye.
But that’s the beauty of time. Eventually, all such worries fade away, either because we loosen up, or our time on this planet expires and our earthly anxieties dissipate (or, according to some, dissipate, float in the ethers, and coalesce again into a new incarnation full of more worry… But that’s a discussion for a whole other blog). I still ask bandmates if they’re squeamish and warn them to look away if they are, but I don’t hide my diabetes from anyone anymore. I don’t feel self-conscious giving the “here’s what you need to know about my condition” speech to fellow musicians before touring. I don’t worry if someone sees me injecting myself and scowls or scurries away from me.
I suppose my real point here is this: It is your choice how much you want to share about your condition. And that will be different for everyone. Some might feel more comfortable excusing themselves to the bathroom. Sometimes the table really isn’t the right place for a shot — at an important business meeting, perhaps. And consideration for other people is important. I wouldn’t suggest going out trying to shock anyone. But there’s no need to feel embarrassed about diabetes, either. You don’t need to feel bad about it, you don’t need to hide it, and you don’t need to bend over backwards to cover it up for the people around you. After all, at the end of the day, diabetes is going home with you. You’re the one who has to live with it 24 hours a day. You shouldn’t have to hide it.
Hiding it is what I felt I had to do when I was first diagnosed. I felt different, and I didn’t want other people to see it. I didn’t want to think about it myself. That started to change for me when I was 16. I went to a summer camp for kids with diabetes. It was my mother who discovered it and encouraged the idea. I was skeptical, and felt that going to a “special diabetes camp” would be utterly horrifying. But very soon after arriving, I realized something: far from reinforcing a feeling of being “different,” I felt at home.
Here I was with 50 to 60 other kids my own age, from all walks of life, who shared my experience. No one had to explain to anyone else what diabetes was, nobody had to explain what they were doing when they checked their blood glucose or injected insulin. Everyone knew what it felt like to be low, and how to respond to it. And I realized that the world was FULL of people with diabetes! It was a wonderful feeling, and it freed me to stop worrying so much about what other people might think about me if they knew.
Diabetes affects roughly 1 in 12 people in the United States. That’s nearly 26,000,000 people. We are good people, bad people, millionaires, out of work, Republicans, Democrats, artists, lawyers, smart people, idiots, Broncos fans, Raiders fans, Red Sox fans, and Yankees fans… we cover the entire spectrum. We’re people, united by a common challenge. And we don’t need to hide it.
I’ve gotten away from a good habit in recent weeks. When this blog started, I tried to end each week with an invitation to readers to share their stories. So let me end this one the proper way, and once again invite comments. What do you share with others, and what do you keep to yourself about diabetes? Do you worry what other people are thinking about you when they see you taking a shot or checking your glucose? How has your relationship to diabetes changed over the years, particularly those of you who have lived with it for 20, 30, or 40 years? And, most importantly, if forced to choose, would you root for the Red Sox or the Yankees?
(The correct answer is Red Sox…)