Those Three Little Words

This past week, I was in a Blockbuster video store and heard something that messed with my world for a little while. It’s an incident that, prior to its happening, if you would have given me a list of things regarding my diabetes that would make me uncomfortable in public, wouldn’t have even registered.


I was standing in line, waiting to swap out some movies I’d rented online for a couple of in-store DVDs. This was a Saturday afternoon, and there was a long line of people ahead of me. After about five minutes of a slow-moving shuffle through an aisle fashioned to funnel us like cattle to the counter—past shelves of candy, microwave popcorn, soda, ice cream bars, beef jerky, used DVDs, and racks of unreadable magazines—I was finally the next person in line.

This is when time slowed to a crawl for me, and everything that happened became frozen in my memory for me to brood over on the drive home (and, if you ask my wife, I brooded well into the evening).

The clothes I was wearing this Saturday afternoon do not have too much to do with my story, except to let you know that in addition to sandals, shorts, and T-shirt, I also had my insulin pump with me, in my left-hand shorts pocket. The clear, thin, barely perceptible surgical tubing wrapped around my pump and snaked from it up under my shirt to my infusion site, just above my waist on my left hip.

Behind me in line was a young woman, and behind her were some children—not hers—whose mom must have been just behind them; I don’t know order or relationship of those behind me because, well, I’d passed that point of “standing on line” where it’s no longer comfortable for me to turn around and see who else is in line with me. It’s a rare occasion when I feel like commiserating with fellow queuers, and because on this day the line was moving slowly, I had no intention of making the “I know, isn’t this line moving at a snail’s pace!” face, as if that would do anything to speed it up. (And I find collective frustration in public places at things beyond anyone’s control just as irritating as the initial irritation.)

I waited for several minutes for the people at the counter ahead of me to decide whether or not they’d like a new membership card today, and whether or not to have it laminated today, when my attention turned to another mother—not in line—who was running after her three-year-old daughter. The little girl, according to her mother by way of apology to the rest of us, was “way past her bedtime.” The little girl’s lack of sleep gave her superhuman powers to scream, cry, demand, and elude her mother’s grasp all at the same time.

And that’s when I heard those three little words.

Behind me, one of the kids said, “He’s got diabetes.”

My heart stopped. I felt a rush of emotion tantamount to being called to the board in middle school to work a problem I had no idea how to do.

Me? Is she talking about me? What does she know?

Do I look like I have diabetes?

Wait. My insulin pump! That’s it. The kid sees my pump.

No, that can’t be it. All that’s exposed is a thin line of tubing, about three inches’ worth, and there’s no way that anyone behind me can see that.

My mind went through any number of scenarios. Why was she saying I was a diabetic?

Now, you know as well as I do, that I do not keep my diabetes a secret. I write this blog using my actual name. My friends and family and coworkers all know I have Type 1 diabetes. I’m not ashamed of my condition, and I’m proud of my self-management and more than happy to explain to people who don’t know much about diabetes what it is and what it’s like to live with.

But nothing prepared me for the lightheaded reaction when I heard those three words, the rush of blood to the head.




I realized about 10 seconds later what was happening, thanks to last week’s browse through Diabetes Life’s Web site. I’d read a blurb about how one of the Jonas Brothers, Nick, I think, has Type 1 diabetes. (And please don’t say I protest too much, but honestly, I really know absolutely nothing about JB.)

The girl who I thought had pointed out my condition to the entire Blockbuster store must have been looking at a magazine cover! That’s it! She just wanted to share her knowledge of Nick’s condition with her mom and friends.

Of course, I don’t know what transpired after that, because all I heard after “He’s got diabetes” was the rush in my brain of a mad neural scramble as I tried to come up with a reaction to what I thought was a seven-year-old calling me to the carpet to poke fun at me. (Yes, I’m 34 years old. So what?)

Thank goodness I shut down for about 10 seconds, however, rather than wheeling around in a prelude to confronting the nasty little diabetes-outer.

It would have made for an awkward moment.

Those 10 seconds, though, did cause me quite a bit of reflection as I drove home; and again at home when I relayed the story to Kathryn; and again right now as I recount this to you.

I have Type 1 diabetes. Yes, it’s true. But I have a condition that doesn’t present itself to people; they don’t know what I have to look at me.

“He’s got diabetes,” however, and the ensuing mental stress it put me under, has given me a fleeting taste of what it might be like to live with an illness you can’t hide, an illness that unfortunately has social stigma, or that is misunderstood…an illness that might cause people to point, stare, speak behind your back, poke fun at you, etc.

I’d never thought about what living with diabetes and living with a physically-manifested stigma of it might be like (knock wood that I maintain good self-management and so far have no complications from diabetes). I hope I never have to know.

“He’s got diabetes” has given me pause.

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  • Peter Mead

    Sounds like a kid commenting on what he knows, not putting an edge to it. On the other hand, Type 1 is more prevalent in kids at onset and perhaps he knows a kid a school who is on a pump (I’m guessing that a higher ratio of kids are on pumps than MDIs, but that’s a hope more than a guess). I’d bet he’s talking about the celebrity.

    I communicate directly and cleanly when I tell friends and acquaintences about my type 1 (I am 60 and came down with it about the same time you did and am now on a minimed 522 for about two months). I am also careful to make the communication LIGHT without being TRIVIAL. Most people listen less to what you say and more to how you say it. Its their way to evaluate data. And I always leave them with the impression that the disease is one that can be managed and susumed into a causitive lifestyle. I let ’em know that in other respects, I am now healthier than I was and, with the proper carb balance, capable of leaping taller buildings than I could in the past. Many (most?) Americans are unfit AND everyone seems to be within 2 degrees of separation from someone with Diabetes. So they listen when you say something.

    Eric, I’m sure you don’t fit the preconceived profile of a diabetic, whatever dismal concept that may be. But I believe that image is changing and will continue to change for the better.

    Personally, if a kid behind me saw my tube and said that ABOUT ME, I’d be kind of happy. If he said that as a slur, I would have just spun around and grabbed candy off the rack, held it close to my mouth and said, “Take that back or I’ll eat this entire Lard-O-Sugar Chunky Sludge Sak right in front of you!”

    Or maybe not.


  • Nicky

    If the kid HAD spotted your tubing – and knew what it was – then he would have had diabetes himself, or know someone close to him who had. Instead of you feeling stigmatized, the two of you would have felt inclusive….

    But even if it was just a sharp-eyed kid being a smart alec, there’s an education opportunity here. Even if you’d simply turned round with a smile on your face and said something like “yeah, but I’m still stuck in this queue”, it would have normalized diabetes a little bit more.

    I suspect you’re still in mourning for the pre-diabetes you. Nothing wrong with that – but I think (hope) you’ll find it less of a fight-or-flight thing in the future.

    Nicky (Type 2)

  • Peter Mead

    Eric, when i said, above that I came down with diabetes about the same time you did, I meant 2 years ago, not when I was your age.