Hace doce años. Twelve years ago. That’s what I kept saying when people asked how long it had been since I studied abroad in San Joaquin de Flores, a small town outside of San Jose, Costa Rica. Twelve years ago I had flown on an airplane only a handful of times and never spent a night out of the country. On the flight down, I remember journaling, fizzing with anticipation, and suddenly realizing that maybe I didn’t know how to speak Spanish. I could sort of write and read in Spanish, but I started thinking of what I’d want to say and found that the words just weren’t there. I hadn’t yet learned to speak flexibly, describing things instead of using one staunch word, while shaping with my hands and body. I love speaking in this way really – like teaching a yoga class without stating the names of postures, but instead painting a picture of the body’s movements. At the time though, the thought was intimidating.
More intimidating than Spanish was my lack of familiarity with diabetes management. It might seem like I should be over writing about diabetes, but diabetes is just never over. It keeps evolving and I with it. When I first went down to CR, I had been living with Type 1 diabetes (T1D) for almost exactly two years. I’d managed diabetes while living in the dorms at UNCA, working at a summer camp, a folk school, and at that point through half of junior year.
When I landed in Costa Rica twelve years ago, the first thing I noticed were the trees. I couldn’t stop gaping at the trees, squealing about the trees, asking our teacher Esteban about the trees. On this recent trip, after I asked a third person to identify the current árbol of my affection, a British pal exclaimed, “Americans love trees!” I think that’s a bit of a broad stroke, because I can tell you that I definitely led the tree fandom among our group of 14 or so American students.
The second thing I noticed was that suddenly I was having to state my needs a lot. Also, suddenly I had a lot of needs, or at least that’s how I felt. This was difficult for me on many levels. I am an independent person. I have always been grateful that I was diagnosed with diabetes after I had left home, effectively as an adult, because I would have fought against the notion of anyone else sharing in my management. That’s the story I’ve told myself anyway. Told myself that I could manage it on my own and probably just as well as my pancreas could have. For the first couple of years after I was diagnosed, I maintained a white-knuckle grip on normalcy. I worked so hard behind the scenes; not just on achieving what I thought had to be perfect blood sugar, but also on stifling the emotional and physical burden of managing a condition as demanding as T1D. I told myself that I could outsmart it. I told myself that if I gave in to its demands, I was weak. I tried to hide the anxiety and worry that was filling me slowly to the brim.
I know that sounds dramatic, but it wasn’t at the time. It was slow and subtle and by the time I got to Costa Rica, I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was prepared to have the time of my life. Yet here was this chronic condition in tow (one that I would not be able to recognize or name as such until years later. I wasn’t just supposed to be tramping through the jungle, I was supposed to be partying with my new friends, trying new food, open to all experiences. And of course, I was supposed to be completely carefree. Isn’t that the study abroad, or even the American college, myth?
But I felt like I had a new shadow. The specter of diabetes was following me on every excursion, in my classes, walking down the streets. And I had to explain it as part of me. But it wasn’t a part of me that I knew. I was strong and healthy and physically capable of keeping up with anyone. I had built all of that into my identity since childhood, playing softball, camping with my family, kayaking and snowboarding throughout high school, and just generally loving physical adventures. I also loved trying new foods, connecting with new people, experiencing life differently than I knew it in my standard routine. That was who I was.
It was the first time I’d introduced myself to people who were meeting me as a person with diabetes. In the US, my friends and family all knew me as Katie who suddenly got diagnosed with diabetes. They knew me first. Now I was worried that people would think of diabetes first.
The truth is that I wasn’t just embarrassed, I was afraid. And it was really the first time in my life I had experienced that kind of fear…fear for my life. I was a pretty unafraid kid. I wasn’t reckless, but I had a sense of my limits and they didn’t really encroach on what I wanted to do. Now suddenly fear had crept in. What if I go low? What if I’m alone? What if I’m tired and forget my bag in the trunk of a taxi and the driver leaves with all my medical supplies and I die? It was like the cork had blown loose on the possibilities of what could happen and how it might lead ultimately to my demise. Then there was just your standard, everyday long-term complications of diabetes to worry about. I was afraid that if I let my blood sugar spike out of “normal” range, I would definitively develop kidney disease, neuropathy, etc.
I had started practicing yoga in high school and had a sense of how to calm myself down, so I tried, often. But diabetes would always creep back in. Sometimes I’d try to meditate and breathe long slow inhales and exhales, but then I’d realize I was low and I’d have to stop and double-check with a finger prick, wipe off the blood with an alcohol swab, find a snack, eat, and suddenly there I was, thinking about the power that diabetes had over me again.
I worried that people thought I was making it up. Not diabetes, but everything I had to do for it. If you don’t live with a person with diabetes, you can’t know how many tasks go into it every day. If you live with someone with diabetes but don’t have it yourself, it’s impossible to conceptualize the amount of decisions and thought that that it takes every day. Even if you’re highly empathetic, you just can’t know. And after 14 years of living with it, I believe that if you are a person with diabetes, eventually even you stop realizing how much you’re doing – both externally in action and internally in planning and calculations.
Studying abroad in Costa Rica was one of the best four months of my life. Yet I felt isolated by and even ashamed of diabetes at that time. I was afraid that going back would mean relieving those emotions, that I’d be pulled back into shame. I felt guilty that it had been so hard to just enjoy my life. A few really scary things had happened while I was there too. I had at least two intense lows while I was alone, one in the jungle (I hear you, why did I wander off into the jungle alone?) and one in a hotel room. I also ran out of insulin after leaving some of my back-up at a lodge on a weekend excursion. I had to obtain more without the guidance of my endocrinologist, and it was my first experience feeling the full nature of my dependency on an external source for my survival. How it could stop everything else. How fear and anxiety suddenly flooded my body when I thought about not having the insulin I needed. On top of that, I couldn’t get in touch with my endocrinologist at home (we did not have cell phones then! And the call your doctor, wait for them to call you back long-distance model was just not working). Eventually, a protracted game of phone tag ended with my mom as the middle woman translating my endocrinologist’s advice, which was to take only half the dose of the type of insulin I was given. Had I taken my dose as normal, I could have had a severe low blood sugar overnight.
Diabetes was part of why I stayed away from Costa Rica for so long, so I was surprised to realize that it was also a big part of what brought me back. Three days after I landed, the diabetes camp began. We awoke at 5 AM and departed San José as the sun was just beginning to enliven the colors of the city. Although we drove off into the mountains, we arrived at the camp in no time – the start of three very full days ahead of us. Three days of diabetes multiplied by about 80. So much diabetes. Everyone, from counselors to campers, living and playing and eating and sleeping with diabetes.
Diagnosed at 18, I never went to diabetes camp. I had also never worked at a diabetes camp before. As I was learning the system, I began to transition from paying primary attention to my own body, to guiding my attention towards any signs of low blood sugar I could spot in the kids. This was an interesting shift. Suddenly my own diabetes felt lighter. My brain had been unleashed to do what it is always doing but on a larger scale: strategizing, monitoring, and attempting to balance blood sugar. But here it was, finally, outside of myself.
At the end of day one, I laid down in my bunk bed, exhausted. My cabin co-lead told me that the doctor and nutritionists would come in at 12 AM and 3 AM to check every campers’ blood sugar. She said that they might even check mine. At first, I reacted to this with something like horror. No one else, save maybe for nursing staff at the endocrinologist or hospital, has ever checked my blood sugar. It’s my blood sugar. But then I was like, “Hmm…so I wouldn’t have to worry about my blood sugar overnight…” I could go to bed without that subtle background fear of having a low. That thought was nice, comforting. And that’s how I went to sleep. They didn’t check me after all, but I slept hard through the night knowing that someone else was monitoring the campers. I awoke the next morning feeling grounded, ready to start the day.
For more about the camp and the rest of the experience, stay tuned for Chapter 2!