You all know our Rachel. You’ve watched her grow up on these pages.
First she was the little astronaut-to-be, mourning the loss of the Columbia’s crew in 2003, then the young writer and speaker who competed for seven long years before ultimately winning the oratorical scholarship she was determined to capture. You came along on her glorious summer in Israel and my concurrent nervous-Nelly meltdown here at home.
Now she’s well into the second semester of her freshman year at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega. It wasn’t her first choice but, as it turns out, it was the best one.
She made a stellar adjustment to college, plunging into dorm life, serving on the Honors Program application committee and founding Interfaith Alliance to encourage students of different faiths to come together and learn from one another. She took yoga and hip-hop classes along with a full load of academics.
She was a busy kid so I wasn’t surprised at hearing fatigue in her voice when she called home. She mentioned the need for an afternoon nap each day. I told myself that hilly campus was enough to exhaust anyone. She’d taken a job running a church nursery on Sundays, so there was no time for extended visits home.
It wasn’t until she was here for the semester break that I saw the symptoms for myself. Extreme thirst. Endless trips to the bathroom. Unexplained fatigue. An appetite that rivaled that of a sumo wrestler.
Then came the diagnosis: Type 1 diabetes.
We were blindsided. There’s no history of diabetes in my or my husband’s family. We knew nothing about the disease. I was stunned to hear her doctor refer to her as a “diabetic.” Surely not.
But, yes. She’s now insulin-dependent, injecting herself up to four times a day, pricking her fingertips every few hours to monitor her blood sugar levels, changing her eating habits to embrace a low-carbohydrate diet.
The girl who always viewed food simply as fuel is now forced to obsess over every morsel that goes into her mouth. She’s taking classes to master the complex balancing act between food, exercise and insulin. It may someday become second nature, but that day hasn’t arrived just yet.
There may be a day when I don’t start our conversations with, “How’s your blood sugar?” Today’s not that day.
Rachel’s a realist. She’s trying hard to make this new reality just one small part of her life, what the American Diabetic Association’s website calls “a footnote in (her) biography.” She’s full of plans to fly to Pennsylvania in April for a leadership training workshop, to spend the summer as a camp counselor and she harbors high hopes of being a resident assistant in one of her school’s dorms next year. On down the road, there will be semesters abroad.
I’m the one who’s stuck. I just can’t get past that word: diabetic.
I know a lot about some things and some about a lot of things but about diabetes, I knew nothing. I’d vaguely heard of type 1, what used to be known as juvenile diabetes. The learning curve was steep but at first all I wanted to do was cry. It was a combination of fear and mourning for the “old normal.” I just shut down. I didn’t work, I didn’t sleep. I didn’t write. I just cried.
Finally I realized I wasn’t going to be able to cry this away. I couldn’t worry it away. It was time to give myself a swift kick and get busy.
When I fired up my laptop, I discovered that only 5 percent of the people who have diabetes fall into the Type 1 category. It’s an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas has quit producing insulin. It’s often confused with the far more common Type 2. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said, “But she’s so thin! How can she have diabetes?” I could have already paid her outrageously high insurance deductible.
Rachel’s diabetes has nothing to do with what she ate or her lifestyle and she can’t control it with diet alone. If only.
Of course, there’s a bright side. We’ve been met with so much love and concern and caring at every turn. I was astonished by all of the people I know who have diabetes, something I never realized. They’ve been busy leading active, productive lives while checking their blood sugar and injecting their insulin. The examples they set are even more encouraging than the suggestions they offer.
I have an invitation for you. On March 1, we will have a diabetes awareness day at my shop on Cleveland Highway. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on planned events.
If you have Type 1, you’ll be an especially honored guest, since you’re rowing in the same boat as our Rachel. And that makes you family. Please come.
Teressa Glazer is a Gainesville businesswoman. Her column appears regularly and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.