Tonight makes 15 years.
By my count, that's about 21,916 syringes, somewhere around 600 bottles of insulin, and more than 16,000 fingersticks to check blood sugar. I've now lived longer with it than without it.
Being diagnosed with Type I Diabetes was certainly not high on my list of things to do as a freshman in high school. Nor was checking into the hospital for a weeklong vacation of learning how to use needles and calculate carbohydrate values and watching other patients in the teenager's ward of the children's hospital die.
Type I is the unfair kind, the variety of diabetes that results not from eating bad food and not exercising, but from nature. Like AIDS, it's an autoimmune disease. But there's nothing - at least nothing we know of yet - you can do to prevent it. For reasons we still don't understand, one day the body suddenly turns on itself and attacks the cells that trigger insulin production. And unlike its more popular cousin Type II, Type I can't be controlled through diet and exercise, because the body stops producing insulin altogether in fairly short order.
It was a lot harder to deal with then. The medicines required sticking closely to a diet and eating the same amounts of food at the same time every day. Times have changed; we now have better technology and insulins that give much more freedom. Now, if I'm not hungry, I don't eat.
I hardly slept that first night in the hospital. I'd been sick, so sick my mother made me go to the doctor after band practice one day. But by the time that whirlwind afternoon of diagnosis, tears, quickly packing, calling a friend, and being whisked off to the hospital was over, I just couldn't handle it anymore. I kept seeing needles in my dreams, and trying to figure out why this had happened.
A few years ago, I attended a Senate hearing that featured guests from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It was about embryonic stem cell research, which, at the time, was a realatively new thing, and which, to this day, offers the most hope for a lasting cure for this disease. The room was packed with children who have Type I diabetes, along with their watchful parents, and a whole mess of celebrities. You'd be suprised at how many people Type I touches. It's so rare - only about 10% of American diabetics have Type I - but there are celebrities and CEO's and Senators whose children go through the same routines as I do.
The hearing was more intersting than they usually are, but of course, it's more interesting to talk to people. During one lull, a father sitting next to me asked what I was doing there, and about my job. I told him that I was interning in the Senate and working on a master's in African Studies. "Have you been to Africa?" he asked, bewildered. When I told him yes, he could barely contain his disbelief in asking, "But how?"
That conversation stuck with me for years, because there we were, in a room full of children who lost out on the healthy-kid lottery. And there were their parents, who, in the natural desire to protect their children, by and large assumed that this disease necessarily limits their children's options. (I'm sure that's not fair to everyone, but the focus of that hearing and the speeches was definitely on limits and problems.)
I'm glad my parents didn't have that reaction. Of course, they were sad, and they would have done anything to keep it from happening to me. But they never let me make diabetes an excuse, and they never told me I couldn't do something because of my disease.
Learning that myself wasn't as hard as you might think. The morning after my diagnosis, a nurse woke my mom and I up at some ridiculous hour and said, "Okay, you have a choice. You can learn to do this yourself, or your mom can follow you around for the next four years." And so I learned how to handle it by practicing on myself. The next summer, I went to camp as usual, then to Governor's School and Paris and Baylor and all over Europe and Kenya and Cameroon and Italy and New Haven and Washington and Austin and South Africa and the Congo. I went on safari, watched my sandals melt onto a hot lava flow, learned to speak French and Swahili and failed to learn Arabic, stood freezing on the edge of Loch Ness, interned for a Republican (don't ask), hiked Hell's Gate, earned two degrees, lived in a village in the middle of nowhere Kenya, was a camp counselor, canoed up Santa Elena Canyon and the Brazos and rafted down the Nile and the Zambezi, saw the Southern Cross, went skydiving, wandered Naples, lived in Goma, bunjee jumped off the Victoria Falls bridge, and made friendships to last a lifetime.
Diabetes hasn't limited me one bit, and in the process, I've so far avoided major complications, learned to be responsible at a young age, and remembered to be grateful for insurance and superb healthcare.
Fifteen years of shots and sugar checks and lows and highs is not fun. But it's funny, because I wouldn't trade those years for anything. Life's too short, and there's too much living still to be done.