Complications suck. But life goes on if you want it to.

17 Dec

Guest blog by Diana Maynard.

I was 7 when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, back in the 70s when treatment consisted of big metal and glass syringes stored in surgical spirit, a couple of urine tests a day where you peed in a container, added 5 drops of urine and 10 drops of water to a test tube using a pipette, threw in a fizzy tablet, and tried to figure out whether the resulting solution was orange (high), blue (low), or green (good). Of course, that only told you what your average blood sugar had been like since the last time you peed. Basically useless. What good was knowing you’d had a hypo 4 hours ago? Not much was known about complications back then (actually not much about diabetes at all) and clinic visits consisted of the consultant asking if I was all right and whether I did sports, which of course I did, and him giving me a beaming smile and sending me on my way.

Getting diabetes didn’t seem too bad at first (other than not being allowed marmalade on my toast “because it’ll stop your insulin working properly” as my mum put it). My dad had had type 1 diabetes most of his life and he was fine after all. His attitude to any kind of health problem was simply to grin and bear it and not to mention it. God forbid anyone should know that you were not healthy – a complete sign of weakness (like staying in bed after 8am – a mortal sin!). I don’t think he’d ever really got over not being allowed to join the military on account of being diabetic, and to be honest, that was probably the worst thing about it for me too (me not being able to join the military, I mean, not him). On the day I was diagnosed and was lying in hospital feeling like a fraud (I felt perfectly OK), my dad brusquely told me “tough luck”, handed me a syringe and told me that as I’d be injecting for the rest of my life I had 2 choices: inject myself right then, or die. I took the first choice. He then said: “Don’t ever feel sorry for yourself, it could be a lot worse. You could have lost your leg or be blind.” He added that when he’d been diagnosed in the 1940s, the person in the bed next to him had died from diabetes complications on his first night in hospital.

Fast forward 20 years, and irony struck. I became registered blind as a result of retinopathy, and my dad had a quadruple heart bypass and later lost both his legs (and eventually died) all as a result of diabetes complications. Oddly enough, when I lost my sight (very fast, within the space of 6 months, despite a wonderful team at the eye hospital who tried to save it – I was just very unlucky in this respect), one of my closest friends lost his leg to cancer. Watching him struggle with that (my dad wasn’t to lose his legs till some years later) made me realise how lucky I was to still have my legs and only be losing my sight. I was told by the doctors that I’d lose all my sight within another 6 months, but thankfully I didn’t. I didn’t find out until later that my friend, Steve, got through his leg loss partly by thinking how lucky he was that he hadn’t lost his sight like me, and by watching me deal with progressive sight loss. More irony. The other thing that got me through it was being recommended to go to Braille classes, since they were predicting I’d lose all my sight. I duly went for a few months, and it was the best thing I ever did. Not because I can now read Braille (I’m still rubbish at it – it’s actually incredibly hard!) but because I met several deaf-blind people there (Braille is essentially their only communication since they can’t lipread, use sign language (except by touch) or listen to audio or read subtitles). These guys loved life so much despite this, and it made me realise how lucky I was that I could still hear and had only lost one sense.

The weird thing about all this is that as a child, I grew up never talking about diabetes, because it was not the done thing (I once got severely reprimanded, aged 6, by my dad for telling our next-door-neighbour, a farmer, that my dad had diabetes, while I was watching the farmer inject a cow). So I barely ever mentioned it to anyone, even my closest friends. There was no internet and there were no support groups back then, so I had no one to discuss my feelings with even if I’d wanted to. But when I got complications, I couldn’t hide the fact that I couldn’t see properly (I use a white stick sporadically these days, depending on the situation and my mood) and I have absolutely no problem talking about sight loss and diabetes to anyone who’s interested. I write a blog about travel as a blind diabetic, work for 2 diabetes-related charities in my spare time, and do a lot of advocacy in the community. I think the main reason for this change of heart is that I really struggled with not being able to talk about it when I was in my teens and twenties, and I’d love to be able to help even just one person not get complications. Because if you think diabetes sucks, then losing your sight or your leg suck a whole lot more. And it’s also not always easy to deal with things like sight loss. I mainly rely on sheer stubbornness, refusing to let it stop me doing the things I want to do. There are some exceptions: I’m not allowed to drive a car any more (though a friend did let me drive his car around an empty carpark) or fly a plane (which might have been fun, but I couldn’t fly a plane before I lost my sight). I can still play a lot of sports (badly, but my teammates are very supportive), mountain bike (badly, but I’ve only had a few accidents, none of them too serious, and slowly), climb mountains (slowly, but that’s mainly just because I’m not as fit as I’d like to be), work as a full-time academic (luckily I work with computers not hazardous chemicals) and do most normal things. Since my sight loss, I’ve been cross-country skiing and horse-riding and done plenty of stupid things, mostly without harm. I also get lost frequently, can’t recognise my friends (or enemies), fall over in airports and break bones, walk into things, talk to shop dummies, and get frustrated. But apparently “normal” people do all those things too.

So in summary, my message is this. Try not to get complications, because they suck. Big time. Do everything you can to look after yourself (now we have such cool technology these days) to minimise the risk. But you might do everything right and still get complications, just as people who have never smoked sometimes get lung cancer. And if you do get some kind of complication, make the most of what you can still do. Beating yourself up will do you absolutely no good at all, so frankly, I wouldn’t bother. I got diabetes and my brother didn’t. Lucky him. He got a brain tumour and I didn’t. Lucky me. We’re both still alive and plan to stay that way for many more years.

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One Response to “Complications suck. But life goes on if you want it to.”

  1. Rick Phillips December 18, 2018 at 2:08 am #

    My mom was T1. She lost her sight, had two feet the size of watermelon and lost her kidney function. The trifecta of complications. Mom passed when she was 48, 23 years post diagnosis.

    Mom was so ill she could not hide diabetes and never tired. I am happy about that. I have been T1 now for 44 years and I have some issues, but I am blessed. I can see, I have kidney function and for the most part my feet still work. When I received the diagnosis of RA, I said you know, I am fortunate. No one wants RA or Diabetes but I have a good life. I am fortunate and I am glad for my life.

    No one wants complications, especially not one from diabetes. But when I got RA I learned a truth, diabetes is not the worst thing that can happen.

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