Diabetes in my 20s: Far from Sweet

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“I’m going to live forever.”

I am sure that many 20-somethings have had this thought, subconsciously or otherwise. Even if we don’t actually think it, this idea is what drives 20-somethings to act the way they do. Teen years are over! No more pleated skirts to iron and white shirts to bleach.

For most of us, the world becomes focused on full-time jobs or tertiary education. We watch our elders age, and shake our heads when an old Uncle or Tantie is in hospital for “sugar” or “pressure”. I suppose many of us imagine that these diseases are for the old – at least this is what I felt. So imagine my shock when I was diagnosed with diabetes.

One morning, I woke up with a strange buzzing and heaviness in my left ear. 

It all started with a routine visit to the doctor back in 2009. One morning, I woke up with a strange buzzing and heaviness in my left ear. Walking about seemed to be a huge challenge. I bumped into everything (and I do mean everything), and every time I turned my head too fast, I’d feel my body starting to tip to the left. Eventually, the sensation moved to my other ear, so I swallowed my stubbornness and went to the doctor.

Everything about that visit was perfectly normal. I peed in a cup and endured the painful squeeze of having my pressure tested. The kind medical assistant wanted to know if I was diabetic, as there was sugar in my urine, but quickly allayed my worry, and said the doctor would handle it.

The doctor was really interested in the sugar in my urine. He was even more interested in my frequent thirst (“I get thirsty a lot”), my feeling tired all the time (“I doh get much sleep, nah”), and going to the toilet a lot (“because of all the water I drink, Doc”). I was advised urgently to get a number of tests done, which I did in two twos.

Four days later, I was back in his office.

My ears seemed to be improving, but the test results indicated that I had Type 2 diabetes. It was possible that I’d had it for seven to eight months before that day I went back to see him.

First I was outraged. Me? Not yet 24, and diagnosed with this disease? Diabetes is for Granny, not for me. Then I became embarrassed. What did I do to develop this disease?

Some blamed it on the way I drank like a fish (who doesn’t?).

Of course, I wasn’t half as hard on myself as the rest of the world was. Some blamed it on the way I drank like a fish (who doesn’t?). Some said it was all the soft drinks I tended to drink like water (again, who doesn’t?).  Then came a deep sense of fear and dread. Would I end up amputated? Blind? Would I spend the rest of my life waiting for the day I lost my eyesight and a leg or two? Would I have to inject myself daily with doses of insulin?

Of course my questions were endless. Luckily, I had a good doctor who was very frank with me. The complications, he warned, were very likely to happen, if I failed to take care of myself. His advice? A healthy diet, daily exercise, and keeping a close watch on my blood glucose levels.

It sounded so easy. A healthy diet? No scene! Exercise? “Yeah man! I could handle dat,” I said to myself.

Two dieticians and 12 pounds later, I had yet to fully control my diabetes. I can guess that someone reading this may think I was being lazy, or even reckless. Two years should be more than enough time to become accustomed to a new way of eating (less starches, more greens, virtually no alcohol, fruits in moderation), and daily exercise. The reality was different.

Overnight, I felt pressured to go from flaky beef pies, beastly cold Coca Colas and fries, to salads, half a glass of unsweetened orange juice and almond nuts. Now I’m not knocking almond nuts, nor am I knocking salads or unsweetened orange juice. However, the more it dawned on me that my dietary habits would have to change quite considerably, and permanently, the more I wanted to pretend that my diagnosis never happened.

…some months I went back to my old habits – a 20z Coca Cola every other day, pastries from Linda’s…

So for some months I went back to my old habits – a 20z Coca Cola every other day, pastries from Linda’s, a quarter chicken with fries and macaroni salad from my favourite haunts on Ariapita Avenue. I kept telling myself, “In a few months I will change”. I kept convincing myself that “this spicy beef pie from Linda’s will my last”. Of course, the last pie became the second to last. Then THAT last pie became the second to last. You can guess how that went. I was having a time taking a swim in a place called denial.

Then came a rude awakening. I was tired and dizzy, with a headache worse than a category 5 hurricane. Something told me to check my blood glucose, something I had not done in months. Once I saw those numbers I was so sure I was delirious, but there it was in grey and black – it was 560 mg/dL, which for a human being is dangerous. That night I went to Port of Spain General Hospital.

My requests for food were strongly denied, and the hourly insulin injections did not help my mood either. (My right cheek still twitches when I think about that night – and not the cheek on my face, either.)

That was about a month and a half ago.

I consider myself lucky, as things could have been much worse. I might be without a limb or in a coma. I had to take a good look at myself, and decide on what was important.

Did I want to live to see my 40th birthday without too many health problems? Did I want to feel well enough so I could pursue my music and start living my life? Did I want to enjoy a quality of life other 25 year olds seem to enjoy? Other 25 year olds could eat and drink whatever they wanted, without worrying about high blood sugar, blurred vision or headaches. Didn’t I deserve to be in that group? At the very least didn’t I deserve to enjoy my life?

I answered yes. So once again I looked at my diet.

It is true that I may not be perfect, but healthier eating has paid off over the past few weeks. I weigh less, function better and have more energy. But how many other 20-somethings have made this discovery? How many 20-somethings eat badly, and give no thought to what could happen in their golden years? It is true that diseases like diabetes are also hereditary, but it is still avoidable. Even if you do not find yourself having to take insulin injections at age 25, at age 55 those insulin injections won’t be any more bearable.

I fancy myself to be an example of what can happen when you don’t take care of yourself – except in my case the consequences came a lot sooner than the average person. How many of our young people think ahead that far? How many of us have taken into account that our grandparents and parents are diabetic, which puts us at a higher risk of developing the disease? It is best to take it into account now, rather than somewhere in the distant future. After all, an amputated foot is unpleasant, regardless of when it gets cut off.

 

Image credit: hilltopfamilydental.com

6 Comments

  1. Kevin C

    March 26, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    Good job!

  2. Shelley Janelle

    March 26, 2012 at 10:48 pm

    Hmmm can’t be wotless with diabetes! I wish trini would really focus on educating people more about this disease as well as hypertension and cancer!

    • RenD

      March 28, 2012 at 11:28 am

      On ALL medically related issues (education and practice). Thanks God for the ever so present mosquitoes.

  3. Ayrid

    March 26, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    Couldnt have read this article at a better time! This was everything I needed to hear since today i started working out again FINALLy after 2 months of “taking a break” and eating way too much American fast food! I don’t have diabetes but in december found out I’m close to becoming diabetic if I don’t live a healthy lifestyle; eat right, exercise etc. I became lazy and this was just the wake up call I needed (at 22 yrs old) so THANK YOU!!!!!!!

  4. Stefan

    April 9, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    It is difficult to adjust when you’re young. Hang in there though. I was put on insulin immediately when I was diagnosed two years ago so i think i may have had an easier time with the food part of it. Keeping the weight off has not been so successful though, which is the important part especially when it comes to heart disease etc. You shouldn’t blame yourself either. Most times when you get diabetes as a youth its more about genetics than anything else. If your pancreas operates normally, you really cant develop diabetes before 40, i mean once you’re not a total pig. It is important to take care of yourself though. We have some real horror stories in T&T about people and this disease. But mostly its because they ignore that they have it. i remember telling an older neighbour of mine I had it and he was like ‘doh worry bout dat. do what yuh want’, which really amazed me. So shoot up, take the pills, eat right and check your blood a couple of times a week and you should be fine. And also, alcohol lowers your sugar level by interrupting liver function, and can protect your heart in the right amounts, so its ok to get sloshed every once in a while :). Cheers!

  5. sindhu

    November 10, 2013 at 2:29 pm

    Hi Louise. Thanks for the post. I am 24. My doctor told me this morning that I might be diabetic. I’ve given my tests and results are due in a couple of days. It’s 11.51pm now – where I live. I’ve been crying like a baby for quite some time now as I am scared of what the result might unearth. 99% of the symptoms I’ve read on the internet seem to fit my case. i am a vegetarian who doesn’t drink. i do not lead a super active healthy lifestyle, but I don’t do outright unhealthy things either. So I feel like shit. But your post has given me hope. Even if what I fear happens, I hope to be strong & positive, like many of you out there

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