Chronic illness does not equal laziness

Brooke J. Freundschuh, Editor-in-Chief

When I was only two years old I got very sick. My dad was out of town for military training. My mom and I were at my grandparents’ house while he was gone. I came down with what everyone thought was just a stomach virus. I couldn’t even hold down water.

This stomach virus turned into me going into a full-blown coma. I was sent to Children’s hospital at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I was eventually diagnosed with type-one diabetes.

I don’t remember any of this. I was two (and in a coma.) What I do remember is growing up having to check my blood sugar by pricking my finger 6-8 times a day; having my mom give me a shot of insulin every time I ate anything, before I went to bed and sometimes just because my blood sugar was too high; having to wake up in the middle of the night to eat and screaming at my mom as she tried to force me to drink a juice box at 4 a.m

The team I worked with at UAB was excellent, so excellent, in fact, that I went to the same doctor until I was 19 and they made me stop going. After 17 years, they’re part of my family too. Their team did everything they could to make me feel normal. I was given “Ruby and Rufus,” who were teddy bears with designated patches on their arms, legs, stomach and paws to demonstrate where they could take shots or check their blood sugars.

My grandmother kept sugar free cool whip at her house for me to eat instead of other, more sugary foods. When my parents later divorced and I spent most of my time with my grandmother, she had a book that listed the carb values of every item at every chain restaurant. We’d have to play a search-and-find game for whatever I ate when we’d go out. The “100 calorie snack packs” that were popular at the time were a life-saver for me in the days when I had to limit myself to 15 carb snacks (at the ripe age of five years old.) If you look at the package for any of your favorite snacks, a serving size is most likely more than 15 carbohydrates. I became a dedicated Diet Coke drinker by eight and have gone only a few days without it since.

This is not meant to be a sob story. It’s simply my story. I knew that not everyone had diabetes, but I felt like a normal kid. Even if I didn’t, I didn’t let the differences bother me. In early elementary school my mom would administer my insulin every day on her lunch break, which I thought was the coolest, because I got to see my mom in the middle of the day. I was still just a kid. I loved Dora and then Disney Princesses and then Hannah Montana and then Taylor Swift and so on.

I began to struggle more as I got older, first with anxiety. My anxiety was a combination of a fear of having a bad incident with my diabetes and the result of things that had happened during my childhood. The first time I remember having a panic attack was in third grade. We were having a Christmas party. My grandmother was coming to give me my insulin, but I stuffed my pizza and cookie cake in the garbage because I was terrified that it was going to hurt me before she got there.

Medical innovations allowed me to get an insulin pump when I was in elementary school, which I wore through the beginning of high school, when the cost became unreasonable and I switched back to shots. By this point it was expected more by those around me that I had to take control of my own insulin administration, which gave me a sense of freedom. What was frustrating and scary was when (some) teachers or leaders of extracurricular activities assumed that I was faking incidents to get out of class. Physical education teachers were sometimes the absolute worst at recognizing that sometimes I really could not run ten laps around the gym without throwing up.

Often my sugar would run low and I would have to keep a can of coke on my desk to sip on in case my sugar kept dropping, or I would have to finish eating lunch in class, because I had already taken insulin to cover the full meal. I went to a small school where I was fortunate to have the same teachers repeatedly who were understanding of this, but I can’t tell you how many times school staff or other students accused me of just having food in class “because I could.” I could have paid for college if I had a dollar for every “your disease must not be that bad if all you have to do to treat it is eat candy” I got from another kid, even into my high school years. They didn’t know better. It was a lack of education.

This lack of education still plagues the world today. Now that I’m an adult it isn’t just sitting down while everyone else runs laps or eating candy in class. Sometimes it’s a professor who doesn’t know the difference between type-one and type -two diabetes or a coworker who doesn’t understand why I have to take a break when we have a line full of customers in the lobby. Now it affects my ability to drive and get places on time.

The worst assumptions that are made are that I am lazy or that I use chronic illness as an excuse. While I’m sure people have used their conditions as a way to get out of activities they don’t want to do, I don’t stop until I’m absolutely dizzy 99% of the time. Because I manage my own health, some people assume that if I have a high or low blood sugar it is because I didn’t manage it correctly or take the right preventative measures, which once again is translated to laziness. My biggest pet peeve is when someone says “my *insert family member* is diabetic and they don’t do that; they do this.”

The non-diabetic body produces insulin automatically, in perfect doses to match the body’s consumption of food and changes in hormones. Humans cannot replicate that perfectly. When I get sick from my diabetes, it’s not because I failed to take care of myself, it is because my body failed to take care of me, but that’s okay. When I’m late to class it isn’t because I’m lazy; it is because I’m working harder than every person who doesn’t live having to make calculations to keep themselves alive and healthy every hour of every day.

There’s no one-size fits all. There’s nothing that someone with diabetes can’t do, sometimes we just must find a different way to do it and it may take a little longer than yours.

Dedicate 10 minutes to doing your research and believe people when they say they are at their physical limit.