“You have diabetes.”
After being diagnosed five years ago, I was quickly introduced to the hectic world of insulin, finger pricking, and all the complexities of diabetes management. As a second-year student at McGill and a type 1 diabetic, I am celebrating National Diabetes Awareness Month with a commitment to shamelessly and unapologetically share my experience living with diabetes, in the spirit of this year’s theme, “T1D Looks Like Me.” My intention here is not to explain the science of diabetes, but rather to share the ways in which diabetes intersected with nearly every aspect of my first-year experience. I wish to encourage an open dialogue about the challenges and barriers faced by those with an often invisible disease: to all those living with type 1 diabetes, especially those who may be struggling, I want you to know that you are not alone.
The first year of university is supposed to be exciting, often portrayed as a major milestone in life. As I packed my bags and left my hometown of Brantford, Ontario, I was indeed extremely excited, but also somewhat nervous. I was also concerned with how living with type 1 diabetes would affect my university experience and lifestyle. How would my diabetes management routine be impacted by all the new things that were about to be thrown at me? Would I be able to have the ‘typical’ college experience?
Many new students are introduced to university through Frosh. It’s no secret that Frosh is generally associated with a lot of partying and alcohol, and I won’t lie – the drinking culture associated with Frosh was intimidating to me. Excessive alcohol consumption and type 1 diabetes can be a treacherous, even deadly, mix. Although I drink alcohol, I must do so with caution. This means monitoring my blood sugar throughout the night and being prepared for the delayed effects that can cause very unpleasant (and sometimes dangerous) blood sugar lows.
The invisibility of diabetes often means that you have to advocate for yourself and your limits. One of the nights during Frosh, I was carrying an unopened bottle of Gatorade with me in case my blood sugar dropped too low. Upon entering a club, it was confiscated, and the bouncer didn’t seem to care when I tried to explain my situation – I was only able to get it back after speaking to a Frosh coordinator. While I did have fun at Frosh, my experience at the club illustrates how I feel about drinking culture in general: it can be stressful and overwhelming at times, and is the site of an internal struggle to constantly recognize my personal boundaries and ensure that they are respected.
With diabetes there is no vacation, no weekend off, or personal day to recharge.
Finding a semblance of balance in the busy life of university is challenging for any new student, but is especially important for good diabetes management. Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, checking your blood sugar throughout the day, and trying to fit in physical activity while maintaining some sort of regularity to your daily routine are all vital factors in doing it well. It’s a lot easier said than done, and it is especially difficult when you go through a period of transition where everything feels like it’s changing at once.
The chaos of this transition to university really impacted my control over my diabetes. Staying up late studying, going out, having class at different times every day, constantly adjusting insulin dosages, changing my diet, and struggling squeeze in exercise and time to socialize made controlling my blood sugar extremely difficult. There were days where I was practically ignoring my diabetes; at other times, I was trying really hard to be diligent, but still not getting the results I wanted. I was exhausted, not only by the demanding schedule of university, but also by the daily emotional and physical effort of managing my diabetes.
Shortly after hitting a rough patch in my first semester, I had my first endocrinology appointment since arriving in Montreal. My test result was not horrible, but as I had expected, my sugar levels had gone up over the three months I’d been at McGill. The doctor’s response was that it was normal for a diabetic student at university to go through periods of poorer control and that I should just keep trying to do better. I was somewhat relieved by this response, but also felt a sense of great frustration. “Just keep trying” was not a satisfying answer. I was trying, but I felt in many ways that I was failing.
One of the most frustrating aspects of living with diabetes is feeling limited or socially isolated by the disease. I struggled throughout first year to balance pursuing a normal social life and taking good care of my health. I desperately wanted to just study, go for a run, or eat and drink whatever I felt like without having to take insulin, check my sugar levels, and weigh the consequences of every decision I made. I often felt guilty that I was neglecting my health, but at the same time, when I tried to meticulously control every aspect of my diabetes, I felt like I was missing out. And at times I felt incredibly jealous – jealous that, from my perspective, everyone around me was carefree and having a good time while I was in the corner checking my blood sugar, gulping down juice to treat a low, or weighing the potential consequences of having one more drink. There were times in my first year when, despite being surrounded by people, I felt alone, like there was nobody who could relate to what I was going through. I was experiencing diabetes burnout, and with diabetes there is no vacation, no weekend off, or personal day to recharge.
One of the most frustrating aspects of living with diabetes is feeling limited or socially isolated by the disease.
I learned in my first year that finding and accessing support resources is incredibly important. While I was able stay in contact with the diabetic clinic in my hometown, which was extremely helpful, I also found it necessary to access resources on campus. By registering with the Office for Students with Disabilities, I was able to receive exam accommodations, allowing me to take breaks without losing exam time. While I’ve never actually used the stop time yet, it provides a huge sense of relief to know that the option is there if I need it.
Other important sources of support for me were the floor fellows in my residence. Being able to openly express how I was genuinely feeling in a non-judgmental environment helped me deal with the complex emotions of a strenuous first year and improved my overall mental health. The diverse concerns and challenges I faced in terms of both my physical and mental wellbeing all in their own way impacted how I was able to manage my diabetes.
My intention in writing this article was not to dwell on negatives, but to be open and sincerely honest about my experiences. Living with diabetes has not stopped me, and will not stop me, from living a meaningful life. In fact, it motivates me to be healthy and to achieve my goals in spite of these challenges, and reminds me to be thankful for my amazing support network. My first year at university challenged me in many ways, but it was also the best year of my life.
Type 1 diabetes looks like testing your blood sugar more than ten times a day. It looks like the fear of serious future health complications from highs and it looks like panic, disorientation, and fatigue caused by dangerous lows. It looks like exhaustion, sleeping through classes, and moments of defeat. But it also looks like determination, success, motivation, and inspiration. It looks like groundbreaking medical advancements and incredible support networks. It looks like courage and hope.
My name is Ryan Jamula and type 1 diabetes looks like me.
Ryan Jamula is a U1 Political Science student. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.