I was diagnosed when I was four, in 1994. I don’t remember a lot about it but a visit to the doctor’s followed by Mum crying down the phone to Dad, saying I had to go in to hospital. Not really understanding what was going on, I started to get upset as well – I think at that age, tears are definitely contagious. Then Dad picked us up and was telling me in the car on the way about how the hospital had a huge room full of toys for me to play with, and trying to console both Mum and me. He had no idea what facilities hospitals had at all for children, but luckily, when I got there I discovered he’d been right.
Oddly, my memories of that week in hospital are good ones. The bed they gave me was magical, it moved up and down with a special lever until I was so high up that I was afraid to peer over the edge in case I fell. I made friends with a girl across the ward and we’d have played together if her eczema hadn’t been contagious. Still, we talked and were somehow friends, in the way that four year olds are.
Having said that, after talking to my mum in recent years it’s quite clear that her memories of the entire thing were not happy ones at all. I was under the illusion that she’d slept in the hospital chair alongside me the entire time, when actually she’d gone home after I’d fallen asleep and returned in the morning before I woke up. Once she came in slightly after I’d woken up and cleverly fabricated the lie that she’d just popped to get a drink. I was fooled and blissfully ignorant, whereas she was trying not to show me how upsetting the ordeal was for her.
At the time of my diagnosis, I didn’t really understand diabetes but knew the basics after a while – that I couldn’t eat chocolate whenever I wanted like my sister could, and had to have injections. I cursed my mother when she injected me, at first with syringes, and called her the worst insult a four year old could think of – “nasty mummy”. As trivial as it is I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to hear this but it came from my lack of understanding the reasons behind this needle business that seemed to be a very recent and new phenomenon.
School was a bit of a trial sometimes too, but most of the teachers were understanding. I was on two injections a day and had to take a snack mid afternoon, which usually consisted of a biscuit from a tin kept in the teacher’s store cupboard. Once, my supply was running low and I discovered that someone had stolen my snack! In the end I ate a chocolate bar and ran round the playground a bit, and after being identified as a biscuit thief my classmate never took my snacks again. A happy ending.
The end of school holiday was another challenge, with teachers reluctant to learn about diabetes who would have happily excluded me from it if my mother and nurse hadn’t fought my cause. I’m grateful that they did, and I spent my first week away from home with my classmates on an enjoyable holiday.
High school was another new experience with regards to diabetes and I found for the first time ever I had to tell people about it. In primary school, the teachers had made everyone aware of my diabetes so I’d never had to form any kind of explanation as to why I sometimes had to eat in the middle of class. I found it hard at first; when do I bring it up in conversation, what if people think I’m different and all the rest of it but ultimately decided that if people were going to judge me on something that was just part of me then it really wasn’t my problem but theirs. The friends I made were understanding about it but unfortunately their parents weren’t, and I’d get left out of things like holidays that other friends in our little group went on with a parent because I was a ‘burden’.
Other challenges presented themselves in the form of hypos mid-lessons, where I’d often have to explain to the teacher I was diabetic or get my blood sugar monitor out in class, earning the class’s unwanted attention. Some teachers could be sceptical about whether I was telling the truth or not and I learnt to put my health first instead of being afraid of a teacher. Sometimes that can mean walking out of a lesson despite that a teacher has told you to sit down and wait until you can leave the room to get to the nearest vending machine, but as I wasn’t lying about being diabetic, I never really got in to trouble for it.
Some teachers can be extremely misunderstanding though. Once, I had a hypo in the middle of a PE lesson. So I explained to the teacher, who was a little suspicious, as I didn’t excel in PE. When I got back to the changing rooms and my bag, containing dextrose tablets and some cereal bars, I encountered another suspicious teacher who asked why I was there. My friend, who’d come with me, explained I needed something sugary and she offered me a choice between sugar water and hot chocolate; obviously a test to my sincerity. Shaking, I told her ‘whatever, sugar water, whatever’s quicker’. I tend to struggle with words and politeness when I suffer hypos, and become somewhat shaky. I took forty minutes to recover from that hypo, by which time the PE lesson was over. The lesson’s teacher, however, was not pleased that I’d managed to evade this much of her PE and told me that her friend who was diabetic ‘has a mars bar and then she’s fine’. This sort of reaction really infuriates me because of its ignorance to the condition. Perhaps I might have gone back sooner if the lesson was a sit-down, desk-type lesson, but when you’re expected to be running track and jumping over hurdles, it’s a little bit different.
Those are some of the problems I encountered after being diagnosed whilst at school. Next time, I’ll talk about college and university experiences!