This piece is autobiographical and based on living with type 1 diabetes.
I hate this feeling more than anything. I can’t breathe. It comes out in gasps that are as embarrassing as they are terrifying. If I try to talk my speech comes out so shaky, rushed and slurred not even I can understand it. I’m swaying. I need to sit down but I need lucozade and its downstairs. Fuck. Knuckles white on the banister, try very hard to keep balance and not fall. My heart has become so frenetic it hurts my chest and I can feel panicked, rushed blood thumping against my temples. I’m shaking. I’m going to collapse. I tell myself I’m not going to collapse. I’m going to collapse. No, I’m not. I make it to the lucozade, then I need to sit down. The chair’s five feet away. Feels like miles. I’m going to collapse – I will not let myself collapse.
At least I’m on my own this time and not out. When this happens and I’m out it can be so upsetting that part of me wants to go home, lock myself in my bedroom and not come out again. I wish more people understood that. You can list the symptoms of hypoglycaemia. You can tell people why it happens and how to fix it. Harder to describe are the feelings of panic and, if you’re in public, the embarrassment that goes with them. I don’t think I can describe either of those things in a way that will make me feel happy that someone who hasn’t experienced a hypo will ever understand what they’re really like. Hypoglycaemia is easily treated. Harder to treat and much harder to cope with is the awful panicking feeling that comes with them. I hate it. I hate that panic more than anything.
Sometimes I get so pissed off with myself. I think that after dealing with these delightful events for twenty-one years now I should be more copped on. I should be used to it. In a way I am used to it. But I’m always going to feel the panic. I spent four years in UCD taking notes on and doing experiments to show that a body in danger will always let you know. It’ll kick your heart and lungs around, leave you shaking and sweating, and put you through hell physically just to make sure you understand – this is an emergency. Fix it. Your blood sugar levels have dropped dangerously low and you need sugar, NOW, or you will collapse. The rising, all-consuming panic you feel is there to save your life. So it’s not something you can “just get used to.” This might be the third hypoglycaemic attack I’ve had in the space of a single day, but I still feel the same panic hammering against my chest and strangling my breath as I did in the very first one. Logically knowing that I’ll be ok within half an hour doesn’t slow my pulse.
It’s a Thursday night in the run up to Christmas. The writing group I’m part of is heading out for Christmas dinner tonight and I’m not there. Instead I’m sitting here alone, breath coming in gasps, my whole body shaking, trying to force myself not to give into the instinct to keep pumping more and more sugar into me until I come back to myself. I’ve never been treated by a doctor that actually had diabetes. Their sound medical advice is that a hypo should not be overtreated. You take the minimum amount of sugar and you wait it out. Easy, unless you’ve experienced one, and then you’ll know that the feeling of panic is so horrible that it takes supreme will not to give into it and keep pumping yourself full of sugar until it goes away. It’s not weak willpower. It’s biological instinct.
I didn’t go to the dinner because I’ve been having at least one of these a night almost every day of late. The thought that they, that the rest of the world in fact, is out having a good time without me makes me feel miserable. I half-thought about putting on Neil Young’s Oh, Lonesome Me, then decided that I was wallowing a bit much and had to cop on. I might well not have gone anyway for a whole plethora of other reasons, I’m just pissed off that I’m missing out on yet another thing. I can go to sleep now without worrying I won’t wake up. I’m not on the brink of a coma anymore, and I’m so, so thankful for that. It’s definitely worth a few tough, lonely months, but I’ve missed out on so much because of my health, and I just don’t want to do that anymore.
Earlier in the evening I wished I was there but now, the relief that I can ride this out on my own, that I’m not trying to quash panic, keep myself standing, and hide all my symptoms in public, is overwhelming. A paramedic once told me about a diabetic who died in police custody. Having a severe hypo, his symptoms were mistaken for extreme drunkenness and he was arrested when he should have been put in an ambulance. I can’t get that out of my head – it would be such an easy mistake to make. The symptoms look, to an untrained eye, like you’re completely out of it on drink and drugs. Your brain doesn’t have enough nutrients or oxygen, so you can’t always speak or behave rationally. You shake so badly people think you’ve got the DT’s. The way people glance at you and glance away can make you feel very small. When they do realise what’s happening, people will try to help, but can get it badly wrong. “The most important thing you’ll do as a first aider is control of bystanders.” If that’s the only thing anyone ever learns from first aid training, it was worth their while doing the course. After you’ve recovered, everyone just loves giving advice. “You should eat more in future.” “You should wear a warning bracelet.” Even, once, when I was 22, “You shouldn’t go out on your own if you’re diabetic.”
I try to remember that they’re well-intentioned. I nod and smile when I hear these things, but their advice sounds like blame, and it cuts. And diabetes is hard enough to live with – especially in the vulnerable time after a hypo – without that nonsense. Hypos, once treated, are resolved quickly, but if someone sees you in that state they don’t forget it. They’ll always be looking out for another one, and that gets stifling. It feels like they put you in a box, and from then on you’re seen as someone who needs looking after, someone who can’t manage on their own. I know how well they mean, but the path to hell is paved with good intentions. When I have a hypo and I’m out I put so much energy into trying to suppress my symptoms so I won’t be seen as drunk, or incapable, and I have to quash the panic or at least hide it, because if you can at least appear calm and rational you can keep at least some of your pride. But that means there isn’t enough energy left to keep the extreme discipline that I need to override the overtreat instinct, so I swallow a gallon of lucozade in an attempt to get rid of the panic feeling as soon as I can.
These are part of my life now and forever, so I’ll live with them, because I have to. There’s something else I’ve become aware of, though, and I’m not sure how long it’s been going on. I’ve been treating hypos that never existed because sometimes, life makes me anxious, or nervous, and after 20 years of being diabetic, you assume everything’s related to your diabetes. I treated non-existant hypos every night before curtains went up on my play last summer. I thought I had a massive hypo before the HeadSpace launch in May. I was just nervous. I’ve even tried to treat love with lucozade. Which is daft, because the only drink that even might be able to help with that has got to be red wine. 🙂