(Alternate Title: "Trust Me, There's a Comic Book Review In Here Somewhere; Read Carefully.")
I had just developed a liking for Chocodiles when my life took a left turn.
I turned 11 on March 3, 1987. Coming up on Memorial Day a couple months later, I wasn't feeling right. While I was always a well-behaved student who didn't give his teachers much trouble, I did start asking for the bathroom pass during classes. In retrospect, it seems like such a silly thing. As the same rate, 24 years removed from that now, I don't remember when I ever had time to go to the bathroom. On the way to lunch, perhaps?
Life is filled with little details we take for granted and then forget.
The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I got very sick and my mother got me an emergency appointment at my pediatrician's office. The doctor looked at me and sent me up the street to the hospital for tests. It was going to be a long afternoon, but my mother promised me one of those roast beef sandwiches at the Roy Rogers down the street for lunch when it was all over.
Like I said: the little details.
It was a warm weekend, so we wound up sitting in a waiting room at the blood lab, waiting for my tests to come back for what seemed like an eternity. I just wanted to watch the Yankees game, but there was no TV in the room. They kept the lights off to keep the room cool. It was miserable tedium for an 11 year old. (Remember, kids, there were no Game Boys, iPhones, or portable DVD players back then.) They finally did admit me that afternoon, and I spent the next three days in the same hospital where I was born, learning how to be a Type I Juvenile Diabetic.
It wasn't a complete surprise. My father is a pharmacist. He suspected it, and put me on a sugar-restricted diet a couple weeks earlier to see if that was it. I asked him if I could have a Chocodile when it was all over and he gave a completely non-committal "We'll see."
I've not had a Chocodile since. It got tougher in the early 90s when they stopped making them for the East Coast. I just learned that on Wikipedia.
The days spent in the hospital included watching a film strip ("This is your pancreas. BEEP! You have no insulin left. BEEP! You're going to go blind. BEEP!"), talking to nurses and doctors and learning to take insulin shots. They started me on the plastic baby doll, but I quickly moved up to the nurse's arm, and then my own.
You want proof that nurses don't make enough money? That nurse rolled up her sleeve, had me fill a needle up with some kid of saline solution, and then shove it into her arm. Now that's brave.
Then, I started to give myself shots -- legs, stomach, arms. I skipped the shots in the butt, thanks, though they were a perfectly legitimate site.
I learned about the diabetic diet, which involves what today is referred to as "counting carbs." Back then, it was popularly referred to as "Richard Simmons' Deal-A-Meal." It's a funny thing with diets: For as many names as they are given, it's usually the same thing -- control calories and carbohydrates, eat a variety of foods and get exercise. Times change, trademarked titles change, but it's still the same old damned thing.
I was released on Wednesday afternoon after eating the hospital-issued open-faced roast beef sandwich. I didn't ask for Roy Rogers after that. (That's a good thing, since Wendy's moved in a few years later.)
I stayed home for the next couple of days and went back to school the next week. I didn't last long that first day. I went to the nurse's office to check my blood sugar and couldn't get the blood out of my finger and onto the test strip. It must have been a bit overwhelming, being on my own with a device where the lancet was on the outside and had to watch it spring into your finger, pierce skin and draw a drop of blood. My father took me home early that day and we worked on it some more.
In fact, between the diabetes and an unrelated sore throat and a cold, I didn't spend much time at all in school that last month of fifth grade. When I did go back, nobody made fun of me or treated me weirdly, even if I was snacking on crackers during reading class in the middle of the morning or skipping the cookie at the end of the school lunch.
That was 24 years ago this week. Twenty Four Years of taking insulin shots, between 2 and 8 times a day (17,250 and 70,080 total --though I'm probably closer to 50,000, in reality), checking my blood sugar even more often and drinking Diet Pepsi. (When my wife and I go out for dinner, the waitress will often serve the Diet to my wife and the sugar-infested soda to me. Always makes me chuckle.)
This all came flooding to me this weekend because of a comic book I read. I mentioned it here a couple of weeks ago; "Sugar Baby" by Nomi Kane, an auto-biographical comic including her early struggles with diabetes. I don't remember if the plastic doll I gave shots had a name. For Kane, though, it was "Sugar Baby," complete with the site injections laid out on the doll's arms, legs and stomach. (She doesn't draw the doll from behind, so I'm not sure what the backside situation was.) Kane relates how she got sick at school and nobody believed her. She talks about her cravings for sugary food, even though she knew she couldn't have it. She draws strips about taking shots in public restrooms, something we all learn to do discretely and quickly with practice. (I took one in less than a minute in a restaurant bathroom in New York City a few weeks ago. Figured it might freak out people in the dining room to start rolling up my shirt and sticking a needle in.) She even has a great drawing of the side effects of various blood sugar levels. I loved the detail where 70-150 is a normal diabetic's blood sugar versus 80-120 for a non-diabetic. I don't consider my blood sugar "high" until it gets over 150, but I was beginning to think I was alone with that these days.
There's a drawing of Kane in the back of the book that I suspect shows her with an insulin pump in her front pocket, the tube crawling up under her shirt to an unseen injection site in her stomach. I want to see that story told in comic book form, next. While I have decent enough control of my blood sugar, I can't help but wonder sometimes if the pump is the logical next step to tighten it up even better. It's scary to think of living a diabetic life for a quarter of a century without any major side effects. Others are not so lucky, and I don't think of myself as that great a diabetic. But my eye sight hasn't changed in years, I still have perfect control and feelings in my extremities and all the long-term symptoms are absent. But, still, time has a way of catching up to people quickly and unexpectedly. For example:
I got my first pair of glasses in February 1987. It opened up a whole new world to me. I could read the blackboard in the front of the classroom again! While I was at the eye doctor's, they offered to do a blood sugar check. Loss of eyesight is an indicator of diabetes, after all. We passed, thinking there was no reason to check it -- everyone else in my family needed glasses, and my grandfather's diabetes was Type II. Less than three months later, I was admitted into a hospital for diabetes. Would we have caught it in February? Possibly. We'll never know.
The funny thing about reading Kane's comic today is seeing the other side of the equation. I lived the diabetic's experience. Now, I live the parental experience. The thought of my daughter testing for diabetes and having to live with a purse full of needles and a glucometer frightens me. It's not that it's unmanageable; goodness knows it's a thousand times more easily treated today than it was when I was a kid (before I was diagnosed, though) and your sugar levels were tested by peeing on a stick and comparing the color it turned against a chart on the outside of the tube. But, still, I don't want my daughter to live like this -- always with a backpack on her shoulder when going out for a night, or constantly wondering where her sugar is at, or wondering if eating that last french fry would be a good idea or not because she doesn't want to take another shot, or carrying some kind of sugar with her at all times in case it goes in the opposite direction, and what if she take the wrong shot and her sugar levels crash quickly and -- ARGH.
My daughter went through a period last year where she drank a lot and urinated frequently. Those are classic symptoms of diabetes, along with craving sweets, lethargy and others. It freaked me out. It freaked me out because I knew what such a thing would mean for her, and if she did have to go through it, I'd rather she be a little older so I didn't have to give her all the shots. Yes, I'm a horribly selfish person. It passed, thankfully, as just being one of those things kids do at that age. But it was a scary couple of days to seriously consider that it would have been my fault, genetically speaking.
So when I read Kane's comic today I pay closer attention to the way she draws her parents behind her, clearly worried and attentive, stuck playing a game of making sure their daughter's life is as "normal" as possible while making sure she takes good care of herself and is trained to do the right (diabetic) thing. I was lucky that I had a stable home, a father in a medical profession, and, well, being just young enough to blindly follow my parent's directions and not rebel against them. That saved my life.
If I'm counting right, "Sugar Baby" is 44 pages long, all but five of them being story pages. You can order the $6 hand-crafted comic (held together with a ribbon, no less) directly from Kane at her BrewForBreakfast.com website, which is what I did. The book isn't entirely about diabetes, though most of it is. It's not about the on-going struggle of balancing units of insulin with crumbs of food. It's about the little ways diabetes encroaches on your life when you're still a kid. It's a series of sketches that show better how juvenile diabetes matters than anything I've ever seen in comic book form. (This isn't Wally West downing a dozen hamburgers to maintain his blood sugar levels from his elevated metabolism.)
For me, it's about a comic hitting me right in the gut with experiences that I'm not alone in having. It's about the juvenile diabetes epidemic, decoupled from the popular media pairing with childhood obesity. (I was skinny as a rail when I was diagnosed.) It's about a comic book sparking memories and spurring conversations I wouldn't otherwise have had. And it's still just scratching the surface. I know my twenty four years have created enough funny, awkward, dramatic, or insightful stories to fill up multiple books like this. I only hope Kane has plans to share more of hers with us.
To learn more about diabetes, check out the Juvenile Diabetes Resarch Foundation's website today. Google for "diabetes comic book" and you'll find an epidemic of educational results that look uniformly awful. And, of course, they all focus on Type II diabetes spurred on by a sedentary lifestyle and controlled with pills. (Don't get me started on those "pill-popping diabetics." If they're not sticking themselves with needles, they're wannabe diabetics to me. )
Twenty four years. Maybe tomorrow I'll have a roast beef sandwich. And re-read "Sugar Baby."
Thanks for indulging me this week. Next week, we'll be back to straight-up comic reviews and news analysis. Promise.
In the meantime, check out my photography blog, AugieShoots.com, where you can read about the experience I had shooting a Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers concert. Or, go to VariousandSundry.com to read other oddball thoughts that aren't comics-related.