I never really understood my mom’s affinity for psychics. She renounced Ouija boards as a portal to dark spirits, but she once told me that she saw a psychic with a friend in 1994. I imagine the scene in the back room of a storefront in coastal Connecticut, candles wafting, an old mystic draped in cotton. The psychic lays down the tarot, and sees a small boy in the cards—a youngest son yet to be born, with some chronic medical condition. My mom feigns concern.
Four years later, I was born, and just after my fifth birthday, I was diagnosed with type one diabetes. Somehow, the fates had delivered: I was confined to a life of carb counting and insulin. I learned more about this disease, that it wasn’t just some temporary inconvenience, but rather the rest of my life.
My diabetes was the result of my body’s immune system killing off insulin production, and that meant that I had no way to actually use the carbs I digested from my food. Without treatment, this would be strictly fatal; my body would slowly go through ketoacidosis and endure a pretty rapid decline. With treatment, diabetes is just a few injections and finger pricks every day—every five–year–old’s idea of fun.
Once I started grade school, though, diabetes became so much more than just a medical condition; it became a label. Social forces were at play, and when kids look for a reason to point out why you’re different, diabetes kind of gives you a big target. I mean, think about it—diabetes was the punchline for so many quality jokes in 2000’s shows like Family Guy and South Park. Some kids would even jump away when I told them, afraid of catching my disease.
I was always the “diabetic kid” in my classes, and even though I had friends, many of the fun things in school—celebrations with food, field trips, sleepovers—quickly became complicated. I was a kid who wanted to do it all. I wanted to have fun, play with the others, eat some snacks, and not think about much other than Pokémon and videogames. More than anything, I wanted to be normal. I wanted to go to school, and not have to worry about how my insulin pump tubing stuck out of my shirt, or whether the school nurse was going to call me in the middle of class.
Even now, diabetes kind of still sucks. It’s just another thing to add to my list of things that are stressing me out. In college, I find it difficult to talk about, because people usually make some comment about how I “don’t look diabetic,” or they get all paternalistic and ask if it’s okay if I eat certain things.
It’s also weird because I knew more diabetics in my middle school of 900 kids than I've ever even heard of at Penn. I still long to be that normal kid; I want to be able to go through college life and not worry if something goes wrong with my diabetes. I want to just be in the moment and enjoy college.
My diabetes always seems to be one moment away, though. Sometimes it comes as an alert on my phone about my blood sugar that checks me back in with reality. Other times, I’m with a friend and somebody asks what “that patch” is on my arm. It’s not something that upsets or offends me in any way; instead I just go to this place in my head, take a breath, and prepare to give this person the talk. The one I have had with almost every person I talk to for an extended period of time.
“Oh, that’s my insulin pump. Yeah, I’m a diabetic. No, it’s not that big of a deal; I can do whatever I want. No, not the type older people usually get. Yeah, medical technology has come pretty far.”
It’s just kind of tiring, like the small talk you make with your extended family at Thanksgiving.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my mom never spoke to that psychic. Maybe if she hadn't tested fate, my life would be different. Maybe if my body hadn’t committed mutiny, or if I inherited a different set of genes, I could eat, drink, and socialize like a normal person. My life would be so much simpler. But, as much as I want to be able to blame this psychic for my issues, it won’t change anything. There’s no way to change what happened, so it’s of more use to me to learn to accept my diabetes and cope with it, rather than hand it off as somebody else’s fault.
One of my favorite counselors at summer camp—a camp for diabetic boys, of course—once told me that diabetes is something that doesn’t allow itself to be ignored. Everyone at Camp Joslin had their own stories about accepting their disease; some were still in the process. Some hit burnout first—a syndrome akin to depression where you refuse to engage with the disease and gradually become pretty sick—while others had the support of a friend. Hearing these stories at camp, in a uniquely diabetic space, really allowed me to cope with my diabetes.
In some ways, I think embracing my label as a diabetic was its own little coming out. It even helped me find that same self–assurance later on when I would start to come to terms with my sexuality. I learned to grapple with how I operate in relation to normal. I’ll probably always have to be more health–aware than my other friends, and advocate for myself a little harder, and that’s okay.
On that night in 1994, the psychic also told my mom that her unborn son would be okay, that she shouldn’t pity him. And she was right: I’m okay. I’m not normal, but I kind of doubt that anyone is. Everyone has the things they have to cope with. It's what makes us ourselves, and I’m grateful to be able to appreciate the nuances of life that my diabetes, and sexuality, have tested.