Diabetes: Tear Down the Wall
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fi-----------ne!” I screamed the lyrics to REM’s song while hanging halfway out of the window of my girlfriend’s mother’s minivan. Passing cars honked and their passengers pointed, cheered, laughed, found the song on the radio and chimed in. My girlfriend, Carrie, grabbed my pants to keep me from falling headlong into the street while her mother cursed. Carrie then stuffed more hard candy in my mouth, as she had done before, and, again, I laughed and sprayed her with it.
I don’t remember any of this. All that I’ve told you is second-hand information, because by the time I got treatment, I was belligerent, swearing and 23 mg/dl.
I’d spent the day trying to recover from a stomach bug, mostly by drinking ginger ale and Pepto Bismol. I watched my glucose level hover between 65-90 mg/dl and tried to adjust my insulin to my food intake, or lack thereof. But the situation was beyond my control and soon my head was as troubled as my digestive tract and all folded into turmoil.
I stumbled around Carrie’s house, confused and slurring and walking into walls. At one point I tried to sleep on the couch, but thankfully her mother had an inkling of the issue and would not let me lie down. At some point they decided to take me to the hospital. I don’t know why they didn’t call 9-1-1. Possibly it was because I moved from a melting candle to a more jittery and hungry child, stuffing whatever was in reach into my mouth. I was still conscious and speaking, so off we went.
From there I turned into the whirling dervish of hypoglycemia. An almost drunken euphoria emerged and I became a dancing spectacle. I twirled and pranced in the middle of the emergency room and then ran atop a bank of chairs, headed toward the bathroom, where upon reaching the door, I dropped my pants. The patients waiting for care found me amusing—so I’m told—and goaded me on in spite of warnings from the staff to “Leave the drunk alone.” Carrie busily tried to convince the nurses that I was not intoxicated and, indeed, needed medical care.
Something changed while I was in the bathroom. I moved away from the euphoria and entered the last stage of hypoglycemia before unconsciousness. I became volatile, came out cursing at nurses, the other patients and my girlfriend. The staff did take notice, but was nonplussed because I was still standing.
My girlfriend managed to test my level while her mother held my arm. The resulting 23 mg/dl got me strapped to a gurney.
When I awoke, I felt as if an injection of clarity had passed into my bloodstream. The raucous static in my mind dissipated, and the gauzy sheen of blurs around me solidified. I saw myself, an IV in one arm, both tied in restraints, as were my legs. A sticky goo had congealed across my cheek and chest and the copper taste of blood lingered in my mouth. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, my girlfriend and her mother, all hovered around my bed, their faces transfixed, as if I were some caged animal or a freak show at the carnival.
I later learned of how I spit the glucose at the doctor, gnashed my teeth and tried to bite the nurse when she administered more, cursed every person in the room and almost dislocated my shoulder trying to get free of the restraints. Needless to say a deep sense of guilt overcame me and I was thoroughly embarrassed by my actions. But in the same turn I realized that there was nothing I could have done to keep what happened from occurring. I was diligent in my care. The disease simply overtook me.
I haven’t since experienced a hypoglycemic episode of this magnitude, nor do I ever want to. The fear this encounter imbued within me has left me guarded and rightfully so, because the song I so gleefully belted out could easily have been a much more grim and prophetic statement. In that moment it was the end. The end of what I know of everyday diabetes management, where you test, you inject, you eat and move on. I learned that there are dark boundaries that should not be crossed, for out there lies a world of hurt, all disquietingly close to the one in which we live.
It’s the middle of the night, and I’m in bed, trying not to piss myself. I’m like my grandfather, who just the other day, told my mom that he’s up “draining the lizard” every few hours. He said, “I feel like a hose that’s stuck on trickle. No matter what I do I can’t shut it off. That can’t be normal?” When he spoke, and then cleared his throat to close his point, I nodded. Not at the phlegm, he’s always doing that. Rather, at what he meant, not having the plumbing working correctly. That’s my problem. I’m up three to six times a night. And it’s not a nervous, little, annoying pee, like when you have to go before a test. You know, just to go, because you’re all panicky.
Lately, it’s like I’m in a marathon-pissing contest, except I’m the only contestant. It wouldn’t be so bad if I had a bank of snow in my bathroom. That way I could write my name and stuff with my piss. But no, it’s just me, and the cold linoleum floor, the creak of the house, and the sound of a flood pouring into the toilet.
So to distract myself, I’m staring at my walls, but they’re covered in this god-awful underwater/ocean wallpaper. I never should have listened to my mom. “It’ll look so cool!” she said. “Your uncle gave you all that fishing gear last year. We could use it as the focus to the theme.” I know what you’re thinking, too much “Trading Spaces” and Martha Stewart. Well, you’re right. But she’s got to have something to do besides working all the time. She’s a nurse, and judging from what the job has done to her, I know there’s one career path I won’t be taking.
Then there’s my dad. He watches “Sports Center”, non-stop. Enough said. The two of them, her with the projects, and him with the sports obsession, never meet.
But it’s more than just different interests. They can’t seem to put their relationship back together, not since my Uncle Brian died; he’s the one who gave me the fishing gear. His death has changed everything, including how my dad and I get along. I’d like to change that, help them get fixed, and help my dad to see what’s in front of him, not just the past. But I can’t get into that now. My bladder feels as if it’s weighted down by a bowling ball and filled with cracked glass.
I peel back the covers and slide my legs over the edge of the bed. As soon as my feet hit the carpet, I feel like I’m three years old again, afraid I’m going to have an “accident.” Except, at 15, I don’t think you can call it that anymore. So I bolt from bed, and immediately know that was a bad move. My midsection feels like I’ve run through a sword, and my legs buckle. Fortunately, the bathroom isn’t very far. My feet plod across the linoleum, sounding like large, dying fish, flopping against a boat deck. I rip off my shorts and don’t even bother to shut the door or hit the light. I’m like a blind person who flawlessly zips around his house, without hitting the edge of the coffee table, or stepping on the dog.
I land on the toilet with a thud. The tank’s lid smacks the wall, but I don’t care; I’ve made it, and now…Oh Holy God! Yes! What I didn’t tell you is that I’m on the toilet, backwards. I get tired from all the pushing. So I don’t stand, and I don’t sit regular either. One night I found the most comfortable position was just plopping down and resting my arms on the tank. I then rest my head on my arms, and let gravity work down below. This way, at least for a few moments, I’m free. The pressure’s spilling out, and then it’s gone, and I can flush it all away.
I slap the faucet off and take a step toward the door. Then I hear her creak from their bed, across the hall. The light pops on, and I’m frozen, like a deer. My hands do a quick inventory of my shorts, making sure that they’re actually there. Yeah, I’ve forgotten before. Just as my hands finish, my mom appears.
“Ed, what are you doing up?”
Why this question? I’m coming from the bathroom. Isn’t it obvious? “I had to go.” I register her shoulder. It’s still. I make a move to pass. “G’night!”
“How many times is that?”
I half turn to her. “Three.”
She sighs. I watch her wriggle her toes up off the floor. “Okay, go to bed.” I get in bed and lie on my back, my side, practically on my head, in an effort to get comfortable, but it’s useless. Already, I can feel the pressure mounting. And, now, I get to worry that the next time I go to the bathroom, my mom will be listening. Only this time, she’ll tell me the complete opposite of what she told my grandfather: You’re fine. It’s completely normal for someone your age to be up like that.
I stare out the window, and into the swirling night. My throat fills, and I try to clear it.
It’s morning now, and I was up three more times during the night. Every time I finished, I passed by my parents’ bedroom and pretended I didn’t hear a sigh coming from within. And now, I’m back in the bathroom. Where else would I be? I’m checking my face in the mirror and I’ve got the worn-out look of new parents. Ashen grey circles cup my eyes. I turn away and take in the “head” as my Gramps calls it. I truly wish we had a nicer one. My friend Sid has a gigantic bathroom, with a whirlpool tub and marble tile on the floor and walls. It’s like being in a friggin’ quarry in there. The last time I stayed over Sid’s, I just stood on the tile and felt the cold through my feet. His house is pin-drop quiet, and the bathroom has like five windows. The moonlight was pouring in, and I looked around and thought…It’s so beautiful.
Anyway, here I am, in the wadded-up-Kleenex-that-should-be-thrown-out bathroom, staring at my face. I’ve seen pictures of the Holocaust, and I swear, if you just threw me in one of those pajama outfits, and slapped on a yellow star, I’d totally blend in. I’m gaunt, but I haven’t always been this way. I mean, I’ve never been overweight, except for when I was a baby. But now, I’m rail-thin. My eyes and cheeks are sunken into my face. I look like some model trying for a sexy pose. Except on me, it’s gross, not at all sexy.
I look up to the clock; it’s already 7:07. Time for me to head off to school.
Of course, I piss, again, before I grab my backpack and leave. It’s a cool morning, the beginning of November, and my breath hangs in transparent clouds as I walk. The dew on the grass is clumped, congealed, close to freezing.
Sid’s already at the bus stop when I roll up, and I practically fall into a heap next to him. “Hey,” he says. I reply with the same, sniffle, and wait for more. I never know with Sid. His parents argue a lot, and he typically reflects the emotional state of things at home. Anyway, Sid’s like a stone today. His back is to me, picking up the morning sun, and he’s staring down the street, looking as if he’s watching for the approaching bus.
I sniffle again and pull into myself, already feeling a bit of pressure down below. My mouth is chalky, and even thought I just ate, my stomach growls. Sid and I sit, in the cold November morning, and say nothing.
Tear Down the Wall
“All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.” My head nearly lifted off my neck when I first heard Pink Floyd’s wildly famous lyrics. I was fifteen and the album The Wall was new to me in 1993. The idea of creating a figurative wall in order to keep oneself protected resonated so seamlessly within me, that I listened to the entire album, non-stop, as if on a loop.
I began construction of my psychologically protective barrier one week after being diagnosed. I was on a bus ride for a field trip and my classmates were talking about their favorite foods. Even one of my teachers chimed in when the conversation turned from dinner entrees to desserts. The already tight confines of the bus felt like they were closing in on me. The air was saturated with systemically named foods, that in my mind, I would never again be allowed to touch, much less eat. I lost control, scrambled for fresh air by clawing at the window, and in the process pushed the kid in the seat with me into the aisle.
My teacher reprimanded me, but as he did, I saw that look of recognition laced with pity cross into his face. It was a nuance I was growing accustomed to, the week prior having been dotted with the countenance on my doctor, my parents, and my friends. He abruptly changed the subject, but the impetus was not lost on the boys, who now looked at me in a new light. I understood then, as distinctly as I felt that fresh air on my face, that I needed to keep quiet and keep contained about my diabetes, because not doing so would make me on outcast, would make me a target.
Fast forward to high school and I’m listening to Pink Floyd and now deeper into my despair, because years of keeping others out, in essence, had only managed to keep me in. The wall was now a towering monstrosity and the line from the song “Mother” haunted me: “…did it need to be so high?”
In college and through most of my twenties I remained inside my self-created cell. The first cracks in the foundation, however, did begin to show, when, after college, I decided to write a Young Adult novel about an adolescent with type one. The writing became a type of therapy, as it allowed me to express through the protagonist, all that I felt, and to a degree, still feel about the oppressive aspect of this illness, the isolation.
For Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, The Wall was his way of communicating his take on this type of existence. At the end of the album/story, he is outside the wall, frail, confused, yet hopeful. I, unlike Waters, am still very much inside my wall, but do manage to slip out every so often through the passages created by my writing.