In 1982, I got my first insulin pump to control Type I Diabetes. Since being diagnosed at five, I gave shots on my own, and never considered the injections painful. They just...were. But at the age of nine, modern technology changed my life with the insulin pump.
The insulin pump looked like a large, rectangular bomb attached to belt hoops via a black velcro case; a thin tube dangled from the device, ending in a needle in my stomach. Insulin was programmed to travel through the tube and into me, mimicking a pancreas. To call it ugly is an understatement; it made ugly look good. But I went to a small elementary school where everyone knew about my diabetes, so the pump quickly became an appendage as normal as any other---this appendage just happened to swing back and forth like an extra arm jutting from my waist while running across the playground, providing excellent blood sugar control. The pump only came off during showers, or if swimming. The needle stayed under my stomach skin for up to two days before I slid a new one in, so I became adept at rolling the tubing into a flat loop and taping it down with medical tape when going in the water.
Being a teenager created a new insulin pump adeptness: ignoring it. The pump definitely lost that cute-extra-arm-look while trying to look fashionable---well, as fashionable as one could look in the mid 80's to early 90's. Luckily by junior high school, the pump designs changed dramatically, so I was able to hide it under various stone-washed materials or clip it to the waistband of a lovely spandex skirt, covered by a baggy tee.
Somehow the pump got prettier and the clothes got uglier, but at the time I did not see it that way. All that mattered was appearing needle-free. That school was much bigger than my elementary school, so not everyone knew about my diabetes, mainly because I didn't want them to label me as gross. A few times as a child, ignorant parents told their children not to play with me for fear of catching diabetes or being around dirty things like needles, so I imagined such ignorance ran rampant at a larger school. Therefore, only faculty and friends knew for sure.
More specific considerations began to emerge as well. School gossip usually focused on who made out with who; the thought of someone brushing up against me and feeling the pump caused all sorts of embarrassing what-if's in my head. No one told me how to handle the pump in regards to boys. I guess, you know... no parent wants to discuss sexuality in-depth with a child. Now, my parents were pretty open with me, but they're still not the type that want to hear detailed sex questions from their daughter.
“Hey, pass the bread and by the way: where do I put the pump when making out? I mean, when I get around to it. No, no, no---don't worry; I'm planning on waiting until I'm married...Please stop screaming... Oops! Feel an insulin reaction coming on....losing consciousness...”
So like all other teenagers, I worried about all that hormone stuff, plus a boy feeling the pump while close to me. It wasn't so much the pump, but the needle in my stomach. You take off your clothes, and there it is. All I knew was that when people talked about what made someone hot, they never mentioned a permanent needle in the stomach. The few times I explained the pump to strangers, some made faces. Often, they asked if I put it in my butt, and did I have dents in my butt because of this. When I replied that patients put their needles in a variety of sites, but I only used my stomach when on the pump, one guy asked if my stomach had holes in it. Looking back, it is clear he was no Casanova, but such reactions mortified me.
However, hormones forced me to finally face my fears, because after a few heavy kissing sessions, I began dating a quiet type, an exacting move on my part. I was weird mix of outrageousness; not shy about performing in shows and cracking jokes, but not open with feelings. The guy was kind, a bit of a loner, with no desire to be in the spotlight, and he offered an easy way to experiment without everyone knowing about my issues because he had few friends to share them with.
One day, I ended up spilling my guts about everything, lifting my shirt to reveal the needle. To tell you the truth, I'm not sure he even noticed the needle, but I noticed that sex was not so hard movement-wise with the pump. It finally became apparent that no one would get tangled in the tubing because flip-style lovemaking only happens in the movies. Until then, I had no idea, and thought, “Hallelujah, the pump could move as needed! So that summer after graduating high school, we agreed to date long distance; me at a theater conservatory in Chicago, him content to hang out at home while working in a store.
But being in a city like Chicago, I eventually met a lot of guys that liked what I liked, plus enjoyed socializing. My boyfriend hated crowds, dancing, and any kind of bars, preferring to read comic books and watch movies. He had no desire to live in a big city. I craved variety and loved big cities, so focused on meeting men like that. Immediately after breaking up with my boyfriend, I went out with a huge disaster.. (Really, it's the best description.)
Despite the intrigue of a new man, those old fears about explaining my diabetes and pump set in. I mean, maybe my parents and doctors thought I would only ever sleep with one man---ha!---but somehow, no one ever brought up how sex, diabetes, and the insulin pump make an awkward trio.
Our first date was after a show I acted in; we went to a bar called Beaument's for cheap beer. I had not connected the pump after the show, wanting to just enjoy one diabetes-free night before bombarding him with all of the medical talk, so left the pump in my backpack. The night and his words passed without interruption; he literally bombarded me with the endless tale of how tough he was for stealing a movie poster. Man, I was dumb. Anyway, when we got up to leave, I reached for the backpack, but it was gone. His incessant ego-drive tales acted as the perfect cover for a thief and though I hate to admit being mesmerized by such idiocy, I did fail to notice someone sneaking away with my bag.
Suffice to say, that pump sex talk never happened. Not with him, not with anyone else. Since that night in 1994, I have never worn an insulin pump again.
Of course, my initial instinct that night was to quickly look around the immediate area, then run out of the bar. But outside, the only thing that greeted me was the harsh wind; no thief, no discarded backpack waited. I scurried around, praying for some sign of the pump, hoping that the thief would have been kind enough to dump the medical supplies. Nothing. Finally, I stood absolutely still, admitting defeat. Gone. Gone gone gone gone gone. My date watched me muttering in circles. I explained that the backpack contained a medical device.
“Oh, great...are you going to die?”
He ended up taking me back to his place for a quickie before the immediate demise; I suppose everyone needs one before the big send off. But I was in no mood for romance. (Romance is a stretch, I know, but work with me here.) I agreed to go because my keys were in the bag, along with my money. On the walk to his place, the concerned Casanova wrapped an arm around me. I became even more aware of the needle rolled up under my shirt, knowing it would be the last one I ever wore. After all, there was no way I would qualify for a new pump insurance-wise. At his place, I went to the cracked tile bathroom, peering at the tape bulging from my stomach before ripping it off quickly. Then I yanked out the needle by pulling from the tube instead of removing the Tegaderm insertion covering. My skin bubbled with red bumps from the violent removal. Wadding up the tubing in toilet paper, I tossed it into a small purse that had not been in the backpack. Inside the purse, there was a lipstick, powder, ID, syringes, and a bottle of regular insulin I stocked away. Well, now I'm off it for good, thought. No more third arm. I felt part angry, and part exhilarated. Both crying and laughing seemed like great options.
That night, nothing happened between and Casanova that was worth writing home about. I feel asleep with mingled thoughts of freedom and guilt
After Casanova and I broke up, I began dating a lot of men; some never called again after learning about the diabetes. The shots grossed them out or they thought my low blood sugars were weird; they feared diseased children over first-date appetizers. There just never seemed to be a good time to tell them. Therefore, I began a strict policy of not telling men about my diabetes until after we had dated a while. If they lasted long enough, fine; they could know.
The wait allowed me to spend time with men I liked without explaining why I had to run to the bathroom. Let them think I had a small bladder; no need to explain I was doing blood tests or giving shots. Let them see me being their idea of normal. In theory, it weakened possible objections they might have to me, but it actually weakened me because I could not be my normal self. Covering-up takes its toll. If you attribute all low blood sugar behavior to drinking, people think you're an alcoholic. The problems multiply.
Luckily, I developed no permanent physical complications because of holding back. I managed to treat low blood sugars alone, explain odd behavior as drunkenness. With this article, I hope to make the first step in moving beyond that behavior, and recognizing that I have nothing to hide. There is no reason to lie to a lover about being sick. In fact, I'm sick of lying. I'm almost 40, and want to be me. If a lover fears a needle, how will he or she respond to a major catastrophe, such as money issues or death? If a man finds me repulsive because I choose to be healthy and live with diabetes in the open, he's not worth a lie. He's not worth anything.