Diabetes is a Constant Battle of a Lifetime

In recognition of National Diabetes Awareness Month, Deputy Secretary Stephanie Freeman shares her personal story of diagnosis and living with insulin-dependent diabetes.

Author: Stephanie Freeman, Deputy Secretary, Workforce Development

Diabetes Awareness Month is important to me because it is a time when we call attention to a largely overlooked disease. Not only is it important to raise awareness of the rising costs of insulin and technology that we need to live, but it’s also critical to raise awareness so that people recognize the signs  - excessive thirst, exhaustion, weight loss, frequent urination – because not knowing the signs almost killed me.

stephanie freeman

In March of 2018, at 46 years old, my pancreas decided on a whim that it was done making insulin. Unfortunately, it did not warn me it had decided to do this, so I ended up in the ER for a week-long "staycation" due to diabetic ketoacidosis. My blood sugar was close to 600 by the time my husband and mom got me to the ER. Ketoacidosis turns your blood acidic, and I was a lot closer to lapsing into a coma and possibly worse than I like to think about. It was a frightening experience that I don't care to repeat.

I came out of the hospital as an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic. I have what is considered late-onset autoimmune (LADA) diabetes because of my age. Type 1 diabetes is a chronic, autoimmune condition that occurs when the body’s own immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. This attack leaves the pancreas with no ability to produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Sugar stays in the blood and can cause serious damage to organ systems.

I must inject or pump insulin into my body every day to carefully regulate blood sugar and stay alive. It means insulin dependency for life. It means the potential for devastating complications and demands meticulous planning to avoid life-threatening situations. It is not caused by a person’s lifestyle. It’s not something that will go away with a “plant based diet” or eating cinnamon. It is not caused by eating too much sugar, it’s not preventable, and it is not curable.

It has been a huge lifestyle adjustment for me. I wasn't a terribly unhealthy eater, but I do love my carbs, which I now limit and count religiously. I have to be a mathematician, physician, personal trainer, and dietician rolled into one and many days I feel like I am my own little science experiment. Sometimes my body demands I exercise, even when I would rather rest, or sit and focus on work. Sometimes my body demands sugar, even when I'm not hungry. And sometimes I am starving but can't eat because my blood sugar is too high. To call it a "roller coaster" is somewhat accurate but doesn't quite capture the full picture. And aren't roller coasters supposed to be fun?

Back in 2018, I ignored most of the signs and symptoms, thinking that I was just taking longer than expected to recover from the bout of bronchitis I had in February. Plus, it never crossed my mind I could be diabetic. I should have paid attention to my body and to the well-meaning friends who tried to get me to go to the doctor. But like many of us, I kept trying to push through because I had so much I needed to do - I had work to do, classes to teach, teenagers to deal with, laundry to do. So, I ignored the extreme weight loss, the crushing fatigue, the dry mouth and constant thirst, until I got to the point that I could barely carry a laundry basket upstairs.

I think a lot of us put everyone else first ... but, as they tell you whenever you fly on an airplane, you have to put your own oxygen mask on before attending to others.

People don’t understand that some days it may seem like I have diabetes under control. Yes, there are good days where the stars all align, and like many people with a chronic disease, I “don’t look sick.” But there are days where diabetes is kicking the crap out of me, and nothing I do goes right.

That’s why Diabetes Awareness Month means so much to me. It’s a tough battle and you may not be able to see diabetes, but I’m always fighting. I’ll never quit.

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