As a young man with diabetes I lived life dangerously. It was like I was standing in front of oncoming traffic saying, “Do your best.” I did not think that my diabetes care was good enough to prevent the catastrophe of what seemed a never ending list of bodily malfunctions, or what diabetic chiefs called, “complications.” As a young diabetic I was doomed to live on one side and destined to die, prematurely, on the other.
So if life had dealt me such a crippling hand was I gonna take it lying down? Hell no. I was going to make sure I was going to go out all guns blazing. So it began….
I loved thrills, I craved adventure. Diabetes. If I couldn’t join the armed forces I was going to choose the maddest and baddest sport an adrenaline junkie angry diabetic could get a fix from. I was not going to surrender to insulin dependence and endocrinological mediocrity. Fighting words.
So I declared war with my diabetes. I was told to stay clear of excessive activity so I thought that through and took up rock climbing. My adrenaline fix sent me high and I laughed at my thirst. I worked my body to the core, climbing routes of great difficulties on cliffs in Australia and overseas. High and low I would go. Often I would be so low that my blood glucose would not register. I didn’t bother testing, too busy dying gloriously. I was living by chance, climbing with and without a rope, squaring up with my mortal coil, dancing with the devil…. I pushed and pushed my diabetic envelope.
I think I was angry. No, I know I was angry. Angry that I was not like others. I was angry at my father who had diabetes and passed it onto me. I was angry that it killed him before he had a chance to tell me how to live with it. I felt I could do the same as others but I also knew I was different.
As a ten year old I had watched my father die of complications, and I had not worked out how to grieve without throwing myself into impossible situations. I would often find myself climbing on a forbidding cliff, with friends, or alone and rope-less, ‘channeling’ for character and seeking answers that fatherless kids crave.
I hid my diabetes from others as I saw it as a weakness. This hiding was hopeless. Diabetes has a random way of crashing parties and interrupting progress.
I remember in the height of my adolescence I signed up for a technical mountaineering course in New Zealand. I was 19 and trigger happy, whatever trigger that would tip my diabetes over the edge, I would squeeze it. The ‘angry diabetic’ was playing Russian Roulette with a chronic illness that does not suffer fools.
In New Zealand I threw myself into a deep pool of shit. Long days in the Southern Alps working my body like it had never experienced previously. Alpine climbing requires climbers to get up at 2am, whilst the ice is hard. That way you can travel quicker and risk less avalanches. You then spend up to ten hours hauling your backside up steep gullies and super steep slopes to reach those elusive summits, all the time learning to avoid rock fall and avalanche, being roped correctly to a partner, reading the weather, practising self rescue and hydration. Your mind and body are ground down from a high work load and an unrelenting sun magnified across broad ice fields.
My diabetic body responded to the pressure the only way it knew how. It imploded! One evening, high on the Murchinson Glacier, I went into a deep hypo. Unable to claw my way out from it, I was floundering on the point of coma. An emergency chopper was called for by satellite phone. A guide had to climb 300m at 4am in the morning to find a signal to make the call. At first light I heard the ‘thud, thud, thud’ of the chopper, and by this time I was conscious, eating, and responding. Thank God.
But I still had fight in me. Somehow, I managed to talk my guides into letting me continue, provided the paramedics with enough of a lie that they could believe that I was fit enough to continue. Then, like a bad dream it was over, the chopper turned around and ‘thud, thud, thudded’, back along the glacier below us.
The following few days were just misery, as I sucked it up and inch-wormed with my team, back down the Tasman Glacier to civilization. Before I got there, I fell into a crevice, I tripped on some rocks and put my ice-axe into my face, and had several smaller hypos as my body, run ragged, tried to muster what energy it could to keep pushing on.
Experiences like these were a part of my diabetes learning. Not text book stuff, but full of reminders that if you keep pushing against your diabetes you will fall. I also learned that I needed to better deal with my emotions. Getting angry with diabetes was, for me, looking terminal, so I sought out some healthier options, like using my blood glucose meter and getting some counselling.
Diabetes for young people is an extra weight not welcome for any adolescent. There is enough crap to deal with without dealing with diabetic depression and the highs and lows of hormonal blood sugars.
For me, I had more climbing misadventures, but as I hung on and worked through I also learned to ‘pack’ my diabetes more tightly, respectfully. This meant, when climbing I did not ‘stuff it under’ my ropes and other equipment, but consciously kept it ‘at the top of my pack’, so I could attend to it quickly. I climbed more confidently that way too.
It took me another bunch of years, but I did learn to take my diabetes climbing, and with that we have climbed together in some amazing places. Standing on top of a hard won peak amongst the clouds is a great way to gain some perspective.
Where are you taking your diabetes? Whatever you do, Travel safely (and test often!).