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On Meds

Walking Uphill Both Ways, With Needles

By Kevin McCahill

Remember the first time you tried to swallow a pill? You probably choked as it lingered by your tonsils. At first you tried to play cool. You were a big kid now. That’s why Mommy or Daddy, or maybe the doctor let you take the big kid medicine. This calm lasted until you started to gag. Then came the tears. If you were anything like me, tears equaled panic. This panic was a rage and confusion unlike those other panics that you’d experienced up to this point.

This medicine is supposed to help me, so why does it feel like it’s hurting me?

This feeling destroys the panic you felt when you realized that your parents left the house with you and some babysitter still in it. It is much worse that the panic of knowing that you need to pee so bad, it’s going to start flowing out before you reach the Field Museum’s bathroom. This panic makes that fearful adrenaline you get when running from your older brother after slapping him in the face feel like nothing. Who cares that your brother is going to punch you when you’re about to die choking on the medicine that is supposed to make you feel better? What kind of sadistic doctor invented this pill method of taking medicine, anyhow?

Actually, the pill method is pretty easy and painless compared to how I had to start taking my medicine at the age of seven. One day, in the midst of a wicked late-July heat wave, I got very sick. While everyone was thirstily fending off dehydration in the heat, my mom noticed that I was peeing extremely frequently. I was also noticeably lethargic, enough so that it stood out compared to the general laziness everyone else exhibited while suffering under the sun. As the day wore on, these symptoms exaggerated. I went to bed early and, after throwing up my cereal the next morning, off I went to the pediatrician. She gave no definitive diagnosis, but told my parents that I needed rest, and if I didn’t hold anything down the rest of the day, they should take me to the hospital. That day was a blur. I vaguely recall lying on my grandparents’ couch while my cousin tried to talk me into playing kickball, as if I was faking. Why the hell would a kid fake being sick in the middle of summer?

Back at home that night, my dad gave me a glass of Orange Crush, which I chugged with insatiable thirst before puking right back into my glass seconds later. For my parents this was the last straw, and off we went to the emergency room. The events continued getting more blurry from there, punctuated only by a doctor cheerily exclaiming that I had Diabetes. My father would later complain how excited this probably first-year resident was to get such a quick diagnosis that he didn’t bother to show any sympathy for the patient. The word Diabetes did not have any meaning to me, so I initially took the news in stride. I had fallen very sick, and now that this doctor knew the problem, it seemed an easy fix. I had this Diabetes and I would get better. I still had a month before school started back up.

I was moved to the intensive care unit overnight as insulin and glucose IVs dropped my blood sugar level from a staggering 750-plus to the normal 100-180 range for a child. It was not until the next morning that the same cheerful doctor dropped the bomb on me. Diabetes meant that I had to eat on a strict schedule. I couldn’t eat candy anymore. I couldn’t even eat good cereal anymore. Honey Nut Cheerios? No, regular Cheerios. Frosted Flakes? No, Corn Flakes. Lucky Charms? Not a chance. Not even the marshmallow-less Alphabets, too much sugar in that. The best tasting cereal I could eat was Rice Krispies. Rice Krispies suck. They’re bland, just like all my other new cereal choices. They made noise, and that was somehow supposed to make me forget how good Fruit Loops and Honeycomb tasted.

But really, these newly forbidden foods were all side issues, as the real kicker to my new disease was that I would need to take at least two insulin shots every day for the foreseeable future. Shots, like when you go to get a vaccination, except that I wouldn’t get mine from a doctor, I would get them at home. Forget missing candy, this sucked way more.

Initially, I wasn’t allowed to give myself the shots. That privilege instead went to my parents. For a painful two and a half years, I took two shots a day administered by either my over-nurturing Mom, or my shaky-from-fear-of-needles Dad. Obviously, I went with Mom whenever possible, but I hated being babied, and eagerly awaited being able to take care of it myself. Taking shots everyday certainly felt weird, but I never really had the chance to fully reject it. I knew that if I skipped my shot, or took too much, I could land back in the hospital, or worse. So I never had that profound moment of realizing this would be my life. It crept up on me, with each day of two, later three, or four shots of insulin. What I did realize at the time was that I would need to start doing this for myself, instead of going to my parents every time I needed an insulin fix.

My chance came in the spring before my tenth birthday. I would be going to diabetes summer camp for the first time, and the main requirement for diabetes camp is that you must give yourself your shots. The idea of a camp full of diabetes kids seemed weird to me, but I would later learn that the camp site is used for kids with different diseases each week of summer. One week it was leukemia camp, the next it could be asthma. It was probably owned by a hospital, but basically it was a camp site on Lake Geneva with a solid healthcare center. Though I knew a few adults with diabetes (my grandpa on my dad’s side had type II diabetes, and my mom’s sister had been diagnosed with type I, like me, when she was twenty), I had only met other kids with diabetes briefly in the waiting room at my doctor’s office.

I now had motivation to stab myself. I wanted to make friends with other diabetic kids, to be in a group of diabetic kids, instead of that single diabetic kid in every group I’d been in for the last three years. By then, I had grown used to being given the shots, even though they hurt like hell. I knew that without them, and the diet, and constant blood tests, I would not live. So I went on accepting the shots without much complaint. But now, it seemed that giving them to myself would allow me to fit in with a group of peers, even if it was just for a week. So, similar to swallowing pills because you know they are good for you, even though they might not feel good, I set out to inject myself with insulin in the hopes of regaining some normalcy in my life.

I started off slow, which I don’t recommend. I would find somewhere to be alone and gently poke the syringe into my thigh, so gently that it would not even break the skin. Eventually I would limp back to a parent and ask them to push it in. It took over a week before I actually got the needle into my thigh and plunged the life-extending insulin into my own body. I was probably more freaked out than actually hurt, but there was a lot of pain in the self-stabbing. I insisted on doing it myself, like an adult, but twice a day, I went through five minutes of hell.

Diabetes Camp was great for one week, but when I came back home, everything was the same. I had memories of other kids like me, but I still did not fit in with others when I was away from camp, in my real life. I continued to give myself the shots, but I abhorred it. Though, in retrospect, an insulin injection is far less terrible than say, chemo, for the life of me I could not understand why medicine had to cause such pain.

I thought maybe different body parts would hurt less. My doctor encouraged this thinking because repeated injections in the same place can lead to deposit build-up, and make them less or completely ineffective. (Many steroid users have large knots in their buttocks as a result of not alternating their injection site.) The doctor convinced me that, while the upper leg is an okay spot for injections, the stomach was less painful, more easily accessible, and the ladies dug it. That last part may be the result of my hatred of the doctor skewing my memory, but he really seemed to be personally vested in me shooting insulin into my stomach. So, I did it. I drew up my morning injection, a classic mixture of grayish NPH insulin and clear, more ordinary Regular insulin, and I shoved it into my scrawny adolescent stomach. And goddamn did it hurt! I ended up with a bruise so big, it looked like Mike Tyson spent an entire round working my body.

In the years since that one-time horror of shooting up in the abs, I’ve grown quite used to syringes. I inject insulin four times a day into my thighs, upper arms and at times even my calves. On occasion, it’s fun to shoot up at a rock concert and watch the reactions of horrified yuppies and their kids thinking I’m on smack. In their shoes, I’d probably be equally terrified, but I’m on the inside of this joke. It never grows old, because I’m using something that’s made me an outcast most of my life to make strangers insecure. Call it my little revenge. For a couple minutes, they are the squares and I’m the winner.

Sure, it can be annoying to have to pull out my insulin at a fancy restaurant, or in the car, or at a Bears game when the thermometer is on the negative side of zero. Constantly testing my blood sugar and fretting over the results is just as stressful now as it was when I first started monitoring for myself. And, most of the time, the shots still do hurt. But, just like the pills that I choked on as a kid, they make me feel better and help me live. Without these insulin shots, I would have died when I was seven years old. Had I been born fifty years earlier, I would not have survived. I would have never graduated from college, or seen the White Sox win the World Series. I would have missed seeing America elect its first African-American President. Had I not committed to taking my blood-tests and shots and dieting, I would never have traveled through Italy with drunken abandon, or victoriously punched a cowboy in the face in a triumph against hate. I would not have experienced my first kiss, or known what it feels like to bury the needle on my sister’s Thunderbird. Hell, I would have died without knowing what an orgasm is. Without my insulin shots, I would not get to sit here on my bed and type an essay about it. Over the years, I’ve spent plenty of time cursing my shots, but I would not be here without them. And I’m very grateful to be here, to be alive.

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