managing life with a chronic illness
I’ve been wanting to write a blog for some time now and with November marking Men’s Health Awareness Month as well as Diabetes Awareness Month, I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about my experiences as a Type 1 Diabetic and how it has impacted my daily life.
Until I joined Paws in Work, I had no real understanding of Mental Health. Like most, I knew it was out there but having been lucky enough to have never suffered or seen crisis first hand, I assumed that myself and everyone around me were fine. My attitude was very much ‘Well everyone has their ups and downs, right?’. Wrong.
by Reece Honeyball, Paws in Work blogger.
let me set the scene…
At 14 years old, I was so excited to see where the future would lead me. I’d just started learning to play guitar, I was playing football three times a week and like many others around me, I was starting to explore my adolescent social life and the new found freedom that came with it. Just like everyone, the importance of being normal and outgrowing age related boundaries were my priority.
What everyone didn’t know was that I’d been suffering with something deeply embarrassing for 9 months. I couldn’t stop going to the toilet. I’d developed a constant thirst that meant no matter how much I drank, I’d find myself needing to take a sip every five minutes.
I would fill up two water bottles before I left my house and buy another two litre bottle on the way to school. This would get me through to lunchtime where I would then fill them all back up at the water fountain to finish off the day. It was draining me physically and emotionally but being seen as different was far too daunting to me and I did my absolute best to hide it as best I could.
My mum started to notice that I would burst through the door and fly in to the bathroom as soon as I got in and I’d be quick to dismiss it as routine. That was until getting up three times in the night quickly turned into bed wetting.
I’d started feeling lethargic too. It was harder and harder to get out of bed in the mornings and I was noticeably struggling during exercise. Football was my number one passion throughout my childhood and I had gone from being the strongest player in my team the previous season to barely being able to keep up with the rest. My competitive nature coupled with the inability to understand how I’d fallen so far completely baffled me, and all the while I was being told that my previous success had gotten to my head and that I wasn’t trying hard enough. At the time, that was the hardest thing for me to take but I still didn’t want to believe there was something wrong.
I eventually gave in and went for a blood test.
I vividly remember the house phone ringing, my mum answering and the instant shock on her face when our GP told her that we needed to go in to the surgery to meet him immediately. I bawled my eyes out at the news. The idea of having to inject myself every day for the rest of my life, watch what I ate, keep a close eye on my glucose levels and ultimately, that I was not going to be the same as everyone else broke me.
Upon taking insulin, the changes to my body physically were instant. I went from 7 stone to 9 stone in two weeks, I looked much healthier and had so much more energy, and I wasn’t dashing to the loo every half an hour, nor wetting the bed. I remember someone from my football team telling me that I had gone from a boy to a man over the Easter Holidays, which did make me feel a bit better about my diagnosis momentarily. But mentally, my head was still not in the right place. I knew I had so much support around me but being able to open up about how I felt was just too difficult for me and I did a great job of hiding my anxiety of leaving the house in fear of having a Hypo (blood sugar levels falling too low).
anxiety and neglect.
A Hypo is any Diabetic’s arch-nemesis. I’ve lost count of the times people have asked me what a Hypo feels like but it can be a mixture of:
· Feeling shaky
· Feeling disorientated
· Being anxious or irritable
· Going pale
· Palpitations and a fast pulse
· Lips feeling tingly
· Blurred vision
· Being hungry
· Feeling tearful
· Having a headache
· Lack of concentration.
The worst part for me is not being able to communicate properly through disorientation, where I often find myself losing my temper and refusing help (sorry to everyone who has had to experience that!). I’ve only been hospitalised once through Hypo when I accidently double dosed the night before an early flight home from the Catalan region of Spain. To make matters worse, Spanish doctors use different units to measure glucose levels to us in the UK and, as my partly Spanish-speaking partner found out, the Catalonian language doesn’t use the same words for a lot of medical terms either!
The anxiety around these kinds of events are the same for every diabetic and anyone else with a chronic illness who will have had that worry at the back of their heads at some point.
This led to me neglecting the control of my condition throughout my teens. I was too scared of having a hypo and petrified at the idea that I would have some kind of episode in front of my friends or some new people we’d meet. I find the idea of that quite amusing now I look back on it but I think I still had the same mindset of ‘if I ignore it, maybe it’ll go away’ – the same as before my diagnosis.
At around 20, my doctor sat me down and told me that I needed to start taking my condition seriously. He warned me I was reaching an age where any damage to the rest of my body caused through poor diabetes management would become irreversible. Impotence, poor eyesight, loss of feeling in my feet, the list went on. It was an eye opener to say the least and it was that conversation that really struck a chord with me and made me realise that I needed to grow up and take responsibility. I hastily admitted that my fear of having a hypo was holding me back and he took the time to reassure me that as long as I planned ahead I’d be fine. He arranged for me to start seeing one of the nurses to work on a few things and gave me a personal number and email address I could contact him on if I ever needed to speak.
I worked hard for months trying to get my control on track and understand how my body reacted to insulin in different scenarios. My results started to pay off which boosted my confidence and led to me becoming more comfortable doing things I would have shied away from before including travelling in South East Asia for three and a half months and all the hurdles that came with it.
Any Diabetic will tell you that routine is important and being familiar with what you eat, your doses and exercise is paramount in keeping yourself in check - so being faced by a complete overhaul of all of these in a part of the world that was completely new to me was quite unnerving. I loved my time away, it was a sense of freedom that I hadn’t felt since my teens and I loved learning and exploring a whole new world but what I am most proud of is overcoming that anxiety of facing the complete unknown. I remember one particular moment in Hanoi in Vietnam where my blood sugar levels didn’t seem to be responding to my insulin. When we got back to our hotel room, I discovered that we’d had a power surge and the fridge that was being used to keep my insulin cool from the heat had frozen over along with all of my medication, rendering it completely useless. I know for a fact my former self would have had a meltdown and wanted to have gone home but luckily, I’d done my research and knew that there were a couple of pharmacies in the city which sold my insulin over the counter. Phew!
I look back now with a much better idea of why I felt the way I did and the way in which my doctor took the time to consider the way I felt rather than tell me what I was doing wrong made all the difference. It may have been their job to do so, but in a wider sense, it made me think about how important that kind of support is.
There were times where I just wanted to give up and disappear. My condition still gets me down from time to time for various reasons but I know that I have the support I need around me to pick myself back up again. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I’m not troubled by my mental health but being able to support others as a Mental Health First Aider is rewarding in so many ways. I hope in the future to be able to help other young people to understand that their Diabetes isn’t a life sentence like I did. If I’m ever able to offer anyone any advice from my experiences it would be:
1. always prioritise your health. Don’t ignore your symptoms and look after your body
2. offer support to others where you can. Your experiences may help to provide insight and inspiration to others
3. embrace your condition. Make your condition work around your life and not the other way round.
3. embrace your condition. Make your condition work around your life and not the other way round.
Diabetes is a condition familiar with most but what most don’t realise is that the rise of Type 2 Diabetes is becoming a pandemic in itself. With Western diets consisting of high amounts of carbohydrates and more specifically sugar, it’s feared that by 2025 the number of people with Diabetes will rise from 3.9m to 5m in the UK.
Here’s some facts to familiarise yourself with Diabetes and the damaging effects it can have on your body:
Type 1 Diabetes occurs when your body attacks the cells in your pancreas so that it is no longer able to produce insulin. It is still unknown what causes this. The condition is managed by injecting insulin into the body to breakdown carbohydrates and control blood sugar levels. There is currently no cure for Type 1 Diabetes.
Type 2 Diabetes can be caused by a number of factors including weight due to poor diet, old age and is also more prevalent in some ethnicities. It can be managed through medication (commonly tablets although sometimes insulin), exercise and diet. Type 2 cannot be cured but there is evidence that it can be prevented or put into remission.
- It’s estimated that there are almost 1 million people in the UK with Type 2 Diabetes that don’t know they have it because they are yet to be diagnosed.
- One in ten people over 40 have been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in the UK
- Three in five adults in England are overweight or obese which is the single greatest risk factor for developing Type 2 Diabetes
- Diabetic Retinopathy (complications with the eyes due to poor management) is the leading cause of vision-loss in the world
- You are twice as likely to develop Depression if you are Diabetic, with 40% of people with Diabetes saying they have struggled with their psychological wellbeing since being diagnosed.
- Poor management of Diabetes can also lead to nerve damage, heart attacks, strokes, kidney problems and put you at risk of certain cancers.