I’m going to play my own guest blogger tonight. I have been reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, an amazing writer who teaches writing classes in California and basically wrote down everything she knows about how to write. While she mostly writes fiction, in the non-fiction book Bird by Bird, she writes everything she knows about writing. She is extremely funny and relatable in this book, and her insights and instructions are very inspiring.
I’ve been wanting to get back into writing fiction, but I find the prospect to be absolutely terrifying. I can write about my true experiences going to a psychiatric hospital and having a mental patient follow me around threatening to kill me, sure. But to put someone else that I don’t know in a different situation and be responsible for writing their feelings and personality is a whole other overwhelming beast for me.
One of Anne Lamott’s suggestions for getting started is just getting everything out of your head and onto paper. Her way of starting this process is having her students write down all of their childhood memories. No form, no filter, just getting them all out. She said if you don’t have the beginnings of some useable writing material after that, you maybe should be trying to write fiction for publication.
So I took her suggestion, and I started writing childhood memories. I’ve been writing for several days now and haven’t even covered half of them. The process is strangely theraputic. There are positive memories, negative memories, and totally random memories, but none of them are meaningless because I am writing them down and making them real – much like writing fiction will be real when I’m ready for that.
So this post is encapsulating a memory and briefly reflecting on it. The reflecting is the only brief part about this post. It’s much longer than my normal posts, my apologies, but I kept the length for the sake of preserving my memory. Enjoy your peek into my childhood!
I was a normal four year old by most counts. Maybe slightly more on the introspective punkass side than most other four year olds, but I played with my dolls, irritated my fourteen year old brother, and exhausted my parents like any self-respecting four year old girl would.
Like many kids my age, I developed a case of the chicken pox. I remember a general feeling of misery and itchiness, and thinking my parents were insane for sitting me in a tub of water and pouring oats into the tub with me. I haven’t Googled it or anything, but I’m not sure that’s how you execute a relieving oatmeal bath, as I remember the oats just kind of floating there on the surface, but they may have been desperate to give me some relief by that point. Like I said, I tended to be kind of a punkass. Like a beagle getting a nail trim, I probably made sure that everyone within a four block radius knew that I was miserable.
After several more days of my parents pouring food in the bathtub with me, they realized that I was not showing any signs of improvement. Not only that, but I was ravenously hungry and thirsty all the time but I was losing weight. No constantly ravenous four year old should ever be losing weight, and no case of chicken pox should go on for weeks on end and include projectile vomiting. So my parents took me to the doctor – it turned out that I had a whopping case of type 1 diabetes.
Okay, I just had a regular case of type 1 diabetes. It’s the kind of thing that you either have or you don’t; there aren’t really degrees of this disease.
I was immediately admitted to the children’s hospital for insulin injections and frequent blood sugar monitoring. I was so young, and I am so much older now, that I only have a few surviving memories of my time in the hospital when I was four. I remember being admitted and holding my dad’s hand while walking through what seemed like an endless maze of hallways to get to my room. Why they weren’t pushing the weak vomiting child in a wheelchair, I don’t know, unless I fought someone for the right to walk on my own feet.
I remember the endless hallways seemed to represent a huge, sterile, unfriendly place, and I didn’t fully understand why I was there. I didn’t understand why so many strangers were paying so much attention to me or why the hell they kept stabbing my fingers with needles! There were times when they pricked my finger to test my glucose every 2 hours (something I often have to do to my own 4 legged patients, and for which I am endlessly apologetic), and like that beagle getting a nail trim, I wanted the entire floor to hear about it. I was pissed. I screamed as loud as I could every single time a nurse came in the room to test my glucose. I want to bake sugar free cookies for all those nurses now who had to put up with that, but at the time, I was using the only weapon I had available to me. I didn’t ask for any of that, but it was happening to me anyway.
So like it or not, I was gonna scream about it.
I remember one night when a nurse came in and woke me up to test my blood sugar, her shoulders squared in anticipation of the beagle scream as she pricked my finger and drew blood. A side note here about the advancements in technology between 1985 and today: pricking your finger with today’s lancets is like getting a hot oil massage compared to the devices they used back then. There was a lancing device (actual name) that reminded me of a handheld guillotine that I used all through childhood until a genius made the glucometer that only required a tiny amount of blood, and thus, smaller lancets and less pain. While I was in the hospital, though, they usually didn’t even use a lancing device (terrible name), they just manually poked my fingertips with a large needle.
That one night the nurse came in, I decided to be brave. She approached me with squared shoulders, took my hand, braced herself for my screams, but they didn’t come. Maybe I was just tired, maybe I was temporarily satisfied that everyone around me was as miserable as I was (which was comforting), maybe something someone said to me about shutting the hell up finally sunk in, but I did not make a peep. I remember deciding not to scream too. I wanted to feel it fully and see if it was really as bad as I was making it out to be.
This was not the first or last of the dozens and dozens of finger pricks that happened during that stay. I was able to be brave for exactly one of them, and then I started screaming again. I’m not sure exactly when the screaming stopped, but I can tell you that now, nearly 30 years later, I can keep my screaming to myself.
I have two more distinct memories among the haze of that hospital stay all those years ago. The hospital I was in was a childrens’ hospital, and I feel pretty fortunate that it was available to me at the time. They were equipped to deal with kids like me, only ones who were way more brave than I was, learning how to live with diseases that no one asked for.
In the common area of my floor they had a giant 5-6 foot tall stuffed Snoopy doll that newly diabetic kids and their families learned to give injections on. That poor Snoopy. He got to bear the sharp pointy brunt of all my anger about how absolutely unfair it was that my playtime had to be interrupted by finger pricks and giving myself multiple shots every day. I saw smiling kids injecting Snoopy with proper form, then hugging Snoopy as a thanks for providing some comfort in a very scary place.
I had a different approach. The nurse sat next to Snoopy and showed me how to properly administered an injection to him with a small insulin needle. Then she handed the needle to me and asked me if I wanted to try. I said, “You bet your ass I do,” in whatever 4 year old language I had available to me at the time. I took the needle and I stabbed Snoopy in the gut four times. Then, riding the buzz, I stabbed him in the face a few times, Then, on a high, I just went crazy and stabbed him in the upper arm over and over and over again until I felt a little relief from the weight of the injustice of my own body failing me. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time, but the feelings were there.
Poor, dauntless, Snoopy. Thank you for being my pincushion. I really needed that, and you always kept a smile (synthetically glued) on your face. There’s a special place in rehab for friends like you.
My final memory is another night memory. The window in my hospital room faced downtown, and at night I loved looking out the window at all the buildings lit up at nighttime. There was one building in particular that was very tall and came to a triangular point at the top. The building was lined on the outside with green lights, and it was my favorite one to see.
One evening my mom sat and talked with me at the window while we looked out at the green building. She made a joke that I thought was hilarious, but I have since forgotten. I laughed, hard, for a long time. As I felt the laugh winding down, I realized that I had just spent my first moment of my illness forgetting that I was sick in the hospital. I didn’t want that moment to end; I wanted it back, I wanted to forget again! My mom started talking about something else, and I said, “No, stop! Can we just go back to laughing?”
I don’t remember what happened after that, but I remember mourning that moment as soon as it was over. It was bliss to forget the heaviness I was asked to carry with my inept four year old hands. Nothing mattered in that moment except our laughter. I still, to this day, cherish moments of true laughter, when you’re carried away from all the troubles and pains of daily life, even if only for a moment. What a wonderful gift.
Granted, it’s not hard to distract a four year old – usually something shiny will do – but if laughter can make a kid forget that she’s in a hospital surrounded by people who are obsessed with making her fingers bleed, even if just for a brief moment, it must be a pretty powerful thing.
While I do consider laughter to be more of a gift than type 1 diabetes is, I have gotten many positive things from having to be in a long term relationship with type 1 diabetes. I have learned, by necessity, to be disciplined. I have to eat at certain times, take medication at certain times, and I don’t have the choice to skip any of it. My discipline is what keeps me alive, and it spills over to all aspects of my life.
I have also learned to think about the consequences of my actions. By necessity of my illness, I have to think about how different foods, activities, exercises, stress levels, and other daily situations will affect my blood sugar and make my choices based on that. Since I’m programmed to think that way to manage my illness, I also can think about the consequences of my choices and actions before choosing to do them. When I make bad choices I am hyperaware that I am making them. When I make good choices, I celebrate; even the small ones.
This hospital trip when I was four years old marked the beginning of my life of calculation. I have had many victories along the way, starting with that moment of laughter. Life with type 1 diabetes is complicated. The most important thing for surviving this disease, other than remembering to take my insulin on time, is remembering to laugh. It’s important to remember that I still have a life outside of diabetes. It can land me in the hospital sometimes, but my life is still for the living. Laughter is truly the best medicine.