The Fat Lady Sings

If I had not been a juvenile diabetic, perhaps I could have grown into a person who enjoyed food. A happy gourmet cook who made her own pastas, threw large and wonderful parties, and moved around her kitchen with ease and laughter. Perhaps—but I can’t say that I have ever really enjoyed food.

Correction. I enjoyed food as a child—before I became a diabetic. Of course, my diet consisted of foods not considered healthy by today’s standards. (I am from very Southern Illinois, where fried foods once reigned.) The enjoyment of food to me was all wrapped up with a warm family feeling, a feeling of security. I enjoyed my grandmother’s kitchen—her fried chicken and biscuits, her new red potatoes with green beans simmered in bacon grease, and her most wonderful homemade pies. From scratch, the woman baked apple pie, custard pie, gooseberry pie, peach cobbler, and my personal favorite, cherry. There was also my own mother’s roast beef and carrots, beef stew, and her chocolate cakes. Don’t forget the Christmas fudge! My father became the cook on holidays as he basted turkey, or in summer, ribs with his special barbecue sauce. I even remember certain lunches with joy—as a child, I happened to love peanut butter and jelly! Honey butter for your roll was looked forward to by all grade schoolers who paid twenty-five cents for school lunches.

However, in those long-ago days, dessert became forbidden to me as a diabetic. In addition, though high blood sugars were not usually as traumatic an event as low blood sugars, the doctors then warned against them with an eagle eye and a beak nose. No suckers for you, little girl. I pretended not to mind. Early in my diabetic life, I walked up to a group of grade school girlfriends, only to catch one of them quickly hiding a bag of butterscotch candies behind her back. I was mortified, thinking she need not have bothered. If I couldn’t have any candy, well I didn’t want any anyway! Thank you very much.

Also, I lived my childhood during a time when many still thought diabetes was caused by eating too much candy, and though I’d learned from my doctor and the nurses that this was not so, I simply would not have others blaming me, or worse, pitying me. In short, the subject of the weekly menu at school became embarrassing as my mother insisted on asking me about it and all food being offered to me. In fact, eating, itself, became an ordeal. In the diabetic regime of old, growing children like myself were given a certain number of calories a day to consume. In the morning, I had to eat eggs in the morning for protein and buttered toast, whether I wanted them or not. Very often, there was also oatmeal with milk and juice or half of a grapefruit. Lunch was another ordeal of huge sandwiches, potatoes and a vegetable, plus a fruit for dessert. And, oh yes, more milk.

Dinner was definitely again too much food—I sat down to ample slices of meat, vegetables, potatoes, plus bread and butter. Then again, there was fruit for dessert. Before bed, I had milk again, most often with crackers and cheese. Food, food, so much food, and I honestly felt as if I was being forced to eat every bite of it. The daily regime was preached over and over to me: take a certain amount of medication, then eat what seemed like way too much, and absolutely eat every single bit of every single meal. More importantly, never skip a meal. Meanwhile as a teenage girl, I worried constantly about my weight, and yet felt helpless to do anything about it.

Perhaps unlike many a “cheating diabetic,” I didn’t feel inclined to overeat or to sneak desserts. Rather, I got out of every big meal I could. Yes, I’m afraid I skipped them. In the busy life of a teen, white lies to one’s own parents were often an accepted practice, or I’d just throw that unwanted apple to the birds once I got outside the house. Oddly enough, during this time when blood sugars were not checked regularly, I did not often suffer low blood sugar from a missed meal. I think my body was already telling me what many diabetics have since learned—that many do better on several small snacks or meals a day, as opposed to the large meals sending loads of carbohydrates sluggishly through the system, and raising the blood sugar way, way up. (I do want to be clear. I ate snacks to avoid low blood sugars, just not the insisted-upon meals.) Even today, I have received encouragement from dietitians and nutritionists to emphasize the proteins and the veggies, not the carbs. None seemed surprised that I tried to avoid fruits in my youth; fructose, the natural sugar found in fruits, feeds directly into the bloodstream.

My reluctance to eat big meals does not mean that I did not crave and/or love certain foods in my life. Chocolate was an immediate loss, a loss that tortured me. Mexican food, which I love, was not widely available to me until I was middle-aged—but Italian food certainly was. My mother made spaghetti and meatballs, and believe it or not, chili and beans, so we had it often! We also ordered Italian-style tacos when we could eat out at one our favorite hometown haunts.

Short-acting insulin was not available to the patient in those days, and I know that my blood sugar must have been going up, up, up after any of these heavy meals. I always became sleepy then, I became one college student who didn’t indulge in pizza often—and to this day, I’m often teased as I have a tendency to scrape off the topping, eating it without the crust. Hardly good social etiquette. Also, could I just eat my cheeseburger and forget the bun, please?

I did what I could to save myself from that bloated, heavy feeling of syrupy blood coursing up and down my veins, not to mention my diabetic’s apple belly swelling out rounder and rounder. Save me to this day from business lunches, which so often include huge croissant sandwiches or pasta dripping in cheese. Of course, especially when I was young, just “standing around” at parties where I didn’t touch birthday cake, Christmas cookies, or eggnog, and certainly not fruit punch—became socially overwhelming. Nevertheless, I rarely touched any of those party foods. I was shy and making meaningless conversation was difficult at best. Furthermore, what to do with my hands? On one such occasion, a high school teacher finally advised on one such occasion that I learn to drink coffee. As I was only about fourteen at the time, I thought the idea not only odd, but somewhat repulsive. (Now, I wish I could stop.)

I’m grateful there are a variety of sugar-free products these days. And since everyone seems to be weight conscious now, one can find them in almost any grocery store or restaurant. Not so in the days of my childhood, of course. My father who traveled throughout the state for his job, used to come home from bigger cities ferrying diet sodas into our small town. Of course, we worried about the various artificial sweetener and cancer scares, but as a teen, I certainly wanted those diet sodas. In restaurants, I often drank my iced tea plain as artificial sweetener was not available unless I’d remembered to carry some in my purse. There were certainly not many diet soft drinks until later. I felt at least I added no weight that way, though.

Bingeing can be quite common among diabetics. There was a short period in college when I suddenly felt that if I skipped all that bacon and eggs served up for breakfast, then surely a donut couldn’t hurt? When ice cream was suddenly admitted to diabetic regime, I walked to Baskin-Robbins perhaps a little too often for that small scoop of my favorite, though in a plain cone. (Ice cream has a low glycemic index; that is, due to all its fat, the sugar enters the bloodstream at a slower rate. Plus, I walked miles in those days, every day.) Members of my family can well remember the times I sneaked into the refrigerator and stole all the pecans out of butter pecan ice cream. I was just a bit depressed, but stuffing in what I could, if you please.

If you’re not a diabetic, try to imagine a life deprived of the richness of food, the luxury of chocolate or rich sauces, all that is the cheese and whipped cream sensuality of life. The red cherry sweetness. Also, try to imagine a life robbed of all-American convenience—that is, the ease of being able to eat whatever is being put down in front of you, not to mention all that is not good for you to boot. What heaven!

Although I love animals, I have avoided being a vegetarian or vegan. I do like the foods. However, I’ve always been a working girl with very little time to shop and cook, and so a step like that always seemed out of the question. People used to ask me what I would do if I was cured of diabetes, and I used to answer, “Go on a diet.” When I was single, I was continually teased about keeping practically nothing in my refrigerator. You see, possible malnutrition did not bother me as a problem. I have always been more concerned about my chunkiness. As I grew older, food became only fuel. I took no interest in cooking food, as I had noticed in myself my grandmother’s propensity of licking all spoons. Even for holiday dinners, I skipped the rolls. As for snacks, I avoided potato chips like the plague because I loved them so much. They were my favorite snack as a teen, along with onion dip. They have loads of calories, which I kept track of then, as I do carbs now. Now that I use an insulin pump that can dispense small doses of insulin all day long and especially when needed, the old long-lost love of chocolate has not been so much of a problem for me. Lovely, smooth chocolate—the texture alone is enough to drive someone wild. And dark chocolate is good for you, right?

In other words, one can compensate perhaps a bit too easily for a bit of sugar with an insulin pump. “Cheating,” not dieting is now what too often comes to mind when contemplating “party food.” (Thank goodness, people have started to add veggies and dip.) The only thing I have found with all of this is that a Type 1’s blood sugar all too often goes up even faster than the short-acting insulin can get it back down. Fortunately, it won’t stay up for hours as when the diabetic cheated in the old days. A more acceptable blood sugar can be gained before too long, and therefore more acceptable A1Cs (long-term blood sugar averages) can also perhaps be maintained (at least in my case). And no, perhaps due to the early age when I stopped eating much sugar, I have never been one to cheat by eating whole slices of cake, pie, or other sweets.

Even with the pump, there is that old problem of weight gain. I can admit that when I reached my lowest weight as a young woman, I looked somewhat skeletal. However, insulin keeps the weight on, and I have found dieting no easier on the pump. The only aid I have so far found that works for me is a strict diet of fewer carbs while taking less insulin. Perhaps I’m wrong though, and I’m certainly open to suggestion. Still, all suggestions I’ve tried so far—be they over-the-counter diet aids, popular diets, health store aid natural diet aides, or medically prescribed aids—none been successful in helping me lose weight to any great extent. I’d love to, believe me. I wish I didn’t want to be thinner, but I still always do. I just haven’t found an effective way to manage my weight. Lately on a pump, that bolus of insulin every time I put something in my mouth has not helped me lose any appreciable amount of weight. I do suffer hunger pains when I cut back on carbs, and I do then have to test blood sugar more often to make sure I’m not going low.

I can’t say all this need for testing leads to any real love of or appreciation of food. Seems like I’m almost better off in life without food. I don’t like to discuss food much, nor the making of it. For my family’s sake—I do love them—I do try to make some dishes. Not enough good things still, I’m sure. I’m probably better off buying good things when and if I can. Do I love a good meal? Sure, if I don’t make the mistake of eating too much of it, or if I just don’t eat too much of the carb part. That is, as in younger days, I’m allowed the first bite or so. The rest, not so much. Luck is relative, I guess. Luckily, I’ve grown up this way. I try not to focus on food, while the rest of the civilization seems to have gone the other way.

I have read and heard that a big problem with today’s adolescent diabetic is the refusal to take insulin, thereby effectively starving one’s system, since all carbs are sloughed through a system that cannot process them into calories. Of course, though such behavior might result in a loss of pounds, the unfortunate diabetic ends up in the hospital with skyrocketing blood sugar. Since I never skipped my insulin intentionally, I have been shocked to hear of this trend in certain groups or meetings I have attended. Lack of insulin creates an alarming situation for the health of teens. I know obesity is a big problem, but for diabetic teens who are striving for that perfect body image, if not flirting with downright anorexia, death by coma or damage to the internal organs are frightening possibilities. What does such behavior say about our treatment of diabetics, but all weight problems, and our pursuit of glamour over health as a society? The issue has reached a frightening turn and must be addressed on many levels and by many people and professions.

I have to add that as difficult as my life has sometimes been, it has also been filled with moments of love, joy, and peace. The way to be a diabetic is to live as best one can, live until that cure is found. Help them if you can, please! Aside from this, I have to admit it’s somewhat lonely out here in today’s world trying not to care about food, and now with all the closet gourmets, there are so many wonderful cooks! Believe me, I appreciate all their efforts, and keeping in line with consciousness raising about body image, I just try not to care about being a bit overweight. Unfortunately though, I still do, but I thank the heavens for all those who design more colorful and well-made clothing from which I can now choose. I thank those who have convinced me to wear brighter colors. At least so far, though I might be heavier in body after “the change,” I am growing sunnier every year I grow older. Also now, when I travel, I am less skittish about trying new foods. The health food I’ve tried, the Indian and Chinese food, the Ethiopian food is all so interesting. Just part of the adventure of travel, the cherry rich journey of life!