I’ve just returned home from my week long MFA residency at Queens University in Charlotte, NC, where I am writing a coming-of-age memoir about being diagnosed at fourteen-years-old with type 1 diabetes. The chapter I was “workshopping” was about some really bad low blood sugar episodes I experienced when I was in high school and college. My teacher, Rebecca McClanahan, said my story made her think of Stephen Crane’s poem “In the Desert.”
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter — bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
I was at first embarrassed that Rebecca related this disturbing poem to my story. The provoking images made me recoil as I sat there at my desk, mute. I wasn’t allowed to speak; only to listen to the comments and thoughts of others in reaction to my writing.
In the chapter called “Lows” I describe waking from a low blood sugar, twisted in sheets in a bed surrounded by family members, and how I felt like “a wild animal — messy and unpredictable.” I remember that night; it was a few months after I was diagnosed and my best friend and I were visiting my grandparents for spring break. My friend heard me moaning in my sleep and tried to wake me. When she turned on the lights, she saw that I was sweating and later told me my eyes were rolled back in my head. I recoiled in fear and disgust at the image of myself. Later that evening, after a Snickers bar was mashed into my biting mouth, I lay awake for hours in the dark room, afraid to fall asleep, afraid of the animal inside.
In my workshop, Rebecca suggested I examine my relationship with this “animal” side to provide balance in my writing. As I sat there among our group of eight women I was quiet and didn’t know what to say. I thought that she was asking me to consider what I liked about my “bitter” heart. And I was stumped. What was there to like?
As a writer I know you can’t create an all-bad character. I write non-fiction and my characters are real people, so I know I have to show both sides of the mean girls who bullied me in sixth grade. I know that I have to describe real people from my past in all their three dimensionality to make a good story. The same applies for diabetes. As I look into my past and write the story of the naïve girl from a small town in Vermont, I wonder who she might have been without the (gift? Or curse?) of diabetes. Surely her life would have been better, easier, and more exciting. In my writing I’ve held onto the idea that something bad happened to me, and that my life was forever changed by my diagnosis. What was there to like about this messy, unpredictable, and demanding monster that lives under my skin?
At the end of the workshop I left the room with a colleague who compared my disease to someone she knows who has type 2 diabetes.
“They are completely different diseases,” I said dismissively. “Most people with type 2 are not diagnosed until they are an adult, and they don’t have to give themselves 6-7 shots a day.” I could feel my skin burning at her assumption.
“Well, everyone has something,” she said. I stood there chastised and bitter. This woman was telling me what I’d been told for the past twenty-five years, that what I have is not so bad, that what I have could be much worse, and it made me want to scream. Why in this culture of keeping our chin up, is the severity of this disease rarely acknowledged? Why do I always have to look on the bright side? Having diabetes is a manageable disease, I am told, not as bad as cancer, or AIDS. And so there must be something good in all of this.
The image of the creature in the desert lurks in my head. As I write and re-examine those former years of my life, I am submerged in feelings of both sadness and peace; sadness because I am finally mourning my disease, and peace because I may finally be accepting this part of me that is different. For years I denied my disease, pretended it was no big deal, denied how large a part of my life it is it until I became a mother. Until I began writing my story.
My husband and I have just assembled a crib we found on Craigslist, and it stands behind me in my office/nursery as I write. I am entering my third trimester and no longer battle the drama of that messy, unpredictable, physical animal side of myself. I have not had a bad low blood sugar episode, the kind where an ambulance is called or I have lost consciousness, since I became a mother. As a mother, my battle with diabetes is now a quiet, daily battle of responsibility, of being old before my time, of thinking and planning. There are people who need me after all and maybe it’s no longer all about me.
In my third trimester, as my baby and pancreas grow, I am becoming increasingly insulin-resistant. What that means is that I must give larger doses of insulin to cover the foods I eat. Insulin resistance means finding food to eat that won’t raise my blood sugar — low-carb food like eggs — and I am tired of eggs for breakfast. At this stage of the pregnancy I must go to the doctor every two weeks, keep detailed records of my blood sugars and exercise for the doctor’s review. I am testing my blood sugars at least ten times a day and the tips of my fingers are hardened like the calluses that form on the bottom of your feet in the summer.
This day-to-day work of managing my disease is the hardest part. I’ve been here twice before so I remember just how much work goes into pregnancy: the large doses of insulin, the constant testing, and the careful eating. I know too, that it will taper soon, that all the work I’m doing has provided our baby with a healthy environment to grow and become strong. I know all this, but still. Still, there are moments when I want to scream in frustration, moments when I want to curl up in my bed and sleep for weeks, wake up in a new body, moments like this when I want to feel sorry for myself and I wonder, what is so wrong with feeling truly sorry for myself? Instead of eating my bitter heart I want to hurl it into the desert. I want to watch the hungry coyotes pick it up in their teeth and carry it away.
Instead of a coyote, my oldest son walks into the office/nursery as I write to admire the newly assembled crib.
“This looks great, Mom,” he says. It is early Sunday morning and the rain pounds down outside the window. I turn from my desk to look at him; his messy hair, his bare chest, and his gap-tooth smile.
“It does, doesn’t it?” I say. And something shifts inside, something bitter softened.
Maybe becoming a mother inspired me to eat my bitter heart. Maybe I didn’t even notice. Maybe I’ve been looking at my teacher’s suggestion the wrong way; maybe she didn’t mean for me to find something good, something I liked about living with a chronic illness, maybe she read the poem so that I would claim this bitter heart as mine. Because it is.