It Tried To Kill Me, We Won, Let’s Eat: My Very Jewish Approach to Diabetes

“They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat.”

This is, according to my father, the theme of every major Jewish holiday. It is also the theme of my freshman year of college.

When my body first started malfunctioning in late summer 2012, I dismissed the symptoms as something akin to the lingering hypochondriac tendencies of my campers. Drink some water, I would tell them. You’ll be fine.

When my body began to destroy itself to protect me, I assumed the weight loss, thirst and exhaustion were evidence of all my hard work on the treadmill. Finally, losing some weight! At last this Georgia girl could compare herself to my toned, tanned Floridian friends.

When my mother told me to get my blood sugar checked, I rolled my eyes and dragged my feet to oblige. Worries go down better with soup, I told her. How does matzah ball sound?

And when the doctor used the “D” word for the first time, I heard my parents’ breath hitch, their daughter now and forever a question of levels, units, and grams which could never be ignored.

But we won.

The keyword is “we.”

At school, I felt alone. The few friends I made in my fatigued first semester were unsure of what to say as I fumbled with blood glucose test strips in the dining hall. My roommate couldn’t help me through the night sweats that came with the sudden changes transpiring in my blood.

However, my community rallied around me — specifically, my Jewish community.

As is key to the daily renewal of our faith and the continuation of our people, friends and family in my Jewish community asked questions about what they didn’t understand. They offered interpretations of a blessing in disguise without sounding self-righteous or making me feel guilty for my self-pity. On the contrary, by sharing in their sympathy I was able to diffuse some of my frustrations and begin seeing the positives. They didn’t hesitate to loudly notice when I started gaining weight, instead of losing it– and they pointed out that it was a good thing.

For the first time in my life, I was on a Mi Shebeirach list. Far from feeling weakened by this, I was empowered by the sense of care from my community. Folks came out of the woodwork to donate art, books, and services to a silent auction to help my family cover the costs of our deductible, and to purchase an insulin pump and other diabetes-related medical supplies.

The hardest adjustment was reacquainting myself with the element that brings not only Jews, but all people, together: food.

Food is something important in both Southern and Jewish culture — and suddenly, I dreaded it. Counting carbs turned meals into mourning for me. It took a year of Shabbat dinners to remind me of the true motivation behind that old adage my father loves so much; eating together is a celebration of all that we have overcome, and the table is set and full. They tried to kill us; we won; let’s eat, I kept reminding myself.

Proud to teach others about living with diabetes.
Proud to teach others about living with diabetes.

Now that my body is once more my own, I have found that living with a chronic disease forces me to walk the fine, awkward line between normality and disability. I have a talk with my staff and campers each summer to fill them in on my condition so they don’t feel helpless when my levels go wonky. At school, my friends have all gotten the spiel, and my professors now know the difference between an insulin pump and a cell phone. People are happy to help if only you teach them how.

Know and recognize the signs of Type 1 Diabetes. Although it typically manifests in children, I was diagnosed at 18, and it can be found in people up to age 30. Only 5-19% of diabetics have Type 1. It is an unpreventable auto-immune disease which currently has no cure.

What should you watch out for? Well, keep an eye out for fruity breath odor, extreme thirst, frequent urination, dry skin, fatigue, extreme hunger, unintended weight loss, changes in vision, frequent infections, and changes in mood.

One of the most important things I’ve learned from this experience is to listen to my body. Instead of ending my prayers with question marks, I look for the parentheses in my own actions. My parents were doing that long before I thought to, and thanks to them, we won this battle before it put me in the hospital, or worse. I have also learned to be grateful for my community, and especially the support of my Jewish community. This health scare was something that, without anyone to urge me to get help, may well have killed me. But it didn’t.

We won.

Let’s eat.

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