It is a blessing yet a curse. A relief yet a disguise. While I am small and may appear young for my age, from the outside, I look like a healthy teenage girl. For the most part, I am- I eat a balanced diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins; I exercise daily; I try my best to prioritize sleep- I do all that I can to live a healthy life. What no one can see, however, is what is going on inside my body- what I cannot see, what I cannot control- an antibody overload.
I was diagnosed with my life-threatening food allergies when I was a baby, and I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during my freshman year of high school, so about four and a half years ago. Therefore, you would think that, by now, I would be accustomed to the challenges of managing these chronic medical conditions. Numbers would verify your assertion- my last episode of anaphylaxis was to a bee sting (something out of my control,) and I have not had a food-related anaphylaxis episode since I was in elementary school and ate a cookie with trace amounts of milk (the cookie was then sent to the FDA, and the company was shut down!) My hemoglobin A1c is consistently near five percent- meaning that my blood sugar is comparable to that of a non-diabetic individual. Based on these scientific facts, you would think I am the perfect example of a teen successfully managing food allergies and diabetes. You would think that these conditions do not bother me on a daily basis. You would think that I have become fully acculturated to these medical hardships. I wish I could say you were right, but I cannot.
I want to illustrate my point with a hypothetical situation similar to one I’ve dealt with before. For situations involving multiple nights away from home or airplane travel, multiply the stress and preparation by ten.
It’s the afternoon of my sorority formal. Nervous excitement fills the air as my friends scamper to get ready. Does this dress make me look fat? Who is good at curling hair? Which purse goes best with these shoes? How far do you think they’ll go? I hope he likes me. I hope this night lasts forever. Typical college-girl anxieties.
In my head, quite different thoughts arise. Is it better to leave my comfort zone and possibly cause a scene at a restaurant I’ve never been to while trying to explain my allergies or to bring my own safe food? Is it worth it to fit in but risk a reaction? If I bring my own food, how will I keep it cold until we get there? The hotel assured me that they would provide a refrigerator for my room, but what if it’s not there? What if it’s too cold for my insulin (don’t want a repeat of the school nurse freezing my turkey on the 7th grade Springfield trip!)How many extra sandwiches should I bring? What if our group decides to stay in Atlanta later than planned the next day? How many cups of Cheerios? I need to measure mine out in advance to know how many carbs I’m eating- but what if my friends see my food and ask to share? I don’t want to be rude. Should I just bring the whole box? I’ll bring my own bar of soap, but what if the hotel’s soap contains milk or almonds (also don’t want a repeat of a playgroup party where everyone washed their hands in effort to keep me safe but ended up making me sick!) How many lancets should I bring? Pen needles? Alcohol swabs? Where will I put my purse during the dance? Most girls will hand their guy their cell phone to stick in his pocket, but I don’t think all of my supplies- two EpiPens, Benadryl, meter, insulin pen, and glucose- will fit. I hate looking like an obnoxious girl who can’t bear to leave her oversized purse- I wish everyone could just know the reason why. How left out will I feel when my friends are drinking? Will people think I’m no fun? What if my date and I hit it off and he tries to kiss me? I can pretty much guarantee he will have eaten something I’m allergic to within the past few hours. What if I need medical help and everyone is too drunk to notice or care?
These thoughts seem to belong to a ridiculously anxious person- one who fears everyday life. I do not fear daily life, and I take every opportunity I can to embrace my food allergies and diabetes. But these are the thoughts that run through my head- I presume that, upon looking at me, no one would imagine this. I am different. By no means do I wish that my medical conditions defined my outward appearance, but it does make it harder for my peers to understand. By no means is it their fault-only other individuals living with similar challenges would know how I feel.
So as we are getting ready, I reply to my friends- No, that dress does not make you look fat. My hair is naturally curly, so I cannot help with that. I think your silver clutch is killer with those platforms. I’m really excited for tonight too- but am I? Yes, of course I am- it’s my first college formal, after all. The nervous excitement is contagious, and I’ve heard spectacular stories about this weekend from the older girls.
I wish I could shed the weight that all of my medical preparations bear upon me. I wish I could have the same worries as a typical college girl. But my allergies and diabetes have made me the person that I am. While these medical conditions are sometimes considered disabilities, in several ways, it is easy to see them as abilities- instilling within me the persistence and perseverance that make me an endurance runner, the discipline and drive that make me a strong student, and the conscientiousness and responsibility that make me a loyal friend.