Drinking to Undo Diabetes

I hadn’t been drinking that long before I was diagnosed with diabetes. Suffice it to say I was a good girl who usually followed the rules. But upon turning 21, my friends started winning late-night happy hours at downtown Cincinnati bars. I attended many of these happy hours, and with the first two drinks being free, it didn’t take long to make it to five.

Two weeks before I was diagnosed at 22, I was at a downtown bar with my boyfriend at the time, Reed. It was crowded for a Thursday night, mainly due to these happy hours. Reed and I had just returned from attending church with his family – it was the Thursday before Easter, and even though I no longer practiced Catholicism, I adored his family, calling them my own, and willingly subjugated myself to the torture of mass to spend time with them. I even wore purple (the color of lent, a season of repentance for Catholics).

I was nursing my second beer when Reed returned from the bar with two White Russians (he was a huge Big Lebowski fan) and two Bud Lights in hand.

“Thirsty?” I said, raising my eyebrows.

“Happy hour ends in 10 minutes, had to make the most of it,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. I wasn’t planning on getting drunk that night, but you know how the story goes …

Two weeks later, on April 24, I was admitted to the hospital for a severely high blood sugar (690). I was supposed to spend the evening with my boyfriend and his aunt and uncle. Instead, I was alone in a cold hospital bed with a dead cell phone and a disease. Within 24 hours, the doctor and nurses got my blood sugar down to 200. Although I was advised to stay another night, I pleaded with them to let me go, promising them that I was responsible and would take care of myself.

I have always been the responsible one, thinking ahead, making sure there’s always a back-up plan. But for diabetes, I didn’t have a back-up. I wasn’t prepared for it. I didn’t know how to accept it so just like drinking, I relinquished control and let life happen.

With my discharge from the hospital, the doctor instructed me to take 10 units of insulin with every meal (now considering I usually take less than four units per meal, 10 would have my blood sugar dropping severely low but in that first week, those 10 units had no effect except to keep my blood sugar below 200). I also took 15 units of long-lasting insulin at bed. The long-lasting insulin would keep my blood sugar stable while I slept and throughout the day. It was this type of insulin that helped me survive my denial (that and lots and lots of alcohol).

In the few weeks after my diagnosis, I went out drinking every weekend to the point of intoxication. I never checked my blood sugar (which any diabetic will tell you is a very bad idea) and most times didn’t even carry my glucometer with me because it was too bulky and didn’t fit in my wallet purse. As soon as I hit the bar, I forgot about my diabetes. I tried to refrain from drinking high-sugar drinks like my usual vodka sour or rum and coke. But in those moments of dancing and frivolity, I felt like myself again, in control of my body and my future. And when I woke in the morning and checked my blood sugar, it was always between 90 and 120.

That summer when I read the entire American Diabetes Association’s Complete Guide to Diabetes, I learned the effect alcohol can have on a person’s blood sugar. Even though high-sugar drinks have the potential to raise it, alcohol actually lowers a person’s blood sugar. But what I didn’t realize then, which my roommate later informed me in graduate school, was you couldn’t give a diabetic a glucagon injection (emergency treatment for severe hypoglycemia) when they were intoxicated. So if I ever had experienced a severe low blood sugar while at the bar, even if my boyfriend or a friend administered the injection, it wouldn’t have worked. This is why, when drinking, it’s important to constantly keep track of your blood sugar.

I’m not saying I’m always perfect. I’m lucky I have someone in my life who watches out for me, especially when I drink. One time while in graduate school, I came home drunk. I usually called my boyfriend, Briston, who lived in Florida at the time, before I went to bed, but I hung up as soon as I called him because I felt sick. When my roommates finally helped me to bed and told Briston what was happening, he asked them to check my blood sugar.

“I’m fiiine, fiiine,” I slurred on the phone, but Briston would hear none of it. Finally, my roommate helped me prick my finger. The glucometer read 125. I was fine, after all, but it’s times like these that I’m thankful to have someone like Briston in my life. As much as I like to “relinquish control,” I never want to ponder the question, “what if?”

In the months after my diagnosis, I gave up drinking in the hopes of understanding my body and its disease. In a six-month follow-up appointment with my endocrinologist, my A1C decreased from 16.0 (from when I was in the hospital) to 5.4. Diabetics are recommended to keep A1C levels, average blood sugar reading from the past three months, below 7.0. My doctor was actually worried I was being too much of a perfectionist and having too many low blood sugar readings. It seemed I had gone from one extreme to the other, but at least this was something I could control.

The next time I found myself at a bar, I drank one beer and then started feeling shaky. I felt around my purse until I found the egg-shaped frame of my glucometer.

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