I’m driving my grandma’s formerly owned 1993 Geo Prizm down Taylorsville Road in the suburbs of Louisville, KY. My boyfriend at the time sits in the passenger seat rocking out to Blue October. We’ve seen them twice in concert, once at Louisville’s Fourth Street Live. We’re visiting my family for the weekend, just a few weeks after I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I will be the first in my family to graduate from college in Cincinnati in a few weeks.
I start to feel shaky and weak, but I don’t tell Reed. He recently shaved his head to mask his receding hairline at 22. His former football player fingers tap on his torn jeans. I focus on the yellow lines of the road. We’re only a mile from home – no reason to pull over. I can beat this. Come on Tracy, focus.
My peripheral vision goes fuzzy. Only half a mile now. I stop at the red light at the four-lane intersection of Taylorsville and Hurstbourne Lane. One moment of reprieve.
“Are you okay?” Reed asks, no longer whistling.
“I’m fine,” I say, still focused on the hazy yellow lines.
“You just seem really tense.”
“Let’s get back to my parents’ house, and I’ll explain.”
I pull into the three-car driveway, off to the side, in front of the rose bushes. I run into the one-level brick house. I am as much curious about the state of my blood sugar as I am worried. Reed finds me in my old bedroom, painted a faded blue.
“Whoa, 51,” I say, more out of amazement than concern.
“I don’t think I should have been driving,” I add, heading down the black and white tile hallway to the kitchen for some juice. I’m almost proud that I didn’t have an accident rather than regretful.
“Probably not,” Reed says, his eyebrows raised.
This is one of the first instances that I had to deal with the repercussions of a low blood sugar. Having experienced the consequences of unknown 500-600 blood sugar levels over the past three months, I didn’t know how much short-term damage a low blood sugar could really do.
I recently read a post from Kerri Sparling at the diabetes blog, sixuntilme.com, on low blood sugar, “Looking Back: Telling Off the Paramedics,” and it made me consider how different lows really make us and why the diabetes card I carry around in my wallet says:
I am not intoxicated. If I am unconscious or my behavior is peculiar, I may be having a reaction associated with diabetes or its treatment.
After reading Kerri’s post, I began to ponder on my own experiences with lows. Was there ever a time I seemed like someone else? Was there a time I was incoherent, drunk on low blood sugar, so to speak? But in all honesty, as I tried to remember, I realized I had blocked out most of that first year with diabetes. I remember those first few weeks, and then everything else is a blur.
It wasn’t like I was in denial (although I did drink a lot post-college graduation). I approached diabetes head-on: cutting carbs, keeping food diaries, checking my blood sugar 10 times a day, exercising daily, and reading the entire American Diabetes Association Complete Guide to Diabetes. But a part of me still hoped they would find something else – a thyroid issue, an infection, even cancer. (Silly, right? But I thought at least cancer has the chance of being beaten.)
My body responded to insulin, yes, but there was no other evidence to support the claim that it was diabetes, except that it never got better. It never went away. Being the perfectionist that I am, I’ve always had trouble with the lows. My first A1C came back at 5.6 (anything over 7.0 constitutes a diagnosis, and when I was diagnosed, my A1C was 16.0).
In Kerri’s post, she refused to be treated for her low blood sugar and told the paramedics off. In retrospect, it seemed humorous, but at the moment, I’m sure it was terrifying for her boyfriend and roommate. It seems silly to refuse to be treated, but there have been times when I have tried to work through a low.
I’m at work, in class, or at a concert. Diabetes is so often inconvenient that I rationalize that I will fight through it, and it will go away. The stress of a low will push it back up. I will make it concede; I will not let diabetes get the better of me. Sometimes, this worked. Whatever food was in my system finally broke down and added glucose back to my system. But then, there could have been severe consequences like the seizures.
I didn’t push through the low blood sugar with the seizures. I attempted to correct them, but it was too late. It’s possible I would have never awoken. I could have slipped into a coma or my heart could have stopped. These are very real possibilities.
When your blood sugar is 23, your heart is racing, your vision is blurry, and you’re crawling on the floor towards sugar. You are weak, barely holding on, and the only reason you know to gravitate towards sugar is because you’re diabetic. Otherwise, you would think you were having a heart attack. But you pull through.
There have been many times when I’m walking down the street from the metro, school, or the doctor’s office, and suddenly, I can’t see the sidewalk in front of me. I’m shaky. I know my blood sugar is dropping. Losing vision is one of my tell-tale signs that it’s dropped below 55. It’s also the scariest feeling in the world. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how evolved your mind is – when your body shuts down, there’s nothing you can do.
In those moments, I grab the juice from my backpack or the glucose tablets in my purse. I call someone or send a quick text in case I don’t recover. But I always do. Within a few minutes, I can see again, and I continue on my way.
But walking isn’t the only concern. Driving with low blood sugar is like drinking and driving. The only difference is you don’t intentionally get behind the wheel with low blood sugar. You can take all the preventative measures you want, but you’re still human with a body that doesn’t work like it’s supposed to. Lows happen. The frequency is the only thing you can attempt to control.
Luckily, I’ve never had an accident while driving with low blood sugar. If I start to feel remotely off, even though I haven’t lost vision or I’m not sweating from shakiness, I eat sugar. I don’t want to take the chance. It’s one of the reasons I prefer commuting to work via the train until I move closer to DC. I’d rather take the four and a half hour commute each day than spend three of those four hours behind the wheel in DC traffic with no one looking out for me. I’m hoping my recent investment in a continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) system will also help.