Living with Type 1 Diabetes
What is Type 1 Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes is very different to type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes can often be controlled by tablets, a well-managed diet, and an active lifestyle.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition – which is when an illness or disorder occurs when healthy tissue (cells) are destroyed by the body’s own immune system.
In the case of type 1 diabetes, the disease-fighting system mistakes healthy cells in the pancreas for foreign, harmful invaders and attacks them, leaving the body unable to produce its own insulin and keep levels of blood glucose under control.
For people with diabetes, the cells in their body which are mistakenly targeted are the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. People living with the condition control this by injecting insulin into the body various times each day.
It is a daily planning task with everything you eat, any form of exercise undertaken, and pretty much everything else that is done from the moment you wake up in the morning right through to – and especially – before you go to sleep at night.
Diabetes is one of the unseen disabilities and it’s important to remember that each individual living with it has very different experiences, just like many other conditions.
I was first diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic in the late 1970s, and at that time the condition was not widely known or understood by the public.
I was the first person in my family to have diabetes, even though the condition is thought to be hereditary.
My parents and teachers had noticed that I was drinking water and going to the toilet frequently, much more so than anyone else. I was getting up during the night many times, I never had an appetite, and I was losing weight. Despite undergoing various blood tests and attending check-ups with a GP, it was only when I fell unconscious on a family trip one Sunday afternoon that I was then rushed to hospital.
If type 1 diabetes is left untreated, blood sugar levels can rise to a dangerous level and can cause people to slip into a coma – this is what caused me to become unconscious.
I spent two weeks in hospital, which is when my parents and I were informed of my condition and a treatment plan was devised.
To suddenly be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at eight years old was an enormous shock, my life totally changed forever. No longer could I eat things the rest of my family enjoyed like sweets. My diet had to be changed and I had to start injecting myself with insulin multiple times a day.
Just imagine, an eight-year-old having to measure insulin into a syringe and inject themselves, as well as pricking their fingers multiple times a day to test their blood sugar levels.
Did I rebel to the changes in my life? Of course I did. I did not appreciate the health implications that continuing to eat sugary foods would cause, especially in later life. I regret that now I’m in my fifties.
School life changed; I was the only person at primary school with the condition and was looked at and talked about as the odd one out. It continued like that throughout high school and secondary school too… but the one good thing that came from being diabetic was that I didn’t have to do cross-country!
Living with the condition has had a big impact on my life. It affected my early career choices, as I wanted to be a police officer when I was younger. Growing up there were so many careers that a type 1 diabetic would not be considered for – the armed forces, emergency services, and being a pilot to name a few. Luckily, I was able to become a Special Constable in my early twenties, but that was as far as I would be accepted in the police force.
It’s a daily struggle to maintain a good blood sugar level. I generally prick my fingers to test my blood at least eight times a day and have at least four injections a day. If blood sugar levels are too high, I need to take additional injections and blood tests.
During the daytime, I inject a rapid-acting insulin that covers the food I am about to eat. Injections must be taken 10–20 minutes before meals, which is why lunchtime meetings are difficult for someone like me due to the risk of suffering a hypoglycaemia (hypo) attack which could lead to unconsciousness.
Before bed, I take a longer-lasting insulin injection which attempts to stabilise blood sugar levels throughout the night. The concern with this is that if too much insulin is injected, it could lower the blood sugar so much that it can cause me to go into a diabetic hypo, which could lead to a coma. This does happen, probably on average a couple of times a year. When a hypo in the night is serious, and family members cannot bring me around from it, they have to call for a paramedic. Neighbours have frequently seen an ambulance appear outside my house over the years.
Because of this, every night the same thought goes through my mind: “Will I wake up in the morning, will I be found in a hypo, or worse, unconscious?” – just imagine having that daily thought.
If my blood sugar levels begin to drop (which they do leading up to mealtimes) that can affect my concentration as well as causing blurred vision and slurred speech.
The term for when blood sugar levels drop is hypoglycaemia, and when a type 1 diabetic goes into a hypo, they are unable to think or act rationally and if they do not get a sugar intake quickly enough they will go unconscious.
My first hypo happened in a French lesson at high school. I was rushed to hospital and the first moment I became aware of my surroundings was several hours later in a hospital bed. A similar incident happened while at work; I had been working and hadn’t realised anything was wrong, and later I was told that I had appeared to just slip off my chair onto the floor. Once again, I was rushed to hospital because I was unconscious and paramedics were unable to bring me around.
Most type 1 diabetics are aware when their blood sugar is dropping, but if it has dropped too much they are not physically able to help themselves recover.
There are many side effects to having type 1 diabetes and you are more susceptible to other illnesses because the immune system is low. Every six months I have a full set of blood tests taken and have a diabetic review with my GP. Annually, I must have my eyes photographed at the hospital for retinal screening because diabetics are very prone to haemorrhaging and other eye-related conditions. I also have to renew my driving licence every three years, with a completed medical questionnaire and authorisation from my GP.
Here’s a list of the symptoms typically associated with hypoglycaemia.
Most people around me would not be aware when my blood sugar levels are low, but there’s rarely a day that goes by without it doing so and many of these symptoms occurring as a result.
All sorts of things can cause my blood sugar levels to go low: types of food eaten, exercise, having the common cold, stress, too much insulin, alcohol… even certain types of flowers and fragrances can due to some smells making my heart race more, which uses up sugar in the blood.
How can you help a diabetic experiencing a hypo?
1) Talk calmly to them, that is essential.
2) Ensure they have something sugary to drink or eat, even if they cannot administer it themselves.
3) Call 999 if they do not come around within 30 minutes.
When a diabetic does come round from a hypo, they are likely to feel very ill for the rest of the day, and it can then cause their blood sugar levels to be very high for several hours due to the sudden increase of sugary food or drink.
High blood sugar (hyperglycaemia)
High blood sugar levels can happen by not injecting enough insulin or by consuming a certain type of food.
There are times that I have forgotten to take my bedtime injection. When that happens, hyperglycaemia sets in as opposed to a hypo. The result of this is a very uncomfortable day the next day, bringing on a different set of complications.
Alcohol, sweet drinks, sweet foods, and high carbohydrate meals are examples of what can cause blood sugar levels to become too high. In addition, not taking enough insulin or being ill can also cause my blood sugar levels to spike. When this happens, I can experience severe headaches, lose my appetite, feel weak and tired, as well as blurred vision, nausea, and extreme itching.
Luckily, I don’t forget my bedtime injection very often, but it has happened. If there is a long meeting to attend or a training course, I always ensure I’ve eaten enough to prevent my blood sugar from going too low, but that can have the opposite effect by becoming too high.
It’s certainly not easy being a type 1 diabetic, and everything I do I’m always thinking about how it might affect my sugar levels. However, with careful monitoring through regular finger prick blood tests, maintaining a healthy balanced diet, keeping my insulin with me, and making sure I always have close access to food or glucose tablets, I get by.
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