Diabetes threatened my relationships. I fought back.
When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It changed my entire life in some very serious ways.
I was incredibly well-prepared for most of these changes through excellent education and resources, but as I grew older, I realized how completely unprepared I was to manage my diabetes within two major aspects of adult life — relationships and sex.
I have found that I am far from the only diabetic that experienced this, and that the diabetic community is in some serious need of better sex-ed, but it’s also important that non-diabetics have a better understanding of the issues we face when it comes to dating and sex.
Intimate relationships of any kind are unique to the people involved in them. In any situation, communication is absolutely essential to a healthy sexual relationship.
Type 1 diabetes is a condition that greatly affects things such as energy level and how the person feels overall physically.
Think of a time when you haven’t eaten enough, or you exercised heavily and you felt lethargic and weak. You probably ate something and felt substantially more like your usual, happy self shortly after, right?
Congratulations, you were likely experiencing hypoglycemia!
With my broken pancreas, my body can’t monitor and automatically react to its blood sugar levels. For me, exercise becomes a math problem in order to balance out the amount of food I’ve eaten and how strenuous the activity will be.
As a kid, I played tons of sports and got pretty good at this balance. My doctors and parents were incredibly helpful in figuring out plans that made this possible.
However, nobody remembered to remind me of something incredibly important: Sex is exercise, and I need to make a diabetes plan for it.
Those of us with diabetes face some very unique challenges when it comes to physical intimacy. There have been times when I did everything right, but some unknown variable messed things up for me and suddenly I felt just terrible and needed to stop.
When this happens, it really sucks. Being physically “unable to perform” is an emotionally taxing experience. It has made me feel weak, vulnerable, and inadequate.
With my diabetes being to blame, it made me frustrated and angry. Diabetes is already an incredibly frustrating disease, but when it interfered with this part of my life, it took these feelings to another level.
In order to get the insulin that my body needs to survive, I use an insulin pump. This technology has allowed me a much greater deal of freedom and has been an awesome part of my life.
There are some complications, however. When you have a small plastic tube connected to your body, there’s potential for it to get snagged on something.
Imagine how often you would get caught if you had a shoelace tied between your belt loop and something in your pocket, except that the shoelace is embedded into your skin and keeps you alive.
Now imagine how shocking it would be if your first girlfriend got one of her fingers caught in it and pulled it out of your skin while you’re making out.
That happened to me. It wasn’t just a one-time thing, either.
The bigger issue is actually a psychological one. Being constantly connected to something, it can feel like there’s a barrier between my partner and me.
Even when I disconnect my pump, the place where it is inserted into my skin is still there, which makes it feel almost like it’s impossible to actually ever be naked.
This can be a serious mental hurdle to overcome, and one that nobody that hasn’t experienced it could really fully understand.
The social aspects of dating can be incredibly difficult for anyone to navigate. When the difficulties of living with a chronic illness are added to the mix, however, things can quickly become even more confusing.
I mean, on which date do I tell someone that my pancreas decided to quit on me eighteen years ago? How about that I have a mortality rate 5.6 times higher than most people? What if they’re scared of needles and just run away?
I don’t really know what standard protocol is.
When I have thoughts like this, it feels impossible to ever convey how they make me feel. I want to talk to someone about the ways in which diabetes affects my life, but felt like I might be an emotional burden.
That is why it is incredibly important for anyone romantically involved a person with type 1 diabetes (or any other chronic illness) to be open and receptive to what that person is feeling in regards to their illness.
Know that you can’t entirely empathize with our struggles, but you can be a sounding board for our thoughts and feelings.
As much as I would love to, (and tried when I was a teenager), I can’t just turn my diabetes off and ignore it for a while. It is something that needs to be integrated into my entire life.
It can be a serious struggle that can make its way into the dynamic of a romantic relationship, and anyone romantically involved with a diabetic needs to be on board for this.
I am incredibly fortunate to have an amazing girlfriend, who does everything she can to fully understand my diabetes and how it affects my life, but not everyone is so lucky.
If you do happen to enter a romantic or intimate relationship with a diabetic, learn about their condition and what their daily diabetes management looks like. Most importantly, be open and receptive in your communication with them.
While it is necessary for us diabetics to let you know how to be a supportive partner, we also need you to meet us halfway.
Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer and graduate of Boise State University with a Bachelor's Degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, watching Netflix with his girlfriend, and convincing others that aliens are real. Follow him on twitter: @ZacharyM Evans