Cruel Irony: How a Foodie Copes with Diabetes

It started with an intense thirst.

I had never been one to drink much before. I’m not referring to alcohol, but to normal, everyday beverages. I’d have a cup or two of coffee in the morning, a glass of water after lunch, something with dinner, maybe a mug of hot tea before bed. That was it. They say you’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water a day, but I rarely came even close to that quota. I just never really felt all that thirsty before, unless I’d been doing something physically exerting.

That all changed sometime in December. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment it happened, but I suddenly found myself drinking more fluids throughout the day. I noticed this at work first. After finishing my coffee, I’d grab a tall glass of water from the kitchen. Then when I was finished with that one, I’d have another. The first couple of days, I barely registered this happening; when I did, I figured I was simply dehydrated. Then I began drinking more at home, too. I’d down a beverage at dinner, then have another after that. And another. The drinks varied – I’d switch from water to lemonade to Coke to juice – but I kept filling my glass with something. This was so out of the norm for me that I looked it up online. Though excessive thirst is a classic symptom of diabetes, I was like, nah.

Until my vision grew blurry.

For most of my life, I’ve had near-perfect vision. 20/15 at one point. Suddenly, I could not make out objects at a distance. I first noticed this during a basketball game that was being televised in a bar; the score was a jumbled and incomprehensible tangle of squiggly lines. Tara, however, was able to see it just fine. Every day, my vision grew a little worse. I started wearing an old pair of her glasses, which helped quite a bit. Without them, I was nearly blind. This degradation of my eyesight happened very rapidly, over a matter of days. I went into work one day and the person sitting a few desks away from me was a complete blur. I actually thought she was somebody else entirely.

By now I was getting worried – and also feeling decidedly strange, for lack of a better word. This started on Christmas day. We were having dinner at my parents’ house and I just felt “off,” though if asked to elaborate I have trouble finding the right words to convey how I was feeling. I felt tired and lacked energy, but it was more of a general malaise than anything else. I felt like something was going on inside me, but could not figure out what. This continued through the holiday weekend. And when I stepped on the scale, I was shocked to see I had inexplicably lost 11 pounds in three weeks, though my appetite had not changed and I wasn’t exercising any more than usual. Some people would find this a cause for celebration, but without any reason for the loss, I couldn’t help but feel scared. I weighed myself again five days later, and discovered I had lost another 8 pounds. Warning bells were going off like crazy by this point. Cancer does that, I thought, and suddenly found myself rooting for diabetes.

The person sitting a few desks
away was a complete blur.

Monday morning, December 29, I went into the local clinic to have blood drawn for lab tests. I had very fortuitously had a doctor’s appointment on Christmas Eve, right before my symptoms started worsening rapidly. I was there to get my prescriptions renewed, and mentioned in passing some of the things that had been going on with my health, which were enough to convince my doctor labs needed to be done. Stupidly, I waited five days to take care of them, because I wanted to enjoy the long holiday weekend without worrying about making a trip to the clinic. (Then again, had I done them the day of my appointment, I likely would have ended up in the hospital on Christmas morning and that really would have been a bummer). I had to fast overnight, and could only drink water. Which I did, copiously. Immediately after my appointment, I stopped at Dutch Bros. for a large iced coffee, which I guzzled in the car, finishing every last drop before I got home. It’s a 5-minute drive, I should point out. I chased that with a tall glass of orange juice. Then a bottle of Gatorade. A large iced tea. Try as I might, I could not quench my thirst. Weirdest feeling ever. That evening, I got a late night call from a lab tech. Never a good sign.

“Your blood sugar levels are very high,” he said. “You have full-blown diabetes.”

This caused a minor freakout on my part. I had a restless night, waking up every hour to take a sip of Gatorade, which I kept on my nightstand. The next morning, my doctor called and her words chilled me to the bone.

“Drop everything and get yourself to the ER, Mark. You have severe diabetes and your kidney function is down to 40%. You might lose your kidneys.

My heart leapt into my chest. This was just about the worst news possible, and scared the living daylights out of me. I immediately called Tara, who rushed me to the Emergency Room. Fortunately, there was nobody ahead of me, so I was able to be seen right away. My blood sugar level was a whopping 780-something. Normal is around 100. They said I was suffering from diabetic ketoacidosis and admitted me to the PCU (Progressive Care Unit). I did not know this at the time – thankfully – but DKA is a life-threatening condition in which toxic acids build up in your bloodstream as your body breaks down fat because it cannot use the sugar it normally would for fuel. Basically, your body is poisoning itself; left untreated, it can lead to swelling in the brain, coma, and even death. Long story short, I spent three nights in the hospital, was moved from the PCU to a regular room after they got my blood sugars down to a manageable level, and learned all about my condition from a helpful diabetic educator. My first stop after I was released? The pharmacy, where I loaded up on syringes, alcohol swabs, blood glucose strips, and insulin. Tools of the trade. My new reality.

diabetes

What does a post about diabetes have to do with a food blog? Nothing, really. And absolutely everything.

I love food, which should be obvious to anybody who has read Eat My Words. I’m the guy who completed a 365-day food challenge, after all. Food is truly one of the greatest pleasures in life. Being diagnosed with diabetes is the cruelest of ironies for a foodie like me. Because suddenly, my whole world has changed. The list of foods I can’t/shouldn’t eat is longer than the list of foods I am allowed. I need to avoid processed flour and refined sugar most of all. I’ve learned to count carbs, because anything over 60 in one sitting (surprisingly easy to exceed) will raise my blood sugars. Lean meat, non-starchy vegetables and protein are my new friends. My enemies? Things I have always loved. Rice, pasta, and bread. Desserts? Forget about it. But hey, I can have all the mustard I want. Woohoo! This diagnosis forced me to completely overhaul my diet overnight.

Fortunately, I am doing very well. I’m stubborn, but that works in my favor because I refuse to eat anything bad for me. I’m losing weight, naturally this time. And feeling better than I have in ages. I actually enjoy the challenge of eating healthy, and when I find a meal that tastes good and is good for me – like the black cod with butternut squash, white beans, oyster mushrooms, spinach, red peppers and tomatoes I had Saturday night on the Oregon coast – it feels like a win. I may not be able to beat diabetes, but I can manage it and lower my chances of developing any of the many complications diabetics face.

“You have full-
blown diabetes.”

The truth is, completing the challenge would be an impossibility now. There are far too many obstacles for a diabetic. This makes me sad, but even more grateful that Tara and I successfully finished the challenge in 2013. It was a one-and-done, but that was always the point.

It doesn’t mean the end of this blog. Far from it. You’ll just see more of a focus on healthy eating, but we’ll still work on tackling some of those food holidays we have yet to celebrate. National Meatball Day is right around the corner, it turns out. Low carbs and no sugar there. I’m in.

While walking around the neighborhood a few nights ago, Tara wondered aloud if the food challenge could have somehow contributed to the diabetes. I had never thought about that before, but I suppose it’s possible. There were an awful lot of sweet dishes, after all, a fact that we bemoaned constantly. In the first 12 days of June alone, we celebrated food holidays dedicated to hazelnut cake, rocky road ice cream, frozen yogurt, gingerbread, applesauce cake, chocolate ice cream, jelly filled doughnuts, strawberry rhubarb pie, chocolate cake, and peanut butter cookies. Holy shit. I don’t know how we did it. And I can’t help but wonder: did I pay the ultimate price?

Maybe, maybe not. The jury is still out on whether I have Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. I’ll know for sure by the end of the month. Eating sugar has nothing to do with developing Type 1. One of the biggest risk factors for developing Type 2 is being overweight and eating a diet high in calories, which of course would include sugar. I can’t say definitively that taking part in this food challenge caused my diabetes, but it certainly didn’t help matters.

It’s okay, though. I am fine. Acceptance is one of the classic stages of grief, and I have cried tears aplenty for the doughnuts I can no longer eat and for the mac ‘n cheese that would send my blood sugars through the roof. I have embraced the world of whole wheat and am keen for quinoa.

Still along for the ride?

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