I was in Brimbank Park with my fellow teachers, walking along the meandering Maribyrnong River as we planned an excursion for our year 7 class. It was a beautiful summer day and the prospect of walking around the river path should have been enticing, instead I was in agonising pain as I hobbled, feeling like I was walking on broken glass.
I had been feeling pain in my ankle for a few months and in the past week it had moved to my feet. I was also suffering from backaches and constantly feeling heavy and hard to motivate myself. Getting out of bed and facing the day was becoming a monumental task. The week before I had started to look for a counsellor, wondering if this heavy feeling I was carrying was a mid-life crisis or severe burnout.
I went to see my doctor to get a referral for a mental health care plan. He checked my blood pressure and found it high, ordered blood work and an X-ray. I returned a week later and he told me that the X-ray found nothing wrong with my spine, but diagnosed me with Type 2 diabetes, which means there is too much sugar in the blood.
This sugar is called glucose and it is supposed to be controlled by insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas. Insulin is like a key that helps glucose enter the cells of the body where it is used for energy. Because my body doesn’t work properly to manage the glucose then it destroys my cells and if I don’t manage my blood levels the consequences are severe. I face an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, damage to eyesight, reduced kidney function, nerve damage (especially to hands and feet), poor circulation (which can lead to amputation).
When my doctor diagnosed me I met his eyes, said, “No,” and walked out of the office crying. I didn’t stop crying all weekend. I knew what the diagnosis meant. My mother had suffered from diabetes, and my grandmother, and my aunt, pretty much all the women in my family. It was the end of my carefree life and love affair with desserts and white bread. It was the beginning of a new life in which I had to follow a regimented diet in order to ensure my health and longevity.
I didn’t stop crying all weekend. I knew what the diagnosis meant. My mother had suffered from diabetes, and my grandmother, and my aunt, pretty much all the women in my family.
I have to plan my meals for the week, and plan my meals and snacks for the day. When leaving the house for a prolonged period I have to have numerous snacks and water to manage my blood sugar levels and thirst. As soon as I forget to snack every two hours I hit a sugar low and feel faint and exhausted. If I eat too much carbohydrates, like the night I ate too many slices of pizza, I feel sick the next day and can barely get out of bed.
Within a few days of cutting out sugar and changing my diet to no processed food the brain fog and physical fatigue dissipated. The pain in my feet subsided. I realised it was the result of low circulation because of the diabetes. My back pain eased as my body began functioning properly and wasn’t under stress. I felt physically better: I woke up with energy, was able to manage my day better, and was physically transformed.
I am still dealing with the psychological ramifications. Intellectually I know that my current diet will guarantee a better quality of life, regardless of diabetes, but I’m angry. I’m angry at the unfairness of my genetic lottery. I wasn’t morbidly obese, my diet wasn’t that unhealthy, but my genetics let me down. I talk to a friend who has embraced body building and the protein rich diet that goes with it and she tells me it gets better. It gets easier to accept the regimented meals, the constant preparation to ensure my food intake meets my health requirements, the agonising in restaurants about what to order, and forcing myself not to read the dessert menu.
Intellectually I know that my current diet will guarantee a better quality of life, regardless of diabetes, but I’m angry.
I know that this is the path I have to take. My current diagnosis is reversible. Through diet management I can get off the medication because I know the future that awaits me if I don’t. While pregnant I suffered gestational diabetes and for five months I had to check my blood levels three times a day and inject myself with insulin every day. This is not a future I want to face again and so I will stand strong to ensure that my health outcomes and longevity are not affected.
Even though I can see the improved health outcomes that I am experiencing and the weight-loss that comes with it, I am in mourning. I would take my pot-belly and my thick thighs in order to be able to dive into white bread at will. On my darker days I attempt to look at the bright side. My mother was also a bipolar sufferer and thus far I seem to have avoided that illness in the genetic lottery of life.
Amra Pajalic is a high school teacher and author of memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me. You can visit her website here.
The new landmark series Australia's Health Revolution with Dr Michael Mosley premieres Wednesday 13 October at 7.30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand, with subtitled versions available to stream on SBS On Demand in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. NITV will also air special episodes on Living Black featuring interviews with Dr Michael Mosley and Ray Kelly that explore Type 2 diabetes in Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Join the conversation #AusHealthRevolution