An Excerpt from Islands and Insulin in Three Installments
6 April 1996
La Jolla, CA
I close my eyes and I can still see that moment years before, when it all changed. It’s as clear as yesterday, and yet it seems a lifetime away. The symptoms were there, but they weren't anything I really paid any attention to. Being only nineteen, I was not tuned in to what my body was trying to tell me. My time was spent ditching college classes and surfing and hanging out with friends.
I was never one to drink water, never really liked the taste. Apple juice, chocolate milk, Dr Pepper, now those were worthy of drinking. Water just seemed like a waste of time. But I started drinking it by the boat load, craving it really. I couldn’t sit through a Physics lecture without getting up at least three times to drink from the fountain (this was in the days before carrying a PBA-free water bottle everywhere was in fashion).
With all the extra water came all the extra bathroom trips. At least, that’s what I thought was causing my nocturnal wanderings towards the toilet. I tried to explain it away. It’s just the heat. It was spring and the weather was heating up.
As I got up for the third time to miss yet another section of the lecture, and was forced to drink out of that overused, under-cleaned shiny metal box of cooled tap water, I told myself the lecture was just really boring and I was looking for a way to stay awake. Physics was my favorite subject though, so I don’t know how I convinced myself of that one. Maybe it was just the best explanation I could come up with at the time.
To make matters worse, I was studying for finals in the thick of it all. I spent one evening with my roommate, Martha, at the food court on campus so that we would have easy access to the soda machine while we studied. I never developed a taste for coffee, so my study drink of choice was Dr Pepper. I must have had about eight, twenty-ounce drinks that night. And that wasn’t Diet. Diet was for fools. It was all real for me.
After studying that night, I couldn’t find a way to slow down to get some rest. I lay in that state between awake and asleep when thoughts run amok and you can’t control them and you can only sit and watch them run all over the place and make no sense at all.
My dreams that night were filled with Organic Chemistry equations. The kind where two types of molecules in their 3-D structure are blended into an entirely new molecule. They were converting over and over again in front of me, taunting me with every conversion.
I assumed the insomnia was due to stress and finals. The minor symptoms I was feeling didn’t register as the beginnings of anything serious until I was riding my bike home from school the next week and came to Hell Hill. Most of my runs and bike rides ended on this shady, tree-lined hill. It was only about a quarter mile long, but the incline made it a challenge. My goal each day was to ride to the top without being forced to stand up on the pedals. At the time I was in good shape and was making it to the top fairly consistently.
But not that day.
Half-way up the hill I was so weak and light-headed that I was forced to get off my bike and sit down for a few minutes. Normally it would have taken me less than two minutes to get home from that point. Thirty-five minutes later I was still trying to get there. I had to lean all of my weight on the bike to wheel my failing body home, stopping every few hundred feet to gather more strength. When I got home I sat on the couch dazed while my roommates tried to help. Martha came in first.
“Erin, you feeling alright?”
In the spring of 1996, La Jolla was the perfect backdrop for a wonderfully easy life. My parents were still footing the bill while I made my way through school. Classes were easy and the beach was close by. My last three years at the University of California, at San Diego I shared a three-story condo with six girls. Each year we had a different group of girls paying the rent. Every summer some of the girls would move out and new ones would move in, which made it the perfect place for me.
With that many people coming and going I could stay unnoticed, well-hidden. Martha was the only girl to live with me for all three years and one of the only ones who didn't let me fade entirely into the background. She was consistent and reliable, not one to add drama to any situation.
“I don't know,” I tried to answer. She sat down beside me trying to assess the situation.
I did my best to relay the story in my confused state.
“Maybe you were just working out too hard. Here have some licorice; maybe you just need some sugar.”
If she only knew that sugar was exactly what was killing me. I recovered after about an hour and moved on. I spent the next few days trying to explain away what happened. I was sick a week before. I wasn’t a hundred percent yet. I went too hard too soon.
I had no idea it was really the diabetes starting to show itself.