I remember the exact date my symptoms started. It was on February 24th. I woke up in the middle of the night smelling smoke. I was so convinced that it wasn’t a dream, that I walked through my entire house looking for the source.
There was nothing. At least, not in the house.
But inside my body, there was a fire of sorts. That was the day my immune system started attacking the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas. That was the day I became a diabetic. But, despite having every symptom in the book, I wouldn’t find out for six long weeks.
Like most people, the only symptom of diabetes I was familiar with was having to pee all the time. What I learned over that month and a half, was that there is a long list of symptoms associated with undiagnosed diabetes. And many of them are so intense, so consuming, that something as simple as having to pee a lot, tends to go unnoticed.
There were two symptoms I experienced during those six weeks that were so intense, they’ve left lasting scars. The first was an intense, unyielding thirst.
You know that feeling when you work too hard on a hot day or you forget your water bottle on a hike? And the idea of a cold glass of water consumes your thoughts? And when you finally get it, you’ve never felt so relieved in your life?
That’s what I felt like ALL THE TIME. Except, no matter how much water I drank, I never found relief. I couldn’t leave my house without a water bottle, not even for a fifteen-minute errand. I’d wake up three times every night just to drink. If I ever found myself without access to water, I would panic.
Naturally, all this water drinking led to a lot of bathroom breaks. But that seemed like an obvious consequence of chugging gallons of water each day (and night), not a symptom within itself.
I explained the thirst away as a side effect of Mucinex, something I was taking for the cough that was still lingering from a recent cold. When I stopped taking that and the unquenchable thirst still didn’t disappear, I blamed it on a health supplement I had started earlier in the month. There was an endless list of culprits, but no relief in sight.
The second symptom that still haunts me to this day goes hand in hand with extreme thirst: unsatisfiable, ravenous hunger. I could eat a full day’s worth of calories in one meal. And still, want more. I could stuff food into my face until my stomach hurt. And still, keep going.
Diabetes for Dummies describes this symptom as “starvation in the midst of plenty.” I’ve never found a more apt description. I would eat and eat and still, I felt like I was starving to death. And, just like with the thirst, the feeling of being hungry didn’t travel alone. It brought with it anxiety and panic.
I wasn’t just hungry, I was consumed with the need to eat. I’d be sitting in class and dreaming about the next meal. I’d be polishing off a party-sized bag of chips and thinking about what to shove down my throat next.
The cycle of eating past the point of fullness was so intense that it took me seven years to recover. Even after my diagnosis, after the drive to eat dissipated, I still never felt full. The hormone feedback system that connected a full stomach and stable blood sugars with the feeling of satiation was broken. It took so long to repare itself that I had given up all hope of ever feeling normal again.
Like all my symptoms, I found rational ways to explain the hunger away. I had just joined a new climbing gym and was working hard to conquer all the courses. I was hungry because of all that hard work. I didn’t have time to rationalize it further (mostly because I was too busy eating).
Fatigue and Weight Loss
I blamed my new climbing and work out routine for a lot more than just my increased appetite. I was exhausted all the time. When I wasn’t eating, guzzling water, and forcing myself to the gym, I was sleeping. I traded rowdy college nights for laying in front of the TV. I’d be so drowsy when I woke up at night to get water, that’d I’d hardly remember it the next day.
With all that exhaustion came a constant mental fog. And that may have had something to do with why I never noticed that I was also losing weight. That and, how on earth could I be losing weight with how much I was eating? In fact, I purposely avoided the scale because I assumed I was gaining weight.
Of all my symptoms, it was the weight loss that finally led to someone noticing that something was wrong. I visited my parents one weekend, about six weeks after my first symptoms started. My mom took one look at me and thought for sure I was anorexic. Then she saw me eat three helpings of spaghetti that night and didn’t know what to think.
I had been to two doctors during that six week period. The first was the campus clinic early on. My symptoms were still gaining speed at that point and I never thought to mention them to the doctor. I was just there looking for relief from a lingering cough.
The second doctor I saw was an ophthalmologist about three weeks in. I was driving one day and realized I could no longer read the street signs. The eye doc blamed the sudden change in my vision on my perception. In her mind, there was no way I could have gone from perfect 20/20 to needing glasses to legally drive in such a short amount of time.
Of course, it turns out there was one way: extreme blood sugar fluctuations. I’m still baffled (and a little angry) that the doctor didn’t consider diabetes a possibility. She never asked about other symptoms, she just handed me a prescription for glasses and pushed me out the door. When I came back a month later to return my glasses and tell her about my diagnosis, she seemed truly sorry, but still refused to give me a refund.
The Writing Was on the Web
That night at my parent’s house six weeks after my symptoms began, my mom and I searched WebMD. It took less than a minute to find the problem. There wasn’t any question; I had every symptom of diabetes listed on the webpage.
The symptoms had become so intense and so life-controlling that I only felt relief when the doctor confirmed the diagnosis. At least now I could find some reprieve from the constant hunger and thirst. Maybe I could start feeling normal again.
To this day I wonder how I could have missed so many signs. I guess it’s surprisingly easy to let yourself become so consumed with your symptoms, that you don’t actually notice them.