Studying Abroad With Diabetes
By: Maria Sweezy
(Sugarfree & Sexy Blog)
This past January, I packed my bags full of my most essential articles of clothing (not enough socks as I later realized), a travel journal, and over three months worth of diabetes supplies and boarded a plane for Florence, Italy.
I was surrounded by exclamations that I was about to experience “the opportunity of a lifetime” and that my “life will be forever changed.” Studying abroad is a big deal. It is an even bigger deal for someone with diabetes. I spent months leading up to my trip on the phone with insurance people, both my current and past doctors, my mom, and my pharmacy. I felt like I left America in a bold attempt at looking like I had my shit together, deep down being fully aware that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I have fallen in love with Florence, Italy…as one does. I have never felt so at home in a place in my entire life. My heart sings with joy every time I can sit down in Caffe Notte with a cappuccino and write for this blog, or skip across Ponte Vecchio on my way to class. I sometimes feel as if I could stay here forever. As wonderful as this time has been, diabetes has also been her usual self. Following me around everywhere I go.
Being abroad, diabetes has left me feeling impossibly alone in ways that I honestly wasn’t prepared for.
Although in my day to day life back home in America I am usually the only person I encounter that has diabetes, I have carefully and meticulously built up a safety net around me. I have a support system. I would spend evenings with a boyfriend who knew a great deal about diabetes from witnessing it first hand and also independent research (bless his heart).
I would be at work with coworkers who I disclosed small bits of my disease with, the important details as they would experience moments where I had to step away to treat a low. I would talk about diabetes amongst my close friends in hopes to make it more present in their reality as it is so perpetual in my own life.
I also keep in touch with dear camp friends who I have grown up with, my “diabesties.” Although we are spread out across the country and world right now, we have been able to find a save haven in a group chat where we can disclose details of our personal lives (sex, drugs, gossip, and school life) and countless diabetes struggles. Our secrets, heartaches, and stresses bounce around freely among unbelievably strong, diverse women that truly get it.
Yet still, 7,025 miles away from anything familiar, I do not have that refined support system physically available to me.
As they tell you, this is a major part of studying abroad.
I was prepared for myself to be thrown into a new environment, surrounded by beautiful new things, a different culture, and foreign language. I was not prepared for the harsh and sudden reality that struck me once I realized that glucose tablets can not be bought at the pharmacy or supermarket.
Or the fact that I could pass out on one of these little cobblestone streets due to low blood sugar and I’m not even sure how long it would take the ambulance to get to me, let alone if they understand English. Of course I am not the only person in Florence, Italy with diabetes. It just has felt like that at times.
I have a constant internal dialogue here that is ferocious and frustrating at times. All of my friends I am surrounded by are deep in the sense that we have all thrown ourselves into the unknown together, but also fresh in the sense that it has only been a few months. The type of understanding of diabetes that allows someone without diabetes to have a meaningful conversation comes after months of exposure.
It has been difficult to not have many people to candidly vent to because as much as they are supportive of me because they are my friends, they do not understand my words in a wholesome way. They hear me proclaiming “I am low” or “my blood sugar is high” but they certainly do not know what these words mean on a technical level. They are understanding of the occasional need to stop for gelato due to low blood sugar and embrace these moments with reassuring smiles as their indulgence is also benefitting my health.
I am grateful for moments like this. With time, I have also befriended a local barista who has diabetes and even though our interactions are brief across our language barrier, it is heartwarming to know she exists in moments when I feel isolated within this disease. She also makes the best cappuccinos.
This journey here across my travels, from Italy, to Hungary, to the Netherlands, to Greece, has made me realize more than ever that as a person with diabetes you must be steadfast and tenacious in ways that many people will never understand. You can’t afford forgetful days. You must always be on top of your game, prepared for the worst case scenario.
Diabetes, and the anxiety that can accompany it, will be in your mind because it is inside of you. I have been working on befriending it as best as I can. Learning about it, everyday is different after all, and learning about myself as I go along. I am recognizing at what point my patience breaks, the moments where I feel fearful, and the moments where I feel confident.
I do not think you can love diabetes, it is a monster at times that robs you of time and energy and has taken the life of a friend of mine. I do believe however that you can certainly love your ability to try to control it. A knight may not love the battle, but perhaps he loves knowing his armor will protect him and the feelings of victory that come from championing through the fight.
All my Love,