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My battle with diabetes came down to this: change my life or else

October, 2010

The first musician I played on my iPod, once safely ensconced at Hôtel Dieu hospital for severe diabetes-related foot injuries, was Frank Zappa.

After all, the great curmudgeon (and personal hero) was the master of exposing and satirizing all manner of societal and personal sicknesses, ills and pathologies. In this case, the song was Stinkfoot, a wholly appropriate title, as my feet emitted a suffocating stench caused by calluses on the sides of each large toe which, once cracked and broken open, revealed rotting puss and, well, oozing stuff from the entire foot, all worthy of a horror film.

Or a Zappa song: “In the dark, where the fever grows … Does the life you’ve been leading gotta go?”

Ah, the diabetic’s life! “This is very serious,” said the emergency room doc, a resigned look on his face reflecting disappointment, possibly disgust, that I evidently hadn’t taken my diabetes seriously. He taunted me with the A-word: amputation.

Said another: “We’ve seen one foot in such bad shape, but two at the same time is rare.”

If you suffer from diabetes, your body fails to properly transform the energy you get from glucose in the blood. High sugar levels in the blood lead to sluggishness and depression. Thus, injections of insulin are required to get your sugar levels right. (It’s not quite as simple as Sugar Sugar, the bubblegum song by the Archies: “You are my candy, girl, and you got me wanting you.”) Some people have diabetes but don’t know it. I probably had it during my heavy drinking days but the symptoms were too close to hangovers to tell. (Besides, alcoholics could care less about health matters.)

Juan Rodriguez is home now, getting back on his feet.

Even in recent years, now a workaholic, reading about the death a while back of Syd Barrett – Pink Floyd’s nutty original lyricist – from “complications due to diabetes,” gave me only the briefest of pauses.

If you don’t take care of your diabetes it’s bound to bite you. Mine – and we diabetics are as possessive of our disease as other folks are of pet dogs or cats – is Type 2, non-hereditary, and diagnosed 11 years ago (in what turned out to be another lengthy hospital stay).

So I am learning the hard way – I’m in the seventh week here at Hôtel Dieu as I write these lines – that living with diabetes is contingent on the nuts-and-bolts of “normal” life, but in an extremely heightened way. The combination of food – what, how much and when to eat, all aspects being desperately important – and physical activity, with its attendant stresses (corporal and psychological), takes on a touchy, unpredictable character. As all that food eventually turns to sugar – which stimulates both mind and body – the diabetic can collapse or fall into a coma with too much or too little of it.

Controlling your diabetes means controlling your life with regular habits. We are all creatures of habit. I developed mine when I spent a large part of my youth living the rock ’n’ roll life – chasing down bands, writing about them, hanging out with them and other assorted reprobates (i.e. friends), and otherwise living a life that could only be described as wild and uncontrolled (as was rock criticism itself).

Now, at 62, although the intensity of those days and nights is long gone (but not forgotten), my internal clock has remained largely the same. And that doesn’t jibe well for living with diabetes. Living for the moment has become a romantic idea, and impractical. Of course, capturing the moment (which entails observing it as intently as possible) is the key to the writer’s life. So diabetes can make this fragile metaphysical matrix, well, a roller-coaster ride.

I developed the foot infections that landed me in the hospital at the start of the summer music festival season. Les FrancoFolies and the Montreal International Jazz Festival are events I love and really “get into,” as they say, so I managed to ignore the infections (even as my feet began to bleed and swell) while the music and interviews and hob-nobbing pushed me through my deadlines. I was nonchalant in taking my insulin injections.

After the festivals ended, I collapsed on my bed for two weeks (still trying to complete a couple of lingering articles) before deciding to call 911. Obviously, meeting deadlines was more important to me than potential death, although it never seemed obvious at the time.

Eventually, what was left of the right large toe came off virtually by itself, so rotted that all the doctor had to do was take scissors to what remained of the skin attaching it to my foot.

The main side effect of diabetes is the dreaded hypoglycemic attack (low blood sugar), caused perhaps by just a tad too much injected insulin, combined with stress, fatigue, sudden over-exertion, and wrong foods that can’t absorb the insulin properly. I fear “hypo” like the plague: It arrives very suddenly. I feel it in an instant weakness behind the knees, a throbbing heartbeat and dizziness (as if your head is swirling down a sinkhole), a fainting feeling and overall incoherence.

This overwhelming sensory experience is probably the main reason I’ve been lax in taking insulin regularly, with the right diet. Foolish, cowardly me.

The mood in Bed 1124 is one of introspection, of considering the ramifications of post-hospital life. Now I think of food in terms of measurements (grams and millilitres) and groupings (carbohydrates, etc.), as well as tastes and textures; salt is out, so a chance to experiment with spices is part of the equation. Math was my worst subject in high school, so there’s a lingering challenge to preparing meals that will add up to the prescribed quotas.

But literature was my best subject, and Albert Camus was among my very favourite writer heroes, practically inventing the term existential. And here I am with the consummate existential disease. Live with it, or else.



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