This afternoon I visited my local pharmacy to pick up some Apidra for my insulin pump. As I waited amidst the Christmas decorations listening to festive music, I couldn’t help but notice the shelves and shelves of diabetes related gadgets, gizmos, and glucose tablets. I think we all feel nostalgic around Christmastime but I am feeling extra nostalgic because this time last year my life changed forever. I was finishing my classes for my degree in dance at the University of Alabama, rehearsing for one of my favorite performances, drinking bottles and bottles of Gatorade and making many trips to the bathroom. It was the beginning of my dance with diabetes.
I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was exhausted and figured I was pushing myself too hard. I developed what my doctors thought was the flu so I kept trying to work through it. I eventually became so weak that I was unable to walk across the stage to collect my diploma on graduation day. During Christmas break, I went home to Canada, where I’m originally from. Everything was a struggle for me. I continued to drink more and more and my body felt like it was falling apart. This wasn’t me. I’d been a die hard ballerina since I was four-years-old. And now all my muscles’ strength that I had taken for granted had diminished. I felt dizzy and spaced out. I ate Capt’n’Crunch every day and lost weight. When I visited my doctor in Canada she suspected diabetes and she gave me some supplies to start testing my blood sugar and told me to have this taken care of once I was back in the States. I found out that my blood sugar was shooting over 200mg/dl after almost every meal. As soon as I returned to the States to begin my very first job dancing at the Montgomery Ballet, I found an endocrinologist.
I was officially diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in January 2011. I was 23. I started my treatment with Apidra and Lantus insulin pens. I attended education seminars and tried to read every book on diabetes so I could take good care of myself, but I still felt in the dark. I had new challenges while dancing in my very first company, and I had the new challenge of diabetes. Either one on its own would have been difficult, and the combination was overwhelming.
I arrived at the Montgomery Ballet with no strength or technique left, my hands filled with testing supplies and a little yellow booklet to write down my numbers and adjust my insulin. Our days began with a two hour ballet class in the morning, thirty minutes for lunch and then four hours of rehearsals. The trainees and apprentices also had an additional ballet class in the evening. This schedule lasted six days a week. We were all very, very tired and the months of having untreated diabetes had left me weak. Sometimes I wanted to just sit down and cry. Sometimes I did. I desperately wanted to show the artistic director how smart of a dancer I was but instead I would experience a low or high that would throw me off my game.
I began to feel as though I had nothing to offer the company. I hid my supplies in the corner of the locker rooms and tested when nobody was around. I noticed that the stress of a ballet class sent my blood sugar to 250mg/dl and after class and I would shout a swear word or two. I was frightened of being labeled the sick dancer and of not be given roles that were challenging. And then my fears came true. One of these lows was so severe that I sprained my ankle badly enough to require surgery. That ended my time with the Montgomery Ballet.
My surgery was at the end of August 2011 and I spent the entire fall getting back into the shape I was in before my injuries and more importantly, before my diagnosis. I threw myself into physical therapy, cycling, ballet class, pilates, running and floor barre to pull myself together. And, luckily for me, life took a turn for the better. Very soon after I finished dancing at the Montgomery Ballet I was given the wonderful opportunity to dance with a new company in Birmingham Alabama called Arova Contemporary Ballet. I was given the rank of a soloist and they wanted me to start dancing as soon as possible. I couldn’t believe it. It was the dream job I’d been waiting for. I have just started rehearsals with them and every day seems like an experiment. Now my days are still filled with daily ballet classes and rehearsals as well as conditioning to keep me from getting any more pesky injuries. I make sure that I eat a combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to help me get through rehearsals. Despite all of the attention I’m giving my blood sugar, it’s still unpredictable. Sometimes it will rise after a hard ballet class and other times it will drop. Sometimes it will even drop to 40mg/dl without any warning. There is no consistency and for a ballet dancer this is infuriating. Additionally, performing brings other complications to my diabetes management since my adrenaline increases my blood sugar, but then the physical activity increases my insulin action, thus dropping me like a stone as soon as I go off stage.
Although in many ways dancing makes the struggle for stable blood sugar harder than normal, my dance career is part of my soul. Ballet was almost cut from my life when I was diagnosed. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to get my body strong enough to get back into company life. Somehow I decided that diabetes wasn’t going to stop me. I am too stubborn to give something up that I have devoted my whole life to and I am very glad I didn’t. I believe that my struggles with diabetes have made me even more tenacious with ballet.
I am happy to say that while my blood sugar swings up and down, my life is balance. My new ballet company is a warm welcoming family that accepts me, my dancing and my diabetes. It has a more supportive atmosphere than other companies. I am no longer the sick dancer. I’m just a dancer who beeps once in a while in rehearsal. I wear my Dexcom around my waist in class, check the numbers frequently and even stop mid- class to test my blood sugar. No one bats an eyelash. Many company members ask me about it and I try my best to explain how diabetes is a difficult disease despite the fact that I make it look easy. I tell them it is like ballet. A performance may look effortless on stage, but we all know it how much work it takes to get there.