Candace Kelly

Writer’s comment: My English 103A class was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had at UC Davis. Being an English major, I might be expected to say something like this—people assume that English majors like to write—but I mean the class was a great experience in a very different way. This class dealt with more than just putting five paragraphs together into an essay. My instructor, Karen Schaafsma, is the kind of person who makes students believe that everyone has something worthwhile to write about. Her request for this assignment was simple: take the reader “there and back again.” We were told to take our readers into an experience we’ve had in our past and then bring them back to the present. If not for this assignment, “Candy” might never have been written. I had thought that some things should be left in diaries.
      I rarely talk about my health problem with my friends, and so most people know me as an all-weather Pollyanna, but even Pollyannas have their secret sides. We all have our secret sides. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed, “Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” What we know about each other is only a shadow of what we can see; we know only parts of a person’s many sides.
      Sharing my experience in this paper has helped me to take a closer look at my own life. I’m no longer so alone; I’m no longer so afraid. Thanks to all of my friends and classmates and to my parents, my doctors, and Karen for supporting me. (I’m giving you all a mental hug!)
—Candace Kelly

Instructor’s comment: Before I read “Candy,” my knowledge of diabetes was pretty well summed up by this nutshell: “no sugar, needles, diets, doctors.” Candace certainly expanded my knowledge of the disease itself, but more than that, she took me inside the world of a diabetic, her world, and showed me what it’s like to live with this disease “by the hour, by the feeling.” Since Candace first wrote this paper in my 103A class in Fall of 1991, I’ve shared it with nearly all subsequent classes. I find students invariably touched and impressed by it, and they often comment on many of the same qualities that first struck me: the unstinting honesty of the writing; the power of the concrete facts and details to convey the vivid, everyday reality of the author’s experience; and the moving transformation of the author’s tone—from an angry, almost bitter edge in the opening passages to a calmer mood of acceptance and reconciliation by the end. And that’s another thing I think “Candy” shows us—the healing, liberating power of writing, of sharing our stories, our pain, our humanness with others. We’re all “strangers on the street” until we find a way to share our worlds with each other, as Candace has done so beautifully here.
—Karen Schaafsma, English Department

Don’t ask me how I feel, I’m not going to tell you. Talking about it makes it worse. When I explain my pain, I have to think about it. Ignore it; maybe it will go away. I dwell on my fears of what may happen. I don’t want to pass that fear on to you. You don’t see it as I do. It’s not your body; it’s not your life. I don’t tell you because I don’t want you to be afraid for me. I can deal with it. I’ll be OK. I don’t tell you because I know that my words are inadequate. I can’t express what it is, yet I do want you to know (even if you can’t exactly feel it). I want to let you in to my world. I want you to know how different my life is from yours, even though it looks much the same. I’m not scarred or crippled. You can’t pick me out in a crowd. To you, I’m just another classmate, another student, another stranger on the street.
      There is one physical sign of my problem; some of you have noticed the ugly silver dog-tag that I wear around my neck. Sometimes it falls out of my shirt, into the open, and you notice the Medic Alert sign: my life in three lines, toll
      I wonder what images are going through your mind right now. Most of you are probably thinking “no sugar, injections, diets, doctors.” You’re right, mostly. Pre-med students have it down to a science; some of them even have the nerve to try explaining it to me. I may not know all the details, but I know what they feel like. I have heard just enough horror stories to scare me away from reading up on my own illness. Yes, I realize the stupidity of this rationalization, yet almost every person I talk to about my fears seems to have the same story to tell me: “I had an aunt who had diabetes, but she didn’t take care of herself. She went blind and her kidneys went out. She died when she was fifty-three.” Gee, thanks. You don’t know how uplifting that story is.
      Have you ever wondered what your aunt went through, what her life was like? Do you think that she wanted to die a horrible, rotting death? Like me, she probably had plenty of people saying to her, “Just take your medicine and watch what you eat. You’ll be OK. Those terrible things only happen to diabetics who don't take care of themselves.”
      I know that you are trying to help, but I need you to know that my life is much more complicated than the aspects that I let you see. Diabetes can be a very degenerative disease. Insulin helps us survive, but it doesn’t cure us. If we don’t live the textbook (nearly impossible, saintly) life of a diabetic, the consequences can be devastating. One-third of our lives could be cut-off. We can lose circulation in our feet and hands. Our organs can slowly corrode, and blindness is an imminent dread for 1 in 10 diabetics who don’t keep their blood-sugar under constant control.
      Diabetes affects our immune system. When you’re a diabetic, you’re never just sick. If your blood-sugar is not in good control, cuts and colds can actually lead to major complications. Any small change that can possibly disrupt the chemical balance within our bodies must be handled with care. Check out the warning labels on the boxes of 10 major over-the-counter drugstore remedies—Warning: Diabetics do not use without consulting a physician. Sometimes people find it amusing when I tell them that I “check” my feet every night. “What, are you going to step on a spike and not know it?” Yes, I am. One of my toes has already lost its ability to feel the texture of the grass. Circulation is one of the first things to go—for diabetics, gangrene is an ominous reality.
      Sometimes I wonder how people come up with some of the comments that they say to me. Why do so many of you think “I’d die if I had to live without sugar”? No, you wouldn’t. You’d learn to live with it, just as all the rest of us have. Do you really think that just because I am a diabetic I have given up all desire for sugar? Not even close. I, too, eat sugar—but I don’t enjoy it. I give in to temptation, but I feel guilt and fear with every bite. Guilt, knowing that I’m slowly destroying my body, becoming the aunt who didn’t take care of herself. Fear, knowing that my blood-sugar level will rise beyond its normal realm, and my body will lose its balance.
      Balance and Control: The Keys to Good Management. How many books can they write on the subject? Twenty-four hours a day my body is calculating: have I taken enough insulin? How long can I go before I’ll need more protein—one, two, three more hours? Is my blood sugar too high, should I exercise more to try and bring it down, or is it really too low? Does my body need sugar? Sometimes I know, sometimes I don’t.
      Every diabetic develops personal early warning signals for possible catastrophes. On one end of the spectrum, I have my “too high” signals: tiredness, grumpiness, fuzzy vision, loss of balance. This, of course, is all complemented by an intense fear of dropping off into a coma. Sometimes I’ll get sharp flashes of pain surging through my head. I can feel gravity pressing down on my brain, and all I want to do is lie down—but this isn’t really an option when you’re sitting in the middle of a large lecture room. I stare at my notes, hoping that you won’t see the fear in my eyes. Sometimes failing a midterm isn’t the worst thing that I face in a classroom. I pray to God to take the pain away, making promises to Him that I know I can’t keep.
      At the other end of the spectrum is low blood-sugar, also a potentially coma-triggering, life-threatening state. Too much activity and not enough protein is usually the cause; sugar is the cure. The diabetic lingo term for this is “having a reaction.” The feeling can come on in the space of one breath. The closest analogy I can imagine for normal folks is: you’re driving on the freeway when a very large truck merges almost into you. You slow down just in time and are safe, but seconds later your body experiences a wave of adrenalin. Now, imagine that feeling coming on unexpectedly in a social setting. Any time, any place. Unlike the analogy, a reaction doesn’t immediately go away. The feeling can be frightening—you’re never quite sure you’re safe—until it does go away. As I silently pop my sugar cubes, I wonder if you know.
      I want to be normal so much. I want to get drunk, but my body can’t cope with the sugar surge. I want to go on an all-day hike without worrying about protein balances. I want to run barefoot without worrying about “asking for infections.” I want to spend the night with a friend without worrying about how my body feels: protein, sugar, insulin, schedules, feelings, fear. I want to be free.
      Unfortunately, spontaneity only exists in my verbal sphere. I live my life by the hour, by the feeling. I need to take my insulin on a very regular schedule: 7 a.m., 6 p.m. Insulin works with protein, and I have roughly 45 minutes that I can wait between taking my shot and eating. Going out can be a real pain. Should I shoot-up now, or wait until we get to the restaurant? If we have to wait too long, I might have a reaction, but I hate shooting-up in public. I wonder what you think when you see me preparing my injection in the ladies’ room. Do you think I’m a sicko? A druggie? Or, do you know?
      I know that I should always keep my insulin with me, just in case, but I don’t. I know that I should always carry sugar with me, but come on, where am I going to get stranded without a 24-hour Safeway or a gas station Coke machine? I found out last fall. I was in a UCD Chevy Suburban with eight other bandsmen, stranded on a foggy, deserted highway. We were returning home from a basketball game, forty-five minutes outside of Davis, when the fan belt broke. Uh-oh. We were stuck on the side of the road and couldn’t see any other headlights through the thick fog. My fellow passengers thought it was really cool, and would make for a great “Road Trip From Hell” story when we got back.
      Then someone remembered. Alex “the Freshman” Wright was taking a First Aid class and wanted to know if I was prepared for the situation. I laughed when he asked me if I had extra insulin with me. “Yup, but it’s not gonna help if I have a reaction—I used my last sugar cube at the game.” I remember the looks on the faces of my fellow passengers as they began to ponder the idea that my problem might be just a bit more than a matter of taking my medicine and watching what I eat. A diabetic emergency doesn’t only happen to cartoon characters in a Red Cross book—it can happen to someone right next to you. Eventually, another carry-all drove by and rescued us, and everything turned out OK. Yet to this day, Alex carries a roll of Life Savers in his saxophone case, and jokingly reminds me, “I’m gonna save your life some day.” I hope he never has to.
      My life has already been saved once. Two weeks before my tenth birthday, my mom tried to wake me up for school and found me in a coma. Four days later, a doctor was explaining the textbook details of being a diabetic to us: the can’s and cannot’s. My mom has been with me every step of the way (at least, I let her think that she has). She has gone to all of the doctors and pharmacies; she has listened to all of the diagnoses and advancements. She went with me to every softball game and band competition, partly to cheer me on and partly to make sure that I was OK. To this day, after twelve years of being a diabetic and five years of living away from home, when I visit she never fails to ask me, “Did you get yer shot?” Yeah, Mom, I’m OK.
      I wonder if she knows how scared I really am. She is always saying to me, “Just be glad you don’t have....” Mom, I know what diabetes can lead to. I know that I can lose my eyesight, and my feet. I know that at this point in my life a fetus could really mess up the balance in my system—yes, I know that having a baby could pose life-threatening complications. I know, to some extent, what I’m up against. If I don’t face the realities of my situation and take care of myself, I know that my life will be cut short—very short.
      But that’s not what scares me. It’s what you don’t say that I fear the most. Do you know what it feels like to be “the family secret?” I see how relatives size me up, surprised to see that “She looks so healthy!” I hear Dad lowering his voice on the phone, “No, she hasn’t had to go in lately.”
      I am the sister, the cousin, the aunt—I am the name on the family history. I am the relative that carries the disease; not a person, just a slot on the family tree. Uncle Joe has high blood pressure. Great Grandad John had a heart attack. Aunt Candace has diabetes.
      I am the crux of a family battle—a debate over who screwed me up. I remember crying in my bed and hearing the voices of my parents rage behind the thin wall. I heard more than my parents ever knew. I listened more intently when their voices were mild and serious. That word—the way my dad said it—“di-a-BE-tus.” I knew when I was going to overhear something I shouldn’t. I remember crouching beneath their bedroom window, silently rocking myself. They didn’t know I was there. It was mid-Saturday afternoon, and Mom was putting the laundry away. Dad was cleaning up in the adjoining bathroom after a long morning of working on the car. I knew they were having a serious conversation, but I wasn’t paying much attention, until I heard that word: “di-a-BE-tus. You know she’s not going to live as long as us.” I had to listen, but didn’t want to hear. Dad was asking Mom if they should send me to college. The investment wouldn’t be wise; I would probably not live long enough to reap the benefits of a degree.
      I was fifteen years old, and I didn’t care what he said about college. It was the first I’d heard about dying young. Very young. My mind calculated—four, six, possibly ten years left? I snuck through the garage door back into my room, the safest place I knew. I still remember the feeling of trying to breathe through a pillow—I didn’t want my mom to know that I was crying; I didn’t want her to know that I had heard. I wanted to be alone. I was alone. For the first time I wanted to die, yet was afraid of dying.
      When my mom found me, she lectured me for being in bed. “What the hell are you wasting the day in here for?” Then she stopped, and didn’t know what to say. I wanted her to go away, and I turned my face to the wall. I didn’t want to talk—or think. I wanted to be weak. I just wanted to be alone. She realized what I had heard and told me not to worry about “him.” Again, she tried to cover up one of Dad’s Okie mistakes. “Oh, your father thinks we’re still in the Middle Ages. Thirty years ago what he said might have been true, but medicine has come a long way since then.” I know that, but Dad? Dad knows. He knows everything. He doesn’t talk much; he states facts, he orders. Omniscient, omnipotent, commanding general of our family, our world. Even before I became a diabetic, he had outlawed any sugar in the house. Mom told us that Dad had gotten headaches when he was in the service and thought that sugar was poison. Dad never told us why, he just said “No.”
      But Mom took care of us. Once in a while she would let us have our treats, just so we could be like every other kid on the block. “Now don’t let your father see this.” It became a game; we all knew the rules. My sisters and I never really understood why Dad was so cruel, but it was fun to secretly know that we had won.
      Sometimes I cry to myself when I think of all the love my dad really felt for us, and we never knew it. Last year I found out. I’ve experienced the headaches my dad tried so hard to save us from. I understand, now, why I’ve never seen my father touch anything with sugar in it, ever. That pain, how it comes on unexpectedly, destroys your faith in ever seeing tomorrow, and leaves you, slowly, with a sense of dread. I can’t let my dad know that I know. After all he did for us, to protect us, I can’t let him know that he has lost. No, Dad, I’m OK.
      I’m OK, I’m OK—what do you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you how much those headaches really hurt? Do you want me to tell you that sometimes I’m afraid to sleep at night—afraid that I might not wake up? Do you want me to admit to you how afraid I am of what can happen to my body?
      For twelve years I’ve tried to hide my pain and fear from you. I’ve been trying to ignore the horror stories, unknowingly blinding myself from the stories of hope. I’m not as bitter as this story may lead you to think. In fact, I am an adamant believer in the statement (overheard three years ago in the Coffee House): “God has never taken anything away from me that he hasn’t replaced with something better.”
      I have you, my friends. You who look out for me, yet allow me to be myself. Eat cheesecake, drink a beer, run barefoot through the grass—and enjoy it! I know that my life could be much worse. We all know that. Thank you for listening to me bitch about my world. I’ve needed to for a long time. Now let me return to being one of you. After all, I’m just another classmate, another student, another stranger on the street.