From 80 to 120
I live my life between the numbers 80 and 120. The space between, a land of milk and honey. The space between, the Fertile Crescent amidst the Tigris and Euphrates. I revere that space but often go beyond its bounds. I find comfort in that space but find limitation and restriction there as well. Because when I do find myself outside the space between 80 and 120 the guilt nearly paralyzes me.
The first time I realized I was not in control of my own body I was eight, lying in a hospital bed and swaddled in cotton sheets. The air was heavy with the scent of the ill and sharp with the rubbing alcohol they used to counteract it. I remember the sunset, how the shades of pink and lilac looked almost desaturated outside my window like some sort of hazy dream from which I had yet to awake. How strange a realization it was, that the one thing every human being has agency over by virtue of being alive was somehow to me an unruly and stubborn beast. I lied there, my mother at my side, and turned to the specialist with a pounding young heart.
“Am I going to die?” I asked her.
She regarded me with the barest of glances before returning to the clipboard in her hands. “Not if you manage it well.”
I stared at her for a long moment. How was I meant to respond to that? The sky outside became violent and my sheets felt stiff and constricting, the air suffocating. Perhaps I'd wanted someone to comfort me, to tell me I wouldn't die, that I was being silly, that everything would be better in the morning. But she didn't.
My mother, sitting at my side, gaped towards the specialist as she excused herself. I knew that look. She was outraged on my behalf. How could someone say that to a child? I wondered the same thing. Twelve years later, I still wonder the same thing.
“You’ll be fine,” she said to me, her brows furrowed. But it was too late.
More often than not, I find myself at odds with my body. In the mirror is a person with serious eyes, something the me inside can identify with. But some things give me pause. Is that really me? Her body is foreign, marred. I see my calloused fingertips, the permanent marks scarring the skin of my stomach and thighs, and feel frustrated. A prisoner trapped in an unyielding body. Sometimes I wonder with what colors I may see the world, if I had a body that listened to me. A body that did was it was supposed to do.
The first time I was asked to inject myself I was eight and again I was in a hospital room. The first room hadn’t worked out. A child had been sobbing through the night and I couldn’t sleep. The second room hadn’t been much better. A young girl vomited violently beside me. I heard my mother utter the phrase, "so sad." The third room was okay, it was all white walls, a small television playing cartoons, a bathroom in the corner, a bed by the window. I stood by that window in the third room and held a slender needle with small, shaking hands.
“I can do it for you,” my mom had offered.
But I remembered what the specialist said. If I didn’t manage it well, I would die. If I didn’t manage it. I shook my head and guided the needle into the flesh of my stomach, pushing the plunger down Until the dose of insulin entered my bloodstream. That silly, stupid hormone. The hormone that, in healthy people, let them live between 80 and 120.
I spent the better half of my three days in meetings with various specialists. They gave me pamphlets and papers and pictures. I glazed over them, not indifferent but too overwhelmed to be an active participant. One night they sat me down in a squat, square, windowless room with sandy walls and tired-faced nurses. One slid me a packet of crayons, the waxy kind they give kids at restaurants and gave me a half smile. She showed me a picture and asked me to color it in: a cartoony diagram of where to inject myself. I felt all at once too young and too old for something like that but I sat beside my mom, listening as a good girl should.
When bad things happen, it’s easy to assign blame. Was the disease passed down from my mother’s side? Did my father’s grandmother have a predilection to the disease she’d given to me? Was it triggered by a cold I’d gotten from a friend at school? It was no one’s fault but still I searched for someone to blame. I landed on my body as he root of the problem, a thing so implicit and constant we often forget it is there. We forget until reminded. How many problems, really, come down to the body?
A healthy person’s pancreas produces insulin in response to the food they eat. It is a natural system of give and take, meant to give the healthy person energy in exchange for carbohydrates. I have to become my own pancreas. Before the age of eight, I didn’t know what a pancreas was or how my organs interacted with one another. But when one organ decides to stop working, it becomes difficult to ignore the body’s perfect balance, or at least mostly perfect.
I wonder if other people feel like a passenger in their bodies. I wonder what people see when they lock gazes with the person in the mirror. Do they see a vessel bucking wildly, its own disobedience coloring its surface? I wonder if the body is meant to be controlled, or if it’s all just a comforting illusion.
Recently I strayed very, very far from the Fertile Crescent of 80 to 120. Instead, when I drew crimson blood from my numb, flushed fingertip, the monitor read 453.
Okay, okay, okay. Shit.
I spent so much time doing my body’s job, expended so much energy to maintain that balance, only for it to crumble? A chasm opened beneath my feet. It was dizzying, swirling, all-consuming. 453?
Shit, shit, shit.
The organs I had left would start to shut down. They’d fail.
Maybe I could run it off? If I ran enough, maybe my blood sugar would naturally fall.
I ran laps around the house, picking my knees up to my chest, shaking out my bloated hands after each turn in the hallway. I was thirsty. Was I thirsty because of the blood sugar spike or the exercise?
I scrambled back into the kitchen where my mother stood preparing herself a meal. She spared me a glance that didn't linger. If it did, I'd have chewed her out for it. I grabbed for a glass and filled it with water, guiding it down my throat. I drank and drank, but the thirst persisted. Why was I so goddamn thirsty? The thirst was mind-numbingly distracting. My belly extended as I drank more, more, more.
Enough. Do something else.
Perhaps my pump? God, it had been a while since I adjusted my basal rates. Was that the culprit? I fell back against the couch and fiddled with the buttons on my insulin pump, but my fingers were too puffy and every press down felt like needles. I kept pressing. Maybe if I gave myself more insulin in the morning I wouldn't be like this by the afternoon. Maybe I could fix it retroactively.
I checked my blood sugar again fifteen minutes later.
451? After all that work? I scowled at my monitor and shoved it aside. Oh no. I was getting frustrated. I pulled my knees to my chest and bit my fingernails. The TV droned on, pictures blurring into colors and colors into nothing as I stared at it. What the hell? I couldn't think of what else to do. Had I not done it all? How long would it take, really? Shouldn't fifteen minutes mark a bigger change? I bit and bit my nails until I reached the beds of them, wincing. I glanced back at the TV and instead of actors greeting me, images of damaged organs danced through my head like withered flowers, frail and failing. My mother stood by and watched me before returning to her work. She knew better than to ask if I wanted help. If I managed it...
I made a mess of my living room, leaving used testing strips still carrying thin droplets of blood strewn across the wooden coffee table. I stared at them a long moment as my energy drained from my body, exiting through my calloused fingertips.
Clean that up.
When I reached out to retrieve them, I realized my hands were shaking. The fresh sunlight served only as a nuisance. I wished for the day to end, for night to come, for this endless moment to be over. I was frustrated, uncomfortable inside myself. My mouth was dry, my hands bloating around the joints, my skin hot.
It’s not always so bad, this delicate balance. Most of the time I forget about it altogether. I’ve been afflicted with this chronic discomposure for more years than I was without. Perhaps I am used to the needles, the blood, the pain. Perhaps I am used to taking responsibility for something my body should be able to do itself. Perhaps, even, I am used to feeling like my body and me are entirely disconnected, disjointed somehow, both of us too stubborn to listen to each other. Who among us can be certain we are in control of ourselves? I don't lament the life I missed. I don't curse fate when I watch friends carefreely leap into lakes without removing their pumps first. I don't feel slighted when I'm out with family for dinner and I can't eat yet because my blood sugar is too high. No. I don't lament the life I missed.
I live my life between the numbers 80 and 120. The rigid, unsympathetic numbers tell me what I can and cannot do. Since I was eight, sitting in a stiff hospital bed, fidgeting in a scratchy pale blue gown, those numbers have been my bible. If I manage it well, I will not die. Between the numbers 80 and 120 I will continue to live.