‘I’m about to turn 21, I have my whole life ahead of me, but the life I thought I’d have is gone.’
That was the prevailing thought I kept having right after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2007.
I just couldn’t cope that this was my new reality.
As a result, I experienced a nervous breakdown, trashed my room and then my housemates found me trying to hurt myself. They immediately rang my dad for help and he called 999.
It was the lowest point in my life.
Thankfully, I’m in a much better place now and I actually think my diagnosis is the best thing that ever happened to me.
I first began to experience the awful symptoms of undiagnosed diabetes during my time at university.
Focused on lectures and essays, I had no idea my immune system had destroyed the insulin-producing cells in my pancreas and that was what was causing my dramatic weight loss, blurred vision and unquenchable thirst.
I partied over Christmas and New Year, and by the time I went home to see my family in the early new year, I looked so thin that my family thought I was anorexic and so they rushed me to see my GP.
Stepping on the scales, that’s when we all discovered I weighed just six stone. This then led to a finger prick test, which showed that my sugar levels were way over the normal amount, and so I was sent to hospital.
A nurse in hospital did an artery blood test, which I remember her telling me would hurt, and not long after my diagnosis was confirmed, I was put on a saline drip to help bring my blood glucose down and started on insulin injections immediately.
‘You’ll need to do this every day for the rest of your life,’ she explained, though in all honesty it didn’t sink in at that point just how life altering this diagnosis would be.
Of course I had heard of diabetes, but I didn’t know anyone personally that had it.
Nor did I understand the difference between type 1 – which is when the pancreas can no longer make insulin as a result of your immune system attacking the cells – and type 2 – when the body becomes resistant to insulin. That knowledge came much later.
The only thing I do remember asking was: ‘Why me?’ Doctor’s couldn’t give me an answer though.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition – like lupus, or psoriasis – there is no widely accepted cause and it cannot be prevented. It’s just bad luck and can happen to anyone at any time in their life.
Now, it was clearly my turn.
When I returned to university, I wanted nothing more than for things to go back to normal. But they couldn’t.
I had to cut out alcohol and partying as it caused my sugars to drop too low meaning I’d start shaking, sweating and not being able to see, which in turn meant my group of friends stopped calling.
I felt isolated. Alone. And with seemingly no way out, that’s when I decided to attempt suicide.
Back in hospital I was kept overnight, but emergency wards are not designed for people in mental health crisis and I was discharged the next day because I wasn’t physically in need of A&E treatment.
I went back to my student house with very little support.
Luckily, my flatmates were there to try and help me, but I sensed they weren’t really sure what to do.
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I graduated not long after somehow, but as my knowledge has grown over the years, I look back at the girl I was then and feel sorry for her – I really was just muddling my way through and I was scraping by.
I got a job as a PA in Manchester as that was all I could really cope with, and I did my best, but for the first four years I would say I was just existing rather than living.
There were lots of other challenges other than just keeping myself alive.
I had lost so much weight when I was unwell that I had lost muscle mass as well as fat. It took years of work to get this back but in the meantime my confidence was destroyed.
It’s very easy to develop disordered eating when you have to focus so much on your food and insulin intake anyway.
I struggled with diabulimia for a while – a now recognised eating disorder where people with type 1 diabetes stop taking their insulin even though doing so might kill them, because stopping means you will lose weight.
At that time though it wasn’t really widely known, and I had to deal with that myself over the course of the next few years.
A lifeline came in 2011 when I saw a diabetes specialist nurse for an appointment and just broke down at how much I was struggling.
She recognised my complete lack of knowledge of my own condition and put me on a carb counting course – where you spend five days in hospital learning about your own dosing needs and how to calculate your doses based on the amount of carbohydrates you consume.
It was a big step in the right direction, and definitely changed the course of my life with diabetes and started me off on my education journey.
The first thing it taught me was how to properly look after myself and how to accurately measure my insulin dose. But it also introduced me to other type 1s for the first time.
Sitting in a room full of other people like me was life-changing. Just being able to talk to someone else who is going through the same things you are made me feel less alone and less panicked about all the little challenges.
Relishing in that peer support that I’d been missing for so long, I then connected with the type 1 community online, and it was the amazing friends I made there that inspired me to want to give something back.
Ten years on from my diagnosis I created Type 1 Clothing – a fashion line which includes everything from dresses and jumpsuits to partywear, all designed with zips and splits to make it easier to inject insulin while in public.
Then, last year, I took part in the Channel 4 competition style reality show, Make Me Prime Minister (think, The Apprentice, but for politics) where I competed against 11 other candidates under the watch of Alastair Campbell and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
And I won!
I couldn’t believe it, but it meant the world to be able to show others (and prove to myself) that you don’t have to let diabetes stop you from going after your dreams.
Since then I’ve also been asked to appear alongside celebrities like global star Nick Jonas and actor Jeremy Irvine in a first-of-its-kind digital portrait exhibit on SeeDiabetes.com in celebration of World Diabetes Day.
The images capture some of the raw emotions I have experienced living with diabetes that often go unseen. And they’ll also show the world the amazing diabetes management technology I wear that supports me, day and night.
I am fortunate to be able to use a hybrid closed loop (HCL) system, which is made up of two separate devices that both monitor my glucose levels and deliver my insulin. There’s even a special AI algorithm that learns my personal patterns and adjusts my dosage accordingly.
It really has been a life changing piece of kit for me. Instead of pricking my finger multiple times a day, I can, more or less, leave it to do its thing – though I do still need to enter the carbs I eat and let it know if I’m going to exercise (yes that includes hoovering!).
While type 1 diabetes is incurable, it can be so much easier to manage now and I truly hope more people with diabetes have the opportunity to use this technology to manage their diabetes soon.
When I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes I thought my life was over. But now, I’m part of a worldwide community and have had opportunities far greater than I ever could have imagined.
And to anyone diagnosed with diabetes now or in the future just remember, you are not alone because we have each other.
Natalie is a supporter of Dexcom’s #SeeDiabetes campaign
If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: email@example.com between the hours of 9am and midnight.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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