I had a boyfriend before I ever had diabetes. We met at a 4th of July cookout the summer before our freshman year of high school. We didn’t live in the same town, so we never went to school together, but for the eight years following our first date, he was my very best friend.
I remember texting him from my pediatrician’s office the day I was diagnosed. My appointment was supposed to be a routine physical, but after the finger stick and urine analysis, it had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. Fidgeting on the crinkling paper of the examination table, I opened my flip phone to send him a message. I told him something was wrong and that they think it might be diabetes. In that moment, I was so scared, but having him to reach out to and lean on for emotional support, made me a little stronger. I wasn’t alone. I had a partner.
We were together until shortly after my 22nd birthday. I never could have guessed that an innocent crush on my friend’s guitar-playing cousin would grow into a relationship that helped to shape the entire narrative of my teenage years and early twenties. I recognize and appreciate that having him in my life all that time meant I never had to explain my diabetes to someone new. He understood it all because he had always been there. He knew how difficult it was for me and saw me struggle through some terribly dark times. Sadly, I think my reliance on our personal history is one of the things that kept me chained to our relationship long after I realized I was unhappy and that our union no longer served me well. Without really acknowledging it, deep down I know I was afraid of the unknown without him. I didn’t have the dedication to self-care back then and navigating the waters of management emotionally and physically was still a significant challenge most days. Who else would love someone as broken as me?
After we parted ways, though invigorated by my newfound freedom, I felt a sense of emptiness. I no longer had that partner. I had the support of my parents and my friends, but as anyone who has ever been in love can tell you, there’s nothing like knowing you’re half of a whole. Yet, I knew I needed some time to learn how to live my life, diabetes included, on my own. Staying with him because it was comfortable, or because the future seemed too uncertain to face without this person who had seemingly always been in my life, would have been wrong. It wasn’t necessarily him that I missed the most after things had ended, but I definitely missed the sense of security that he had always brought me. I am thankful I found the strength within myself to let go, move forward, and carry on alone.
I can honestly say that I’ve been blessed enough to never have had a bad experience when it comes to dating and diabetes. Anyone who has had to witness me test my blood sugar from across a restaurant table, or bolus for something I’ve eaten, probably already knew I had diabetes in the first place. The confidence I found in myself, a self-assurance that wasn’t reliant on the existence of another, brought me to the road I walk down today.
By having a committed and serious relationship so young, I gained a sense of expectations that I carry with me to this day. My first relationship taught me that finding a caring and understanding partner was very important to me. I knew definitively that I would never settle for anything less than someone who viewed me as an equal and as a friend. It makes me sad to think of those out there, chronic illness or otherwise, who live their lives in relationships with people who do not encourage, support, and protect them. I pray that those who find themselves struggling with their romantic partners find strength in the bonds they share with friends or other loved ones. There is value to be seen in any kindness and understanding we can find.
It brings me great joy to say that I have again found a strong sense of connection in another. A few years ago, I had recently distanced myself from the group of people I had been spending time with. So the night before my 23rd birthday, I asked Stacey, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while to round up some of her buddies to go out for drinks – even though I didn’t know anyone. Lucky for me, her crew of cronies included her handsome, guitar-playing (some things never change) roommate. She had been baiting me with tales of her tall, bearded, musically-talented friend for a few months. Full disclosure: I had already done some pretty in-depth Facebook/Instagram creeping so I was more than happy to meet him. Not a day goes by that I’m not eternally grateful for my decision to make plans with them that night.
I’ve known Zack for nearly four years now and the life I lived without him seems like a distant dream that didn’t actually happen. Beyond the general appreciation for our shared tastes and many similarities, I know with unexplainable confidence that he is someone who loves and cares about me deeply. I understand that it wasn’t his choice to deal with things like diabetes or gastroparesis, but it was his decision to choose me, and he knew those things came as a part of my package. I’m not sure he gives himself enough credit for the things he does for me. In fact, I know he doesn’t! Humble and kind, he likely sees it as part of our journey together, but I see it as so much more. Perhaps he doesn’t even realize that even though I know I’m strong enough to do this alone, it’s his love for me, and my love for him, that gives me the extra push to keep holding on when I’m not sure if I can anymore.
Recently, during a nasty GP flare up, I was plagued with a severe episode of cyclical vomiting and Zack was the one to take me to the emergency room – a duty typically reserved exclusively for my dad (mostly because he already knows exactly what to say and what to do). When the moment came to head to the hospital, I didn’t think twice about having Zack take me. It’s hard to explain how much it impressed me to see him answer nurses and talk to doctors when I wasn’t really able to. Of course I expected him to be physically present with me but his ability to control and calmly manage the situation meant a lot to me. Not everyone would be able to do what he did for me that day. In those moments, I once again realized what a gift I had been given when he entered my life. There is not a soul in this world that I’d rather have by my bedside.
The personal growth I’ve seen Zack experience as a result of the impact of all my medical issues makes me so proud. Whether it’s fetching sugar when I’m low or finding my testing supplies when I’m sick, there is nothing he wouldn’t do for me. Without hesitation, he springs into action and takes control of the situation. During terrible gastroparesis flare ups, he has stood above me in the bathroom, watching me get sick and wiping my mouth. He’s laid down beside me and rubbed my back while I’ve whimpered in pain, tears streaming down my face. Every time I’m in the hospital, he puts as much of his life on pause as he can and spends hours on end just sitting with me even if it’s in silence. Anytime I’m in pain, so is he. I can tell just by looking in his eyes. They’re always filled with love and deep concern. I hate to see him worry but knowing that he cares so much makes my heart so full.
Zack never stops surprising me. Just when I think I couldn’t possibly love or appreciate him more, he does something to open my eyes and my heart a bit wider. One particular memory that highlights his genuine kindness and affection for me is the time I woke up to several small notes of encouragement he had scribbled on scraps of paper for me to unfold and take in. Stuck for days in the hospital without answers, I had been in and out of sleep and didn’t notice him leave my room. I was elated to find the secret messages with me in my bed. His words brought me to tears because, although I never doubted its existence, I truly felt his love radiating from those tiny pieces of paper.
I’m thankful to exist on the same frequency as the one I love. Beyond taking care of me when I’m sick, Zack is also someone that inspires me. His steadfast dedication and commitment to his personal ambitions and dreams helps to ignite my own fire to work towards my future and the goals I’d like to achieve. Both overflowing with creativity and a strong sense of wonder, we make a good match because we get the opportunity to challenge each other to do better… to be better. His sense of humor and his ability to make me laugh and smile is something I value immensely. I can’t pretend to know what the future holds, but I like to think that no matter where I go or what I do, there he’ll be. He’s the first person I think about when I wake up and the last person I think about when I go to sleep. If I have free time, I want to spend it with him. The feeling I get from our friendship alone is addictive enough, so combine that with the feelings of love and adoration I possess, and I guess you could say I’m a little bit crazy about him.
I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that no matter what happens, I’ve already experienced a love that not everyone gets to find. I know how lucky I am. I realize and recognize that something like what we have doesn’t happen every day. When I think of all the mistakes, all the things I’ve seen as bad decisions that I’ve made along the way, I am reassured by my present reality that everything I’ve done, and everything I’ve been through, allowed the universe to put us in the same place at just the right time. I encourage everyone to hold in their hearts the hope for someone that brings them the same peace and joy that Zack brings me. As Joseph Campbell says, “Love is a friendship set to music.” and damn, do we have a really great song.