I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a family with 6 siblings.
I am the second youngest child, with my two sisters being eldest, and the remainder being boys.
When I was growing up, my parents were much older than all of my friends’ parents. My dad was born in 1924 and served in the US Navy in WWII. He was already 45 when I was born (47 when my younger brother was born!). My dad had his share of health issues: a triple coronary bypass in the 1970s, type 1 adult onset diabetes.
In March of 1984, when I was 14, I caught a pretty bad cold. I recovered from my cold, but my pancreas didn’t.
The first troubling sign was that I started wetting my bed. This eventually got to the point where it was happening twice or more a night. I was also eating ravenously. I recall that for lunch, one Saturday, I consumed a sandwich, an entire pot of macaroni and cheese, and an entire pitcher of Kool-Aid, probably grape. Mind you, I was a pretty skinny kid, but despite my continual appetite, I was dropping weight rapidly. My vision started getting blurry, and my energy level was so bad that I couldn’t climb two flights of stairs at one time.
In school I had joined track and was running as a sprinter. At our first outdoor meet, I remember having to go to the bathroom so badly, but the coach wouldn’t allow anyone inside the building. I didn’t tell anyone what I had been going through, so I can’t fault him for sticking to the rules. It was a frightfully cold evening. I had to run 330-yard low-hurdles and my energy plummeted. I made it around about two-thirds of the track before failing to get over two hurdles and smacking them. I ended up walking around the last several and just made it across the finish line.
My mother knew something was up with me and told me that she thought that maybe I had become diabetic. I was used to seeing my dad inject his insulin every morning and the smell of alcohol was a familiar accompaniment at breakfast, so diabetes itself wasn’t weird for me, but the idea that it could happen to me was shocking.
Mom made an appointment for me to see our family doctor. Dr. Malone had not only delivered me as a baby, but he’d also delivered every one of my siblings. He had become my Dad’s doctor when his original doctor retired at a ripe old age. Eventually, when my parents married, he became the family doctor, not just for us, but for my mom’s parents too. He remained the family doctor for years, through my grandparents death as well as my father’s strokes, dementia and death. My mother had still been seeing him when he was in his late 80s.
Mom made an appointment for Friday, April 27th. The previous Sunday, the 22nd, was Easter. I remember that I was very fatigued, always hungry, and going to the bathroom about every 50-70 minutes. My grandmother had an appointment with our doctor the following day, Monday the 23rd. She told my mom that she and I should switch appointments.
It was a good thing that we did because when Dr. Malone checked my blood sugar, it was almost 900. That kind of blood sugar level would send the average person into a coma. I think my youth helped me in this case.
I didn’t go home for a week. The doctor marched me and my mom out of his office, which was located in the physician’s building next to the Hospital, and through the connected doorway to the emergency room. I was admitted immediately and placed on an insulin drip to bring me into a safe range.
I stayed in the hospital the entire week of spring break 1984, learning how to draw and inject insulin, measure food, all of the intricacies of managing my new condition. I had lost so much weight over the previous weeks that I was down to 93 pounds. The only place I could inject was into my stomach.
I only cried twice during that period.
The first time was weeks earlier, at breakfast, when my mom told me that she thought something was wrong with me and that she thought that I was exhibiting symptoms of diabetes.
The second time was the day I had to give myself my first injection.
I had been learning for a couple days prior on how to do this. I would draw an amount of saline into a syringe and inject it into a rubber ball. The day that I had to “graduate,” I drew the syringe, thinking that I would be practicing again with the ball, but the nurse educator said that I would injecting into myself that day.
I was scared.
It was a lot less like standing at the end of diving board and being afraid to jump, because you can’t turn around and climb down the ladder. You just have to do it.
It’s not fun, and it was the beginning of something that will never end, but I did it. I pinched as much skin as I could, lined up the needle, pushed it in, pressed the plunger, and drew the needle out. I cried that time, but not because it hurt; I barely felt anything. I think I cried because this was my life now, and I didn’t want it. It wasn’t my choice.
But with time and reflection, I realize that none of us has a choice with absolutely everything in our lives. And some of the choices thrust on us aren’t fun or fair. I’m very lucky though. There are many other chronic or fatal health conditions that I could be forced to deal with.
Back in 1984, when I was diagnosed, there weren’t personal glucometers for checking your glucose levels at home or on the go. I spent months going to the hospital multiple times a week with my dad to give blood to check my glucose levels. Now, 34 years later, we have so many advancements in the personal care and management of diabetes, and in the understanding of how food, activity, and stress affect the short and long-term health of a diabetic.
After 20+ years taking multiple injections daily, I was able to graduate to an insulin pump. I am now on my fourth pump, and it has changed my life for the better.
There are still complications to my body because of this insidious disease.
I have stage two kidney disease. I’ve received multiple rounds of laser eye surgery for retinopathy, which has now progressed to foveal cysts forming in the macula of my left eye. And I’ve suffered a stroke and a TIA (a transient ischemic attack).
I’ve had people say to me, with good intentions, that they may find a cure yet!
That may be true, but they won’t be able to repair the damaged nerves, my lost vision, my damaged kidneys. Those are permanent hurts.
The worst is when someone insists that if I just change my diet, I can kick my diabetes. Or worse yet that I can “pray” it away. I know people mean well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say.
I think that one major factor in not realizing until my mid-40s that I was born transgender is having been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 14, an age when puberty had just started and my body was already flooded with hormones and emotions.
It was also the early 80s, and suburban Milwaukee wasn’t a place where transgenderism was on my radar. I knew that I was heterosexual as a male – that much I could identify. I had certainly questioned myself on that point (as did several other people). I knew I liked girls. But I also I knew that the softer feminine things resonated with me. Sure, I still liked climbing trees and having an adventure – but those aren’t strictly male things.
There are things that I’ve done through the years that, afterwards, I had attributed to the emotional baggage of being saddled with diabetes. At age 14, I had to become responsible for my health in a way that none of my friends did. I had to take on some adult responsibilities when I mentally wasn’t ready for it. There were times that I pushed the envelope, especially in the early years. I ate foods that I shouldn’t have eaten, sometimes in quantity. I casually picked up cigarettes during college. All these things were poor choices, but I never intentionally missed an injection, and I never consciously did something to “get back at” my diabetes.
Since entering therapy for gender dysphoria, I’ve been able to look back on some of my choices, chiefly in relationships, and identify that the failures and mistakes were, more often than not, due to the fact that I wasn’t who I really needed to be, and I didn’t know why. It was like I was running away from admitting I was gay, but I knew I wasn’t a homosexual male. To be clear, I’m not talking about sex; I’m talking about relationships, and gender, and identity. There were many girls that I dated with whom I think I must have sabotaged any future or longevity, because it was getting to the point where I felt I couldn’t be honest about who I was and what I was feeling, even though I really didn’t know either of those things.
By the time I was in my mid-30s, I had been through some bad break-ups, and I had an opportunity to move to North-Central California to get away from it all and try to make a fresh start. I moved to Marin County, just north of San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge. I lived there for a year, and I really had a chance to understand some things about myself, and about who I needed to be for myself, before I could be in a relationship. I still didn’t know I was transgender. I was still secretly wearing feminine underthings and still living in fear that I would be noticed or “caught.”
I came back to Milwaukee after a failed career attempt. That’s when I met the woman who I would eventually marry and who accepted me as the person I was – a person who, much like myself, underwent a personal time of relationship turmoil followed by a period of reflection and rebuilding.
When we first met, we were just friends. We were honest with each other. The stress in our previous relationships in trying to become who we thought the other person wanted us to be was detrimental to our spirits and growth personally as well as for the relationships. We wanted to enjoy each others’ friendship. I told her of my secret dressing. She told me of her relationships with both men and women. We shared a common upbringing culturally with older parents, and found comfort in talking to each other.
We were friends first and foremost before we were a couple. We still are.
We eventually became very close and started dating. Within a couple of years we were living together and eventually married. She would occasionally ask if I ever thought of transitioning. At the time, I didn’t think I would or could transition.
I pictured my life falling apart if anyone knew at the very least that I was spending a lot of my evenings and weekends wearing feminine attire around the house. What would my friends and family think? Would I lose my job? I worked with retired military servicemen, hardly the people I thought would be OK with my choice to be whom I really was.
But you know what? I’m still friends with many of those people even after switching jobs. They have been some of my most ardent supporters in my journey to become my true self.
I think the turning point for me in deciding to come out was due to multiple factors.
Caitlyn Jenner had brought transgenderism to public attention with her own revelation and transition. That helped open the door.
I had also been dealing with so much stress in my life that it was manifesting physically. Having a disease that is made worse by stress, having a father with similar health concerns and having died at 69 because of stress related issues, and feeling like I had no future goals led me to the point where I had to do something.
I entered therapy in April 2016 after a friend had described me as transgender to an acquaintance.
“What do you think about it?” she’d asked me.
Was I transgender? Was I? I knew I was attracted to women. I also knew that I was far more comfortable in feminine attire – and not just in private or at gay clubs that tolerated my then-poor attempts at makeup. Did I want to live as a woman? Was I a woman? Was I transgender?
I feel that everyone should go to therapy at at least one point in their lives. If your car is acting up you, don’t just hope it gets better, do you? If you have the flu, you don’t just hope you’ll get better. If your heart and your head are aching, it won’t just go away. When the stress manifests itself to the point of physical pain, the best thing to do is get the help that’s needed.
A therapist was the exact mechanic I needed to help figure it all out. I can’t imagine how miserable I would be if I hadn’t sought help. Maybe I would be dead, or worse, maybe I’d have had a debilitating stroke and be in nursing care, still living as a closeted, mixed-up person with little chance of figuring out my life.
But I did take that first step.
April 18th will mark two years since I began therapy and my journey to my authentic self.
And April 23rd will mark 34 years since becoming diabetic, my “diabetiversary” – so it’s a significant month for me.
You know, it took me until my mid-40s to figure out who I was. I’m still working at it.
Some are lucky to be born aligned in gender. Some are lucky to have parents that understand these things at an earlier point in their child’s life. I’m just lucky to have friends, family, coworkers, and most importantly a spouse who all accept me for who I am and who I’m trying to be: my authentic self.