All in the Family
My 17-year-old brother Ethan sat upright on a workout bench in the basement of our suburban New Jersey home. He faced me with an open, albeit slightly nervous, expression. My iPad rested on a folding table between us to record our interview—part of my undergraduate paper on illness experiences.
Ethan had a bottle of water next to him, and as he took a small sip I was brought back to a moment five years earlier. It was the same time of night, around 8:30, and I’d finished my homework early after my JV soccer practice. Sixteen years old, I chased my 11-year-old brother around the first floor of our house. Ethan was skinny, too skinny, but we didn’t realize it at the time. I wanted to continue the game, but Ethan begged to stop for a drink of water, chugging cup after cup as I waited on.
Two months later, Ethan was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and daily life in the Halman household forever took a new form.
I remember his diagnosis vividly. Ask him, though, and he won’t recollect the year, let alone the month or day. From counting carbs to checking blood glucose, diabetes care during those early years was much more taxing on me and my parents than on Ethan. Though he endured the shots, we lived with the knowledge that his blood glucose abnormalities could have drastic short-term effects and unnerving long-term risks.
And we lived through nights worried about lows. My parents took the form of superheroes to ensure that his blood glucose was regulated while he slept. Flashlights in hand, they tiptoed into our shared bedroom to uncurl a finger from Ethan’s sleeping body (he could sleep though a fire alarm, and has) and prick his finger. A high reading, and they’d deliver insulin. A too-low number, and they’d wake him to gulp down a juice box. Sometimes it was done as a team. Other times it was done in shifts. Most times it woke me—the world’s lightest sleeper.
But when I asked him about it during our interview, the nocturnal ritual stood out no further in Ethan’s 17-year-old mind than did carb counting. Though there were many nights when he was woken to stabilize his glucose, the initial fear that came with every “bad” number didn’t register on his consciousness.
Today, Ethan is much more attentive to risks associated with having diabetes. However, these risks have never caused him to lose hope. I will forever be impressed with how nonchalantly Ethan accepts his illness. I can only hope that if I were in his shoes I would have the capacity to not scream, “Why me?” Ethan, without any questions asked, knows that this illness is just another part of his life. And as long as it’s there, he’ll have support from his family to help manage it—whether or not he realizes just how deeply we share his illness experience.
MATTHEW HALMAN is a graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in conflict studies in the Department of Government.
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