Dating A Diabetic

One woman shares what it’s like to go out with someone who has a serious health condition—and what she learned.

By Sascha Rothchild

met Matt at a poker game. He was the perfect mix of hipster and nerd, attentive and aloof, confident yet realistic. The following week, when we were on the phone planning our first date, I suggested a restaurant because of its excellent sangria. He said, “I can’t drink sangria.” I thought, Oh great; another guy in recovery. There are a lot of them in Los Angeles. Then he said he was a type 1 diabetic, and there’s too much sugar in sangria.

Could I handle dating a person with a health issue? When Matt told me he had diabetes, I immediately thought of Wilford Brimley and all those diabetes
Could I handle dating a person with a health issue?
commercials. Then I thought about the commercials for countless other scary-sounding diseases. IBS. Parkinson’s. I’m lucky enough to be healthy and come from a healthy family, so I knew little about chronic illness. And since I’m only in my thirties, I’d never thought about my stance on dating someone with a medical condition, because I never had to. Was I really willing to step into a relationship with someone with health issues when love is hard enough healthy?

After thinking about all the earlier dating red flags I’d managed to overlook — men who were chronically unemployed, chain-smoked or listened to awful smooth jazz — I decided diabetes wasn’t a reason to cancel. After all, it was just one date. I needed more information before I could decide whether this would be a deal-breaker for a long-term relationship.

Doing my medical research
As soon as I started doing my research, I realized that I knew nothing about diabetes except that in disaster movies there’s always someone who needs insulin immediately or else this person will die. Con Air. Dog Day Afternoon. Panic Room. TV taught me that diabetics are always overweight or elderly. So until Matt ended up at my poker table, I was extremely misinformed.

So I began to educate myself. The first thing I learned is that when a diabetic goes without insulin, his blood sugar rises, which isn’t good, but he won’t drop dead in hours. When blood sugar gets perilously low, though (due to too much insulin, not eating enough, and other factors) —that can kill. Like the
Instead of taking care of him, I’d need to trust him to take care of himself.
wife in Memento. I guess that’s why, when my boyfriend’s blood sugar dropped on a date — just a week after our first dinner — I knew I had to act fast. Matt and I had gone for a jog on the beach. A few miles in, he felt ill and checked his sugar level. It was in the danger zone of low. Instantly, I sprinted off, with no money, to find him some soda. Adrenaline rushing, I felt like a superhero racing to save the day. I found a diner nearby and pleaded with the waitress: “My boyfriend is diabetic and he needs soda and I have no money and please help me!” She gave me a cup of Coke with no lid. I thanked her and sort of half ran, half hobbled back to Matt, trying not to spill the precious sugary soda. He drank it down, and slowly we made it back. In superhero mode, I felt invigorated being able to help Matt. But walking to the car with a frighteningly pale Matt, I thought, this is emotionally draining and scary—and I did have to wonder, am I really up for the challenge of dealing with his medical condition day in and day out?

How much should I worry?
The hardest part about dating someone with a chronic illness is balancing the fine line between acknowledging that the disease is extremely serious but at the same time not dwelling on it. There is a charming medical term, “Dead in Bed,” used when diabetics die quietly in their sleep from undetected low blood sugar. After Matt made a joke about this, falling asleep next to him was virtually impossible. I would lie awake all night just to make sure he was still breathing.

I remember going out on a Saturday night, and watching Matt order a few drinks. Vodka on the rocks with olives. Although alcohol isn’t recommended for diabetics since it can lead to low blood sugar, Matt chooses to drink on occasion, explaining that drinking high-end vodka is less risky than other options. Plus, he added, the fat in the olives slows down the absorption of the carbohydrates in the alcohol, helping to keep his blood sugar stable. I figured he knew what he was doing, but still, I couldn’t stop thinking: What if he passes out and doesn’t monitor his blood sugar and slips into a coma? What if he’s, well, “dead in bed”?

I stayed up all night poking him to confirm he was still alive. He woke up in a good mood, remembering the fun of the previous night. I, on the other hand, tore into him: “How could you do that to me? I was so worried! Don’t ever drink again!” Matt calmly explained that he’s an intelligent, independent, responsible 32-year-old man who has been coping with this disease for 12 years. So if he’s able to fall asleep at night, I should be able to, too. Suddenly, I felt more like an overprotective Mom than a girlfriend. And I realized that if I was going to date Matt, I’d need to mellow out. Instead of taking care of him, I’d need to trust him to take care of himself.

Matt and I have been dating for three months and I’ve finally stopped asking myself whether I can deal with his disease each day. The question slowly vanished as it became clear how much I wanted to be with him, and that he was worth my stocking the fridge with soda, enduring a few sleepless nights and making the occasional trip to the emergency room (which, in a weird way, can be very romantic on a Saturday evening). The more time I spend with Matt, the more I’ve come to think of him as a regular guy who surfs and wears hoodies and goes to work and plays poker. He just happens to be a diabetic. Those are the cards he was dealt, but with Matt I know I’ve got a good hand, and I don’t plan on folding anytime soon.

Sascha Rothchild is a freelance writer, television producer, and a contributor to public radio’s “This American Life.”
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