I’m Rob Fletcher, and I wanted to write down some thoughts from the beginning of my diabetes journey. I see a lot of people (especially with-it being Diabetes Week recently) sharing their long-term experiences and what has changed for them in how they manage themselves and their condition, but very little from people who are just starting out on this. It may be because like I did, people think they don’t have a lot to share, but maybe that is what needs sharing sometimes. So, here’s my journey so far (I may get carried away and make this into an essay – I’ve never actually put this down anywhere).
In the summer of 2018, there were signals that I didn’t pick up, they may have been related to diabetes, they may not (and I’ll never know for sure) but they were some of the tell-tale signs. I needed the loo a little more regularly and long drives were really hard to manage due to toilet breaks. However, it was that autumn when things got a bit more serious for me.
I am a primary school teacher, and in September 2018 I started to feel exhausted after every day. This felt almost expected, autumn term is tough, and I had a few big school events I was responsible for organising and running. I was 31 – maybe it was just a sign of getting old, maybe I was working a bit hard, maybe it was working with a different group of children – I am excellent at finding excuses for things, especially if my excuses mean that ‘nothing is really the matter’. As we rolled into October my half an hour walk to work was taking between 45 minutes to an hour. I was starting to get little cramps and I needed the toilet a lot, I could rarely make it through a lesson. At this point I no longer thought it was stress but maybe a urine infection or a virus of some kind. My wife was telling me I should go to the doctor, but I guess I didn’t want to hear what they may say so I convinced myself that I would be fine, my parents wanted me to go to a doctor but I palmed them off with my self-convinced nonchalance.
My vision had become blurred, it felt like I was walking through treacle, my urine had begun to smell so bad that I believed we might have a problem with our drains. I felt awful. I had a job interview in this period, so the fact that I couldn’t stop sweating must have been down to my nerves right? On October 10th (My school was doing Book Day), dressed as Fantastic Mr Fox, I was teaching sat on some cardboard boxes at the front of my class, I couldn’t find the energy in me to stand up, and this was unlike me – I love to throw myself into my teaching and around my classroom. My TA at the time noticed all this and got the assistant head to come who quickly sent me home. Even at this point I was in denial, “I’m sure it’s nothing!” I told my wife as she went to work on Thursday morning, she told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t go to the dr that day there would be trouble! I got my appointment and off I trudged.
The dr gave me a urine test, took one look at it and told me that he normally would say that he thinks it could be this, but in my case, he was absolutely certain – “You have diabetes.” I was walking distance from the hospital so I trudged off round the corner explained who I was (the dr called ahead) to reception, called my wife, and before I could sit down they called me through.
The next part of this feels very blurry looking back. I remember my wife arriving, and I remember all the staff being very concerned, I had blood sugars of 37 and ketones of 7, I was in DKA. The hospital staff told me they hadn’t seen someone with my bloodwork conscious before. I remember my wife looking scared.
To cut the scary part of this experience short I spent 3 days in hospital getting my sugars settled and learning how to inject myself and check my levels and generally how to manage type 1 diabetes. Then I started what feels like a totally different phase of life. Genuinely nothing seems the same.
In terms of diet I changed very little, I had been a vegan for about 10 months at this point, the dietician told me I didn’t need to counter for most of my diet just processed carbs and root veg. I changed out white potato for sweet potato, white rice for brown rice (the internet said it was a good idea) and I went about managing what I knew was the rest of my life. I recall people saying they wouldn’t be able to do it, or that they were very surprised with how well I was taking it, but for me I didn’t have a choice so I may as well do it in good spirits and determination. There were times I got it wrong, big nighttime hypos, pizza (that’s a mad one! I still don’t know how to handle pizza) there were frustrations, there were sore fingers but generally I got on with it.
I think it was as New Years rolled around that I started to feel the mental health effects of a life changing illness. I felt guilty about what my wife might have to go through (I think I still do a bit), I felt lonely, but I didn’t want to go and sit in a support group. I didn’t want to feel different, but I did feel different – every little head rush, every pins and needles, if I was tired or a bit giggly all felt like ‘that’s diabetes’. I became nostalgic for times before my diagnosis. I had got to thinking about playing football again, partly as nostalgia (I did well as a kid, then had played off and on since) but also to get back my fitness – this felt like something important as a diabetic.
It was by searching for diabetic football I got put in touch with Bryn who had just set up TDFC London playing futsal (I had never heard of futsal before – but I was up for learning). It has been, without doubt, the best part of being diabetic for me. I gained a ‘support group’ in London that was actually just a group of guys playing futsal, and I got to learn how to be a goalkeeper again (which I love). I’m quite shy and not ‘a lad’ so I kept myself back a bit from the group but took on as much information as I could, then the opportunity came to train with the UK diabetic futsal squad in Worcester. The car journey up 4 of us spoke the whole way about troubles, shared experiences and advice with each other. This and all of the future journeys was another chance to get to know these brilliant men and to learn about my condition. On top of that I got to play futsal at an even higher level. Chris Bright has to take so much credit for starting TDFC and putting together this incredible team of guys who care as much about each other as we do about futsal.
It was at one of the UK camps where I realised how far I had let my fitness slip. I love to have a target, so I booked myself onto a half marathon, raised money for Diabetes UK and almost a year to the day of my diagnosis with type 1 I ran my first half marathon. I genuinely couldn’t have been prouder of where I’d got to in my first 12 months of diabetes.
There are so many things I have gained from playing with TDFC: a group of mates, a love of a new sport, better fitness, so much more knowledge of type 1 diabetes, I even got my freestyle libre based on advice from one of those car journeys. I still have frustrations, I am of course still learning – I find it hard to manage my meal spikes, but I am learning.
I have grown as a person due to this illness. I understand more about when people feel in denial, when people feel scared about the future, I feel so empowered when I meet a type 1 child who needs to talk to someone about it – I would never have had this without diabetes.
I am excited for the future: I am excited to overcome my future challenges, I am excited to play futsal (when we can again), I am excited to help other diabetics. Would I choose to have it, absolutely not. Am I scared of it, sometimes. Does it worry me everyday? Absolutely not, I am getting there slowly but surely.