I Was Afraid to Talk About My Chronic Illness. Now I Realize Why I Have To.

My autoimmune disease came on slowly, and then all at once.

In early 2014, I began to lose weight. I was exhausted and thirsty all the time, peed constantly, woke up frequently with epic muscle cramps. I had to buy new clothes because the ones I owned no longer fit. It briefly occurred to me that I should find these developments troubling. I committed to eating more. Then I went back to my life.

Eventually, a cold I couldn’t shake sent me to my doctor, and I casually mentioned my other symptoms. He suggested a blood test. A week later, as I was about to conduct an interview in front of a sizable crowd, I received an urgent message from my doctor. I excused myself, stepped outside, and called his office back. A nurse read me the results. She said they were off the charts and that I should come in immediately. I asked if it was okay to still conduct the interview. She sighed, then said to come in the morning, no excuses. I went back inside and got through the interview, apparently. I remember none of it. All I recall is the panic.

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Roughly a week before I first went to the doctor in 2014, when I was exhausted all the time because my body was devouring itself from the inside.

Michael Sebastian

Fourteen months, a handful of medications, and one misdiagnosis later, my doctors (plural by then) made the official diagnosis. Until now, I’ve told very few people: my wife, Sally; my parents; my brother; his wife; their two kids; a few childhood friends. I convinced myself that it was prudent to wait for the perfect opportunity to share it with anyone else.

Because the theme of our April/May issue is Why Are We Like This?—through which a series of writers lay bare many of our own anxieties—I decided the best way to come clean is to tell twenty million or so of my closest friends.

I have type 1 diabetes.

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? (It was.)

Quietly muscling through this seemed like strength—that’s what most men are led to believe.

When the diagnosis came, my first child was due in four weeks and I’d just landed a new job. The floodwaters of my life were rising rapidly, and if it hadn’t been for a very pregnant Sally—who didn’t just help me bail but did the bailing for me when it was all too much—I certainly wouldn’t be here, writing a letter from the editor of Esquire.

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I kept this secret for so long because it felt like a weakness. I’d experienced my fair share of major medical issues: I broke my leg playing high school football; when I was in my early twenties, I had brain surgery(!) to remove a benign tumor. I recovered quickly both times. I beat them. But type 1 isn’t something you defeat. I could barely bring myself to accept that I had this chronic, lifelong disease, let alone talk about it with other people. Quietly muscling through this seemed like strength—that’s what most men are led to believe, and it gave me some measure of ownership over this thing I couldn’t overcome—when in fact I’ve spent the past five years on the verge of an anxiety attack.

The shove I needed to write this was an essay by Esquire editor at large Dave Holmes, in the April/May issue, about—and I’m not making this up—why men don’t talk about stuff. Dave has type 1 diabetes, too. That I knew, and I’ve shared my own diagnosis with him. What I didn’t expect was that he’d write all about his own experiences with type 1, and why he refused to seek (emotional) support for so long. The piece floored me. Two paragraphs in, I knew it was time for me to fess up.

The April/May issue of Esquire asks, “Why are we like this?” So I’d like to tell you who I am, as a man with type 1 diabetes: I give myself at least five shots of insulin every day. A Bluetooth-equipped device is attached to my skin, monitoring my blood sugar and updating me through an app on my phone. I must keep this up for the rest of my life. The payoff for all this work is I don’t die. Many days pass in which I’m in full control of my body. But there are times when my blood sugar falls so low that I’ve guzzled something sugary—often my daughter’s apple juice—while trembling, vision blurred, heart pounding. Other times my blood sugar rises so high that it feels as if I am swimming in a sea of sludge, my brain barely working.

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Sally and I a couple weeks after first visiting the doctor in April 2014. I had lost about 30 pounds.

Michael Sebastian

This is my life. I have abruptly excused myself from meetings. I’ve chewed Skittles discreetly. Once, I nearly blacked out on the streets of Boston while pushing my daughter in a stroller because I refused to ask someone else for help. Opening up about this—all of this—was scary. But the terror is subsiding, and I’m ready to live the next chapter of my life.

This issue of Esquire was conceived and put together before the coronavirus swept across the globe. I finalized this editor’s letter from my dining room table in New York City, on the first day of our new work-from-home life, when it all felt like a momentary disruption. Now the death toll in the United State is approaching 25,000 and, despite some glimmers of hope, every day comes with fresh terror. I have trouble sleeping. At one point I burst into tears when the Bob Seger song “Night Moves” came on the radio. (This doesn’t usually happen.) Admitting you’re scared doesn’t make you less of a man. And if you’ve been going through something like this, whether it’s a chronic illness, a sudden health scare, or heightened anxiety because of today’s reality, I can promise that whatever weakness you think you have, whatever secret you’ve been hiding, you’ll feel stronger once you tell someone about it.

This editor’s letter appears in the April/May issue of Esquire.
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