In the fall of 2009, a doctor told me I had diabetes. The doctor worked at a clinic that used a sliding-scale payment system, which I’d visited because I didn’t have health insurance. In fact, even though I ended every work day barely able to trudge to the subway; and couldn’t sleep a night through because of piercing leg cramps; and was pissing the bed; and had lost 60 pounds, I waited nine months before I made a doctor’s appointment. It just didn’t seem like something I could do, uninsured as I was. And it’s amazing how quickly you can convince yourself that being sick is normal.
I was working two part-time jobs that barely kept me in my apartment. How could I afford to treat a chronic illness? The doctor at the clinic prescribed me a mid-cost insulin—not the best treatment, he said, but the best in my price range. It was about $55 a bottle, and would last roughly a month; a box of syringes cost another $25. I had to buy a blood-sugar testing machine (a one-time expense), plus a supply of testing strips (a chronic expense), plus the lancets used to prick your finger, plus alcohol swabs to keep me from catching an infection. I have to resupply these things regularly, for the rest of my life. Diabetes isn’t cheap.
Yet for all its cost, the insulin treatment was almost as bad as the untreated disease. My blood sugar was constantly too low—one of the worst feelings I’ve experienced in my short life, and I had it all the time. I couldn’t think, I was sore, I was feverish and sweaty, and sometimes my knees gave out. Once I fainted; other times, I just felt on the brink of doing so. It was a horrible few months, and I cringe to think about it now. If circumstance forced me back on that treatment plan, I might kill myself instead.
Fortunately, that decision remains a hypothetical. The L Magazine put me on its health insurance plan, allowing me to afford a two-insulin treatment much better suited to me and the demands of my work and life. With co-pays these insulins cost me $40; without, they would together cost $284, far more than I could afford monthly. Diabetes is still expensive, still a burden financially and emotionally and in terms of my health, but at least I can sort of manage it.
Of course, as a diabetic, the health insurance industry wants nothing to do with me.