Monday, 29 July 2013

How Sweet It Was, How Sweet

It’s disgusting, of course. I am disgusting. I think that again and again as I refill my idiotically large drink from the soda fountain in a Burger King a few miles outside Miami. It’s been an altogether revolting day.Three hours to get through immigration, an hour more to get the rental car. Wee Mo and I finally got out of Miami Airport so hungry and fatigued that we're grateful to have found BK at all. 
Even so, eating this foetid crap would be bad at any time of year, but I find it all the harder to enjoy as I’ve spent the last few months getting myself in shape. I started making an effort last year when I took a commission to write about kite-surfing in Egypt. Since then I’ve been plugging away, running, lifting weights and eating less shite. I really knocked things up a gear when training for my bobsleigh adventure. Since then, my gut has been evaporating by the day. I’ve been working so hard that I’m constantly hungry – and thirsty for that matter. Best of all, because my engine is burning so much fuel these days, I can indulge my sweet tooth, except now I get away with it. Thus the benefits of being a goddamn athlete.
This is just the start of our road trip from Florida to Massachusetts, up the east coast of the US. For such a massive country, it takes a bit too long for things to change for my liking. More often than not, modern America is depressingly samey – outside of the major cities, so many towns have the same shitty arcades of gas stations, fast food joints and motels, all offering the same bollocks as the last place. In a weird way, they’re almost communist in their uniformity. McDonalds, Wendys, IHOP, Walmart… all the boys are on the edge of town, letting you rest assured that there’ll be no surprises here. Between them and the unending tediousness of the highways, it’s often a deeply uninteresting drive.
This is part of the end result of capitalism, I suppose, all character crushed from the world, mega-corporations having stamped it into the dust. It provides us with lower prices and greater choice they say, but not so great that we could go into a Walmart in Georgia, aka The Peach State, and buy actual peaches for example. “Say, I think we used-ta have ‘em, but, well, I dunno…” says a miserable-looking schlepper when I ask why they aren’t in stock.
But here’s another thing: even in this temple of cheap shit, attempting to eat healthily for a decent price is damn near impossible. Wine is half the price of pomegranate juice; a fruit salad is three times as much as a bacon and egg muffin; a white sandwich loaded with steroid-laden meat costs less than making your own avocado, wholemeal alternative. The game is rigged, and the poor don’t stand a fucking chance.
I say to myself: remember Hitchins, remember Fante. Probably still my favourite author – I’ve never bothered to read anyone else’s entire back catalogue – John Fante burned the candle at both ends for too long (“And it gave a lovely light,” as Hitchins would say of his own excesses) and was ultimately eaten up by diabetes. When the disease killed him a month after I was born, he was a multiple amputee, blind and half insane.
However, peaches and paupers aren’t at the forefront of my mind when I stumble into Walmart. No, I’m much more concerned by the fact I very, very nearly pissed my pants on the way in here. That’s not a metaphor. Being an athlete requires a huge amount of fluid intake. I’ve been chugging litres of (sugar-free) Powerade since getting to the States, but, perhaps because of the heat, I can’t shake my thirst. My poor bladder can barely cope – in fact I’m not sure I’ve gone more than a couple of hours without needing to piss. And still the thirst won’t go away. It’s a strange price to pay in pursuit of physical improvement, but I suppose, along with the inflated price of healthy food, this must be the way of it. I’ve been overweight my entire adult life and now I’m the right size (truth be told I’m lurching towards being too light) I’m determined not to let it slide.
In more ways than one, I’m quite relieved when we get to New York City. Firstly I can get back into the gym and secondly, I know I’ll never be too far from a piss-pot. One morning I head out of our hotel to get a (multigrain, no butter) bagel for breakfast and have to stand aside for an almost perfectly spherical woman to order a bacon, egg, peanut butter and jelly muffin, only to complain there isn’t enough jelly on it. As she barks out this order, she rolls up and down the counter, stalking her breakfast like one of those malevolent balls from The Prisoner.
Not that my own diet is always exemplary. At one point on Cape Cod, having wolfed-down four courses of seafood, Sean, the endlessly likeable owner of the Lobster Pot in Provincetown insists we try a gargantuan chocolate brownie and ice-cream dessert. Wee Mo has a single mouthful and I devour the rest, perhaps a thousand calories or more. There’s another grim morning just outside Boston where, in spite of Wee Mo’s protests, I absolutely insist we order four different things in IHOP. That’s essentially enough pancakes for eight normal people. I eat until I think I’ll vomit on the table. What does it matter, though? My body is more than coping with this.
Cake in chocolate on a stick
Now we’re actually in Boston, and back in another decent hotel with a gym, I’m feeling virtuous again, but with all the exercise and the unseasonably hot weather (20F higher than the seasonal average) my thirst is getting out of control. And still I’m pissing and pissing, and after a while it starts to feel like I’m in a kind of hell. I’m like a cartoon character that’s been riddled with bullets – I guzzle anything I can get my hands on, only for it to leak straight out of me. I wake up most nights, my tongue arid and cracking, my bladder on the brink of rupturing.
On our second day in the city I very nearly get caught short again, this time on the surprisingly enjoyable Duck Tour
Pathetically, I feign nausea and have the bus/boat stopped in the middle of the city so I can dash off into the nearest bar and piss for one entire, blissful minute. The duck has gone when I come back out, so I immediately order a beer. And a water.
During a long walk out to Fenway Park the next day, around my fifth toilet stop inside three hours, I finally accept that something is up. I promise an increasingly-concerned Wee Mo that I’ll go and see a doctor when we get home.
A week later and I’m back in the UK, getting ready for a long-awaited stag do in Brighton. I know it’s a bit weird and incestuous and all, but I am rarely happier than when I’m hanging around with my old school friends. Given that, on a good day, as many of 20 of us (not including wives and girlfriends) get together, I can only assume they feel the same. The more I travel, the more I’m grateful to be able to return to this ramshackle group and resume trading decade-old insults. With a few outsiders along for the ride, it’s a group of 25 or so I’m meeting in Brighton, but not before I’ve been to the doctors for a blood test.
Yesterday, I told the doc about my thirst and he demanded I come back this morning to give a sample. He seemed confident that he’d have the results back the same day. As much as I love the NHS, I was amazed that this level of efficiency was even possible.
Having fasted the night before, when the nurse puts the needle in my arm, it doesn’t take long for me to feel like I’m dying. “Are you OK?” He asks as the life drains out of me. I try dig deep into my British reserve and nod. Then tunnel vision creeps in and my focus shifts to some other dimension entirely. “Are you absolutely sure?” He asks again. I concede that I’m probably not, and he ushers me, shaking and sweating, to a bed.
Twenty minutes and a peanut-butter and jam sandwich later, I’m on the train feeling better, eager to start drinking and, more importantly, to see my friends. But when I catch up with them, several feel the need to comment on how thin I look – a theme most of my family have ploughed relentlessly for the last few months. I maintain that I’m a goddamn athlete, proud of my new shape, and the only reason my colour isn’t better is because it’s been such a long, horrid winter. “But it’s your arms, they’re so… small,” says one of my closest pals with a look of genuine disgust.
Where, but where are the compliments? I’ve spent literally days running, lifting weights, working as hard as my schedule and willpower will allow. I decide to let it rest and get drinking – I’ve found that beer is wonderful for this blasted thirst.
A couple of hours into it, our group has swamped the side of one of the bars on Brighton Pier, commandeering every seat in the sunshine and doing a damn fine job of putting anyone else off going near the place. Someone cracks a joke at someone else’s expense, then my phone rings. I shuffle off to answer.
When the doctor first tells me the news, my first thought is one of defiance. “Something, something, diabetes, something, something, hospital immediately, something, something, ketones in your blood…” I look back at my friends and think the doc is probably wrong, for one thing, and for another, if I’ve had this for the last few months, one more night won’t make the blindest bit of difference. I only tune back in when he says, “I appreciate this isn’t the news you wanted to hear this weekend.” I thank him, tell him not to worry and hang up, then walk immediately to the bar and order a double tequila.
From there the rest of the night dissolves into a series of fairly squalid, nightmarish images: comforting the groom when he gets inexplicably tearful; talking to a couple of strippers then having to leave in a hurry when I confess that no, I don’t actually want their services; and lastly, back in the hostel, puking into a shower cabinet while one of my friends has a shit a few feet away. He complains that fragments of my vomit are splashing out onto his legs.
The following morning is too bright, too shiny and too loud. My thirst has never been worse. I go down to a local newsagents and pay far too much for three litres of fluid that’s either creamy or sugary or both. Once I’ve stopped trembling I explain to a few of my pals that I have to pop up to the hospital, but that I’ll be back in time for pub golf (a debauched and fairly complicated form of pub crawl that requires ridiculous golfing attire).
As I walk along the promenade to the Royal Sussex Hospital, it’s difficult to separate my hangover from a raw fear of what’s to come. Either way, I feel dreadful – and I need to piss. When I get to the doors of A&E I stop in my tracks, too afraid to go in. To my surprise, I find myself thinking of my grandfather as a 15-year-old, lying about his age so he could enlist to fight in World War Two. I tell myself that, logically, some of that courage must have filtered down to me and step inside.
The next 48 hours or so are a blur of needles and brilliant, caring nurses and me babbling nervously and doctors saying odd things like: “You’re obviously very sick...” But, I want to say, I feel fine. Save for this stupid thirst and the last remnants of a hangover, I’m really quite well. In the shape of my life, in fact – there’s obviously been a wee error somewhere and you’ve got the wrong man. However, I love the NHS and you’ve all been so lovely that there's got nothing to worry about. I'm not the litigious type, just let me out for the pub golf and we’ll say no more about it, what do you say?

Of course there’s no pub golf for me, there’s not much of anything, just lying in an increasingly stinking bed, listening to a cocktail of fluids being pumped into my veins. Insulin to bring my stratospheric blood sugar down, then dextrose to bring it back up again. I imagine working out how to take over my pancreas’s duties is a bit like Iron Man learning to fly for the first time.
It all feels very temporary, like everyone is wasting their time. But I’m a patient patient and luckily I have my laptop with me, so I use the time to catch up on a documentary recommended by Louis Theroux. Alas, Raw Deal: AQuestion Of Consent is an exceedingly ugly tale about rape, featuring nauseating amounts of hand-held footage of the incident at the heart of the story. Unable to sleep with so many pipes hanging out of me, I’m left with little option but to watch it all the way through. When I do finally drop off, I dream of wild boars eating my feet.
Type one diabetes is an auto-immune disease which, aside from making me sound like a patient from an episode of House, has caused my immune system to turn against my pancreas. One doctor tells me it’s odd that I should have it given there’s no family history, and especially as I’m the wrong age, shape and colour.
The number of type one and type two diabetics across the world is rising. The latter can be partially explained by our increasingly dreadful diet and poor lifestyle choices (“Hey man, I want more jelly!”) putting our pancreases under too much pressure. Not so with type one. Instead it’s more like asthma or hayfever (both of which I’ve also suffered from in the past) in that, for reasons unknown, the body begins to attack itself. There are a number of theories about why these types of disease are on the rise, from overly sterile childhood environments (not the case for me, a filthy scheme rat) to, the one I give most credence to, the lack of hookworms in our guts.
As with hayfever and asthma, there is currently no cure for type one diabetes and unless one is found in the next five years I can assume I will have to live with it for the rest of my life. My pancreas isn’t quite dead yet, but after five years pass, my immune system will have wounded it beyond repair. After that, it’s reasonable to assume that something relating to the disease will eventually kill me.
I was losing weight and failing to put on muscle because the victimised little pancreas couldn’t produce enough insulin, which would have converted everything I was eating into energy and/or kept me fat. Instead the sugar stayed stuck in my blood, so my body started to break down tissue and use it as an alternate fuel source. Simultaneously I was craving sweet things because my body was telling my mouth to get more sugar so it could halt this cannibalism, not knowing there was tonnes of the stuff trapped in my veins nearby. Meanwhile, my kidneys were complaining that my blood had turned to shite – their response was to try and piss it all away. It was them who demanded more and more fluid so they could try and flush out my system, punishing me with the accursed thirst when they couldn’t do their job. On my first night in hospital, my kidneys finally relented and let water back into my system. The nurses pumped 10 litres into me. I awoke the next morning a stone heavier, unable to recognise myself in the mirror. Depressingly, my weight-loss had been an illusion all along.
So it’s a life on the needle for me, with four self-administered injections a day to take over the insulin production my pancreas can no longer manage. Owing to the number of complications the diabetes will likely cause, I can now expect to live for a decade less. But I won’t allow the disease, injections, blood sugar crashes and all, to force me to do any less – I simply need to condense everything into a slightly reduced time frame. I think John Fante would approve. In his 1939 magnum opus Ask The Dust, Fante, speaking as his bombastic alter ego Arturo Bandini, gave advice to new writers, which as I read it now, could just as easily apply to newly diagnosed diabetics: “I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.”


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