Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Friends for Life 2016: Suddenly, I Was Not Alone

Everyone is different in their own special way and most of us are able to embrace what makes us different. Whether it is a unique laugh or a quirky personality, we try to love the things that make us unique and make us who we are. But, what if what makes you different is difficult to embrace? What if most of those around you think your differences are weird? This is what it is like to be diagnosed with a chronic illness like T1D. Suddenly, you are different and you did not ask to be. Suddenly. NO ONE understands you, no matter how hard you try to explain yourself. Suddenly, those who love you the most are at a loss and do not know how to make you feel better. Suddenly, though you are still you, you are not you anymore. Suddenly, you are alone, or so you think. I was alone.... until Friends for Life.

October 26, 2015, my diagnosis day, I took to the DOC (Diabetes Online Community) for support. Upon looking up hashtags on Instagram and joining many Facebook groups, I was able to realize that there are many people out there who are walking the same walk that I am. I am SO thankful that I became part of the DOC because I made many online friends and connected with my local JDRF chapter. But, something was still missing. I still had yet to spend any time with anyone else living with T1D and even though I was part of online groups of thousands of PWD (people with diabetes), I still felt alone.

In one of the many Facebook groups I have joined, I came across a thread about an event called Friends for Life and everyone seemed beyond excited to attend. I decided to Google this event and to my surprise, it was very close to home in Orlando, FL. I applied for a scholarship through the Diabetes Scholars Foundation and was blessed to be awarded a scholarship to attend. Let the planning begin.... I had NO CLUE what I was in for.

Upon arriving to Orlando World Center Marriott, I was greeted with open arms. We went right over to registration where I was given a green bracelet and my mom was given an orange bracelet. Those who live with T1D wore green and those who love someone with T1D wore an orange bracelet. As soon as I was outfitted with my green bracelet, I felt like I was part of some sort of club and it was so exciting to see others wearing a green bracelet. The first thing on my agenda after registration was to find Morgan. I met Morgan online about a month before the conference and little did I know she would become one of my best friends in just a few short days. Once Morgan and I met in person, we were practically inseparable the entire week, it was a match made in heaven.

Along with Morgan, I made many other friends during the week as well. I met Michelle, who I had followed on Instagram for a while. Michelle and I both live with multiple complex illnesses aside from T1D, so it was SO nice to spend some time with each other. I also met Danielle and Emma who are both around my age as well. The DOC is fairly large and I get friend requests daily from people all over the country who either have T1D or have a child with T1D. I met so many of my Facebook friends during FFL! We attended a young adults dinner and it was so neat to be in a room full of people my age living with T1D.

Friends for Life is largely about making new friends and connections but, there is MUCH more to gain from this experience as well. One of my favorite parts of the week was the exhibit hall. The exhibit hall was full of different vendors. I got to take a look at different products like Pump PeelzGlucoLift, and SpiBelt. I got the opportunity to speak to the people behind organizations like Beyond Type 1The Diabetes Scholars Foundation, and The Diabetes Research Institute. There were also vendors set up for many different devices such as pumps, meters, and CGMs, available to people living with T1D. My favorite part of the exhibit hall was getting to put my hands on the iLet Bionic Pancreas and speak to the brilliant minds behind it. This technology seems very promising and will hopefully take away some of the burden of living with this disease. 

Another thing FFL offers is educational and support sessions. I attended sessions on seeking accommodations in college, having a career in healthcare, managing sick days, dealing with burnout, dealing with complications, and so much more. My mom had the opportunity to attend sessions on positive caregiving and sending a diabetic child off to college. During these sessions I also got to meet some people who have done things like drive a race car, compete in American Ninja Warrior, and make it to the top on the Voice and American Idol, reminding me that there is nothing that I cannot do. There is so much value in these sessions, especially for someone who is newly diagnosed. 

Oh, and I also should add that ALL of the food is carb counted.... that in itself is magical.

All in all, FFL was the most amazing experience ever. For the first time in 9 months, I felt "normal". For a week I did not have to explain myself, I did not have to deal with stares, and I did not have to feel like a weirdo. For a week I could laugh about a high blood sugar instead of cry, I could test my blood sugar and have others right beside me doing the same thing, I could wear my devices proudly and have a whole group with me doing the same thing, and for a week, I could just be me. Thank you Diabetes Scholars Foundation for this opportunity and thank you Children with Diabetes for making such a difference.


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