I’m high again: What it’s like studying abroad as a type 1 diabetic

Studying abroad is a challenge. It takes bravery, confidence, and a willingness to be thrown off balance and feel that you can recover and grow. Yet, as daunting as setting up shop in a foreign country can be, it’s also an enriching and life-altering experience. So when I was presented the opportunity to live in the Netherlands for a semester, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t want to miss out because I happen to carry a little extra challenge with me—type 1 diabetes.

I’m going to tell you what it’s like to travel and live abroad as a type 1 diabetic.

First things first: Packing

I had to pack for three months of living in the Netherlands. I hate packing en general (I’m bad at making decisions involving my sweaters and dresses), but fitting all my things into one carry-on sized suitcase, one checked bag, and a backpack was a weeklong procedure involving tree-charts and Enya playing in the background.

And I had to pack all of my medical supplies, too—enough for September, October, November, and some of December.

Acquiring three months worth of medical supplies in advance is a pain in the ass. And sacrificing sweaters to pack syringes is a particularly massive ass-pain.

I had to transport my supplies with me because I can’t get them in a different country, and it’s illegal to mail some prescription medical supplies internationally.

In the days leading up to my departure, I spent hours on the phone—calling my endocrinologist’s office, my insurance company, and my pharmacy to coordinate getting prescriptions filled for triple the amount of supplies I’m typically given at the end of a month.

In total, I took 6 vials of insulin, three Frio cold packs to keep my insulin cool while I was travelling, about 450 syringes, roughly 600 test strips, one box of lancets, an extra blood glucose meter, extra batteries for the meter, and some dried fruit for when my blood sugar goes low.

All of this took up about two-thirds of my carry on suitcase.

Also, paying for three times the supplies at once is a little overwhelming. The cost of medical supplies really adds up. This had to be budgeted into my family’s life.

My drawer of medical supplies.

My drawer of medical supplies.

All packed, time to get on a big jet plane

But wait a second, got to do that airport security dance.

I get searched nearly every time I go through security. For some reason a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of syringes waves a red flag.

On my way from Boston to Amsterdam, both of my bags were opened and my stuff was shuffled around inside. I know the drill. I accept it and give my little speech.

Yo security, I’m a type one diabetic and I’m traveling with all of my medical supplies. I have a doctor’s letter I carry with me, would you like to see it?

Usually they’re cool at this point and they let me carry on.

That awkward moment when you whip out a syringe on an airplane and the stranger next to you thinks you do drugs.

No further explanation necessary.

I’ve arrived in the Netherlands and I’m jet lagged

Yeah, jet lag sucks. Everyone goes through it and it always sucks. But type 1 diabetics deal with something I’m going to call insulin lag.

I take two different types of insulin—a fast acting insulin called Novolog to cover the carbohydrates I have at meals, and a larger dose of a slow-releasing insulin called Lantus that I take once a day to keep my blood sugar even (or that’s the intent). I take my Lantus at 10:30 p.m. every single night. Same time every night.

A six-hour time change throws a bit of a wrench in my day.

For the first week I was here, I woke up with low blood sugar every single night.

On the bright side, I discovered Stroopwafel (this cookie Dutch people are obsessed with) is excellent for correcting lows.

Deciphering nutrition facts in a different language is hard

I calculate my insulin doses for meals depending on the amount of carbohydrates I’m going to eat. Most of the time I can make an educated guess and be ok (I’m kind of like a walking encyclopedia of carb-counts). But sometimes I rely on the nutrition fact label to make sure I’m computing the proper amount of insulin to put into my body. When travelling to different countries and the labels are in languages you don’t know, figuring out doses is tough.

Pick-pocketing

This is a universal fear. Having your purse or backpack stolen means being stranded in a foreign place without any money, any identification, and any lipstick. Are there any other “Oh F*ck” travel-fears that trump this one? Probably not many.

I worry about getting pick-pocketed for all the same reasons most people do—cash money, passport, photos of my dog in my wallet—but in addition to these, I also worry about my medical supplies being stolen.

Everywhere I go I carry a bag containing my meter, insulin, syringes, test strips, glucose tablets, and glucagon (for emergency lows). This little pouch is my lifeline. Literally.

If my lifeline gets stolen and I can’t immediately replace my supplies, it’s bad news.

I keep my lifeline in a snakeskin printed bag. As you do.

I keep my lifeline in a snakeskin printed bag. As you do.

But I don’t want to scare anyone out of travelling, because there are also some really cool things that outweigh the bad things

 

I can take things into museums with me

I always have to have my medical supplies with me, so I’m allowed to keep my purse on me when I go to museums. Also, if you’re a friend of mine, I’ll even let you put some of your things into my bag so you can stealthily take photos in museums, too.

 

I can eat places other people can’t

Yeah, it’s great.

I get to share something about myself with all the new people I meet

It used to be really difficult for me to share my type 1 diabetes with people I just met. Checking my blood sugar or taking a shot in front of new people made me anxious, so much sometimes that I would skip insulin doses. I used to rather let my blood sugar go really high and hurt my health than explain the disease to fresh faces. I got over that, though.

Sharing my type 1 diabetes with new people is fun. I’ve found people are usually curious and I genuinely enjoy answering their questions. I’ve come to be open about what having this chronic disease means and how I take care of myself. It’s just a part of who I am and it’s no big deal.

It’s also no big deal to study abroad as a type 1 diabetic. I’m here and I’m doing it. I’ve cleared a lot of hurdles and I have more funny stories to tell.

And anyways, in the Netherlands it’s not that unusual to hear someone say, “I’m high again.”

I'm at a coffee shop in Amsterdam in this photo. This coffee shop sells coffee. The one that sells weed is up the street.

I’m at a coffee shop with my friend Stanson in Amsterdam. This coffee shop sells coffee. The one that sells weed is up the street.

Ik ben op een avontuur: Dutch for “I’m on an adventure”

Hallo from the Netherlands!

For the next three months, I’m living in Kasteel Well, a 14th century castle-converted satellite campus in the Netherlands. Kasteel Well houses Emerson College’s European center. It’s located in the town of Well in Limburg and it hosts about 80 students from varying majors and years each semester.

I’ve been here for just over a week and it’s time to share a few things about what my life has been like living in the Netherlands.

Living abroad, nearly every aspect of my day-to-day living is affected by my new environment. Consequently, I do a lot of observing and adapting during all hours of the day. The beauty of this flooded conscious, though, is that I’ve become a student of the world—set into a constant state of learning.

The task of absorbing all of this otherness, from the humdrum parts of Dutch life to its deeper core cultural values, is a powerful catalyst for a heightened self-awareness.

I’ve become acutely aware of my American-ness—most obviously in the language I speak and the coins in my pocket, but also in the subtler things like the volume of my voice, the frequency of my smile and laughter, the clothes I wear, the way I greet people, and the values I hold and how they inform my actions.

While travelling abroad in the past, I’ve felt ashamed of my American-ness. I felt unsophisticated, socially clumsy, loud, grossly cheerful, and ignorant. I hated the stereotype of the American tourist and tried my hardest to shake it—my fanny-pack-less fashion choices being just the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t want these traits to adhere to me, like some sticky unwanted stain I couldn’t wash out of my clothing and that embarrassed me.

But I’m over that—or at least I’m trying to be.

I’m going to embrace my American identity, not attempt to hide it. I’ve realized it’s okay to be a little klutzy while adapting to living in a new country, as long as I’m open to learning and adjusting my thinking and behavior to be respectful of the place I’m visiting.

I’m learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and to be patient with myself when I don’t know something, but always nurturing that desire to understand. I’m wide open to life.

Here in Well, I marvel at everything—how Dutch people bike literally everywhere, eat sprinkles on bread for a snack, and shamelessly sport gel-laden hairstyles. I’m delighted by how many people are up at 7:30 a.m. walking their dogs and I’m amused by the illustrations on street signs of bikers getting clobbered by cars, blood spurting from their stick-figure bodies.

But these are just the fun little things. I’ve seen and felt the Dutch attitude of tolerance and noted their high respect for individual rights (but more on this later).

I’m striving to appreciate a culture I want to sink into—to wallow in and relish it while it’s still so exotic and thrilling. I’ve got to bring my own identity to the table, too, though.

I take my critical mind and notebook everywhere I go. As a young, American student living abroad, I’m in an ideal place in my life to learn, but also to teach others.

My first beer in the Netherlands. Gotta support my local pub. Cheers.

What I learned canvassing for Planned Parenthood

Photo cred. to Planned Parenthood’s Michigan Women Are Watching campaign

Early in the summer, I worked as a canvasser for the first phase of Planned Parenthood’s campaign Michigan Women Are Watching. It’s a political undertaking, leading up to the 2014 election season, to alert female voters of legislation attempting to restrict reproductive rights.

I hiked around Washtenaw County for three weeks—walking door to door across Saline, Dexter, Chelsea, and Ann Arbor to knock and talk to registered voters about a piece of legislation their speaker of the house, Jase Bolger, recently passed.

The law, which took effect on May 12, 2014, prohibits insurance companies from covering abortion services, even in the cases of rape or incest. It’s called the Rape Insurance law because women have to buy separate add-ons, or riders, for their insurance plans ahead of time—basically, financially plan for a potential rape.

It’s a villainous attack on women’s reproductive health care, and it’s another backwards step for Michigan’s legislature.

Michigan needs the Women are Watching campaign, and Planned Parenthood stepped it up and was successful in phase one.

As canvassers on the campaign, we targeted registered female voters who have shown they tend to lean to the left. In a few minutes at each front porch, we informed voters of the legislation and urged them to make their representatives aware they are upset by this law—call their representative, call Jase Bolger, send an email, or volunteer with Planned Parenthood on the campaign. We recorded the results from each conversation on each doorstep using an app called Minivan and uploaded the data to combine the team’s work at the end of each day.

Canvassing was just one part of the campaign. Planned Parenthood also sent out mail pieces, used robocalls, and a commercial to reach voters.

On June 28, the first phase was completed. Here are some numbers—

Between April 1 and June 28 we have:

 

Sent 75, 372 pieces of mail

Run our Jenni Ad 1,330 times on television

Knocked on 49,509 doors

Dialed 183,770 numbers

Contacted 73,406 voters directly

Identified 13,921 new supporters

Identified 1,523 new volunteer prospects

Collected 1,493 new emails

Garnered 4,938 new followers on Facebook

Generated 435 calls into target legislators offices

 

In the words of Gloria Steinem, Planned Parenthood is the most trusted organization. This campaign’s message is resonating with voters—it shows in the numbers and the reception we report from our face-time at doors.

 

Working on this campaign was an intense experience. I certainly learned a lot—from the conversations I had or didn’t have at doors, and also from walking so many miles every day and having plenty of time to reflect. Here are a few things I’d like to share.

 

1. I’ve learned ageism is one of those “isms” we can’t forget about.

Ageism is more important and pervasive than I thought.

I found that I assume and judge people’s beliefs based on their age, and that people do the same of me.

Many times I knocked on a door to be faced with a woman of silver-shaded hair and was surprised when she praised my efforts on the campaign or when she threw her arms above her head with jazz fingers spread and exclaimed, “Woohoo! Go Planned Parenthood! Go safe sex!”

Political matters concerning reproductive rights are not generationally divided like I supposed.

I also met plenty of lackadaisical young people who opened the front door reluctantly and muttered something along the lines of “I don’t follow politics” or “I don’t vote” (This feels like a punch in the face—but I’ll expand more later).

I experienced alternate ageist reactions, too. I can’t count the number of times I met someone at the door who was much older than me and told me that I’ll mature and my beliefs will change.

I was at a door in Dexter having an enjoyable, well-natured Ping-Pong-style conversation with an older female supporter, who, as she thanked me for my efforts said, “You’re too young to understand, but it’s very important work.”

It was an odd backhanded compliment and I was really hurt by it.

Why would I be out walking miles through subdivisions across the state in 80-degree sticky Michigan June weather all day every day if I didn’t understand it was important work? Why would I be out there if I didn’t want to change things? These harmful laws affect me, too. I’m young, yes, but reproductive rights apply to everyone at every age. We’re all tied to this cause. So you’re welcome.

 

  1. I learned that people often think they’re too busy to be politically active, or even to vote.

How to respond to this? Bullshit (I say this more politely of course).

It only takes a little effort to read or ask what’s going on in your community, state, and country. A vote is an action that signifies you care about your choices. It bothers me when people reply that they don’t vote because their vote doesn’t matter (because this is also bullshit).

Your vote matters.

All the women in the house put your hands up.

Women have a vote—a right we didn’t have until 1920—so we should exercise that power every opportunity we get. I think of all the women who busted their asses so my voice, my mother’s voice, and my sisters’ voices count in our democracy and I will never take my vote for granted. Voting is powerful.

 

  1. I learned that those beautiful Planned Parenthood supporters are very diverse.

We met supporters from a range of socio-economic classes. The supporters we met were racially diverse. We met female and male supporters and there were young and old supporters.

 

  1. I also learned that Planned Parenthood supporters are enthusiastic and gracious and very dedicated to its cause and message.

I had so many people thank me and applaud our work on the Women Are Watching campaign. It felt really good.

There was even one man who ran into his house to grab his camera to take a photo of our team in our pink “Women Are Watching” shirts because he was so excited we were canvassing in his neighborhood.

This encouragement and love kept me going throughout the days.

Planned Parenthood has supporters everywhere. They’re loud and loving and they’re strong. I’m proud to be tied to this organization.