I was so happy to finally meet Hazel. We have talked online for a few years but never got around to meeting up (or one or the other of us chickened out haha!) but it was so worth it. I felt like we had known each other for years, we chatted like old friends and probably could have carried on all day, it was a genuine pleasure! But enough from me, here is Hazel and her journey through Type 1 Diabetes, in her own words.
I'm Hazel. I am a mother of two beautiful boys, and I’m a portrait and wedding photographer too. I also have Type 1 diabetes: a chronic auto-immune condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Insulin is a hormone needed to allow sugar (glucose) to enter cells to produce energy. Without it, the body is unable to use glucose as energy, so it begins to break down fat and muscle instead. Without life-saving insulin, people with type 1 diabetes would not survive.
I was diagnosed in 2001 at 20 years old, but it wasn't an easy diagnosis. For several months, my doctors thought that the symptoms I was displaying were psychosomatic. They told me that I was depressed, and that my physical complaints (rapid weight loss, racing heart, exhaustion, digestive issues, extreme thirst, severe headaches and eventually severe breathlessness and air-hunger) were all expressions of that. I spent my time thinking that I was going to die, my body was shutting down and I was terrified to go to sleep because I knew - somehow - that if I fell asleep I may not wake up. After several months of arguing that something physical really was wrong, I was starting to accept what the doctors were saying - that maybe it really was all in my head. Delirious from lack of sleep, eventually I was admitted to a psychiatric ward where, during a routine urine test, it was discovered that I had a high level of ketones in my urine. Finally, the health professionals sprung in to action, realising that my symptoms were typical of ketoacidosis (this is what happens when the blood becomes acidic, due to fatty acids produced when the body is burning fat and muscle instead of sugar) and was in danger of falling into a diabetic coma. I was quickly diagnosed with type one diabetes, and have been managing it ever since.
Life with diabetes is a constant cycle of checks, tests and carb-counting. I have a little device that monitors my blood sugar levels constantly, and an insulin pump that works in tandem with it to keep my insulin levels stable (although not without constant input from me. We’re not quite at bionic artificial pancreas level yet!). With all my clever attachments, I like to think of myself as Borg.
Some people use multiple daily injections and finger pricks to manage their type 1 diabetes, as I did for many years. I’d love to say that this is always due to preference (diabetes management is not a one size fits all), but unfortunately, funding for glucose sensors and pumps is still somewhat of a postcode lottery. I’m incredibly grateful to have such a supportive team, and to have been empowered with choices in my day-to-day management of the condition.
It’s not easy. I have to pay attention to what I eat - I’ll never forget the first food talk I was given in my hospital bed. A kind nurse sat down and explained that I could never have a piece of cake bigger than a typical wedding cake portion(!). Anyone who knows me will guess how this news went down! She also told me that I would need to eat at 8am, 12pm, 5pm and 10pm every day. Thankfully, treatment has progressed a lot in the last seventeen years (what’s that you say? Slice of cheesecake the size of my head, at 3am? Go on then!), and most people (in this country) with type 1 now have dietary freedom. ‘Eat what you like, when you like’. I just have to be savvy with counting carbohydrates, constantly on the ball with making sure that the amount of insulin I take matches the amount of carbs I am eating. On top of that, many many factors change the amount of insulin I need. Running for a bus? Turn the insulin down. PMT? Crank it right up. Hot or cold weather, stress, sex, excitement, sleep disturbances, viruses… all of these can alter insulin requirements, so you can never really ‘switch off’. Having this level of obsession with food would likely be considered an eating disorder in anyone who did not have diabetes - it’s probably unsurprising that eating disorders are more common in those with type 1. I have to be careful that I don't obsess too much over my diet, as that has also caused problems for me in the past. Striking that balance and keeping a healthy commitment to my sugar levels without it taking over - that’s been hard work.
It’s cathartic to vent about the challenges type 1 brings, but the truth is I’m lucky to be living in an age when there’s been so much development and improvement of care, and also so much exciting research is on the horizon. Even in the 17 years I’ve had the condition, outcomes are improving and treatment is evolving. Having diabetes has definitely shaped me and made me stronger, but it doesn’t define me. It comes with me everywhere, but I own it, and I make it fit around me. Travelling can be interesting, but I don’t let the diabetes stop me. When I’m out on a photoshoot, I always have a little stash of jelly babies in my pocket. As we like to say in the t1 community - “I have diabetes - it does not have me.”
With regards to my experience being photographed by Donna, despite my being a photographer, I usually feel insecure and uncomfortable on the other side of the lens. I prefer to hide behind it instead of posing in front of it! I'd been looking forward to this shoot for ages, but with subtle (or not so subtle) undertones of 'bricking it' while bracing myself for feeling monumentally awkward. I needn't have worried at all.
The informal chat prior to the shoot led me to almost forget it was happening. I was welcomed and made to feel at home, with brews-a-plenty, and a proper good natter. The environment helped - it's homely and relatable, rather than the more typical (and perhaps a bit intimidating) clinical-looking white-cube studio. Decorated with intriguing ornaments and stunning prints from past shoots, there was much to distract my anxious mind and inspire creativity and conversation. When it came to photo time, we moved through to another room. I'd settled in so much that it really felt no different (from a nerves point of view!) to nipping to the loo or making a quick cuppa. I was surprised at how quickly Donna managed to gently guide me in to the poses too, all the while keeping a natural and easy vibe, with no sense of pressure or 'doing it wrong'. I'm made up with the photographs!
The thing I'm most delighted with is that they still look like me. In the (distant) past when I last dared to put myself in front of the lens for a studio-style dressy-up shoot, the hair and make-up was so drastically uncharacteristic of me that I just felt deflated by it. The retouchers live-edited some of the pictures in front of me too, pointing at my waistline and asking how much I wanted them to shave off. I remember thinking that if they needed to change me so much for their photos, the 'real' me must look like shit! Conversely, Donna's photos are glamorous and beautiful, but still very faithfully 'me'. I've been using one as a profile picture for weeks. That's about the biggest complement I can give! It's usually only carefully angled selfies that make the cut. If you've been toying with booking in to Donna's studio but the little self-critic gremlins have been holding you back, I'd encourage you to go for it. Celebrate yourself, and don't fear. It's not scary, it's empowering!