Discover more from Sam Sager's Blog
Encountering renewal in a dark time
My journey with chronic disease and self-renewal
Today I'm going to revisit one of the darkest moments of my life. It's a time that I don't think of much. It gave me an identity I've tried to bury for many years. But it was one of my earliest encounters with the power of self-renewal. So back there we must go.
I'll never forget the moment I knew something was very wrong. I was chasing my younger cousin on the beach and felt a completely new level of physical exhaustion. Not the normal voice claiming tiredness but a deep physical scream from my body. Almost as if my cells were yelling: "we can't do this".
I was 15 and an active kid. I had just finished football season and was gearing up for baseball in the spring. Yet I had been ignoring a growing list of signs that something was wrong: constant thirst, persistent fatigue, weight loss, and black spots in my vision. I was stubborn and it was easier to carry on than to admit weakness.
But my family couldn't ignore the reality of what they saw on the beach that day. I was a literal shell of myself. Down 35 pounds from the 165 that I started the football season. Just skin and bone.
So I soon found myself walking with my dad around my neighborhood on a snowy night and him saying: “we’re taking you to the doctor tomorrow for testing.” Maybe it was just the beautiful winter scene but I remember feeling a deep sense of relief: somewhere within I knew how badly I needed help.
The diagnosis came quickly: type 1 diabetes. My blood sugar was in the 600s when it should have been around 100. My parents later told me that our doctor said he instantly knew it was either diabetes or leukemia. A strange silver lining and a sprinkle of perspective as I processed the news.
I was immediately sent to the hospital for three days of continuous care and intensive education. I learned that my body could no longer produce insulin and I'd have to give myself shots for the rest of my life. I'll never forget the nurse handing me an orange and saying: "practice the injection here, the consistency is similar to your stomach." She wasn't wrong... but it does little to truly prepare you for the first real shot.
The next few days were a blur. An impersonal mix of bright lights, loud noises, and constantly rotating clinicians. Until my final night: January 4th, 2006. Big football fans might remember the date. Texas vs USC for the Rose Bowl. One of the best college games ever. Seriously, go watch the highlights.
There I am, watching from my hospital bed, my mind swirling with excessive information and new fears. And, all of it just floated away. For the next few hours, I was just a 15-year-old football fan on the edge of my seat. I'll never forget the feeling I had as the game ended: a deep sense of "I'm going to be okay." The confidence that life would go on and I'd find my way.
It feels cliche to build it up as this dramatic moment. Yet it also feels deeply true. Sports can be magical. Single moments can unlock a new perspective. Sometimes the best medicine is just the space to forget for a moment.
I left the hospital and made a single commitment to myself: I was going to do whatever was necessary to ensure this disease did not prevent me from living the life I wanted. There would be sacrifice, but I was never going to let it prevent me from doing something important to me.
I remember feeling pressure to learn everything as fast as possible. The stakes were high and I quickly realized the responsibility fell on me alone. This piece of chronic illness is likely difficult to understand if you have never experienced it. A soul-crushing responsibility.
Your doctors give you prescriptions and advice. Your family and friends give you support. Your devices and bloodwork give you feedback. But only you can do the things required to manage it. Only you experience the discomfort of a low, the frustration of a high, and the anxiety of the unknown. Only you can piece together how all the variables come together in the chaos of a day. And, only you can develop a routine that manages your disease without losing your sanity.
So there I was, in the winter of my sophomore year, face to face with an urgent need for self-renewal. Smacked in the face by dramatic change. A threat to my ability to survive much less to thrive. No one to save me. No finish line to reach. No destination that guaranteed safety.
But also an opportunity to rise to the occasion. To adapt in the face of adversity. To build the capacity to sustain my vitality. To create the conditions for my own renewal.
There's a happy ending to this story. I figured it out. Graduated high school. Played college baseball. Met my wife. Moved across the country. Got a dog. Started a business. Moved again. And again. Got another dog. Had our first child. And I'm writing here today and can honestly say there is nothing that I wanted to do that I haven't been able to do because of my diabetes.
I’ve also found a way to treat my disease where my bloodwork is now indistinguishable from a non-diabetic. While I will need insulin for the rest of my life, I have drastically reduced my likelihood of health complications in the decades ahead.
Yet that's only half the story. The other half is the burden I've carried all these years. The stress of "managing" a disease that requires injections every time I eat and constant monitoring of my blood glucose. Dozens of experiments. Trying different diets. Testing different devices. Revising dosage protocols. An iterative and high-stakes laboratory of one.
Control. That's the ultimate goal with chronic disease. But at what cost? If a defining component of your life requires a state of constant vigilance, how hard is it to open to the flow of life? Where else do you begin to misapply the approach that is so essential in such a critical arena and so unneeded in so many others?
Discovering and beginning to answer these questions is a new chapter of self-renewal for me. I'm playing with how to honor that way of being that has served me so well while learning to let go of it when it's not needed. I'm creating more range. Building the capacity to respond in new ways. Creating conditions within that will help me continue to adapt to whatever comes my way in the years ahead. The beauty of my journey with chronic illness is that more than anything it gives me confidence in my capacity for self-renewal.