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Emptynester Susan shares her anguish as her diabetic daughter leaves home for university

Guest article by Susan McNally

“I’ve left my baby daughter behind at Unversity in her hew home, with strangers.  They seemed really lovely and different in both culture and life experiences but will they understand her? I looked at them with such trepidation; I would possibly be relying on them to save my  youngest daughters life and we didn’t even know them!  I already knew how painful it would be to proudly wave her off as I had already done twice before but to watch a diabetic daughter go was a whole different
ball game of panic, guilt and worry.

Hannah was a quiet girl, pretty and confident regardless of her sometimes withdrawn behaviour – but who could blame her?  When diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 14 she seemed to slowly withdraw socially, this happy little bundle of yellow which is how I mostly think of her in her brightly coloured padded winter coat. “Banana Girl” she used to be called by her friends and peers, and by me, as a child.  I still do sometimes. “Hannah Banana”.

She used to always want to be the life and soul of everything she did.  She studied hard yet she seemed to gradually withdraw from the normal
things teenage girls do socially.  Well I suppose I didn’t have to worry about drugs and alcohol – just the injectable type – insulin.
Very selective about the parties she accepted invites to and always asking to be collected at 10.30pm after arriving at the beginning with
her 4 cans of cider, 3 of which she would either leave behind or bring home.

Accepted at her first choice university

On results day, when she deservedly got accepted into her first choice University, she went to the local nightclub for the first time and yet asked later to be collected at midnight, like Cinderella turning into a Pumpkin, “because she wasn’t prepared for all that mayhem”.

I agonised on our journey home whether University was the right place for her with all its temptations and excesses.  How painful would it be for her to watch everyone getting drunk student style, while she knew she couldn’t be that spontaneous.  How cruel for her to have to watch her fellow housemates eat chocolate after chocolate (there was an open tin of Celebrations on the floor) with little worry other than their weight or to not eat proper balanced meals, not to have to plan their days’ diet and know they could all get away with it.  Hannah had never been bitter about her condition and yet I saw a message she had sent on Twitter the other day that said something about a lady sitting on the train opposite her eating huge bars of chocolate and drinking what she calls “fat coke” and how that person deserved to be diabetic, not her.  It shocked me to read that.

Was I being an irresponsible parent to let her go?

Was I being an irresponsible parent?  Letting her go so far away from the comfort and safety of home and her sisters.  I felt I was “dumping her there”.  “No Mum, she’s dumping you” said my eldest daugher trying to make light of it because she too had left her baby sister behind.  “Make sure you come visit me soon Louisa” she said ” come next week to stay with me, you will come soon won’t you, you wont say you are and just not come” I could sense the panic in her voice.

As I watched her walk from the car into her student house and wait for her to go upstairs and wave to us out of her bedroom window, I knew she was worrying about crossing the uncomfortable line of telling her new housemates, those strangers who knew nothing about her beautiful character and generous personality, that she had this debilitating, sometimes life threatening disease.  I knew she hated doing this, just as she would have to tell all of her professors.  In her mind she would be judged before she could stun them with her lovely nature but that she had to do it just incase her diabetes became unstable and she would have to rely on them to save her life.  Of course, acting as if she were drunk would be the last thing anyone would think was a problem in “Freshers Week”.  She really couldn’t afford to let any of them think it would be best to let her
sleep it off and would infact gradually become an Emergency _ she had to let them know.

When we arrived home, I dreaded walking through the door to a house that was suddenely devoid of her presence, of expecting her to walk round the corner all the time because she really was always there most of the time and now she wasn’t.  I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be thought of like this but I was opening the fridge and missing seeing her supplies of insulin, her bottles of diet drinks that normally haunted me with guilt (what on earth was all that aspartame doing to her).  I always felt so guilty every time I saw these things even though there was nothing I could have done to prevent it.  The first morning was even harder.  Even as an 18 year old she would slip under the covers for her famous snuggles before leaving for school.  I sensed she was scared about leaving us all when she got into bed the night before for a cuddle and just didn’t leave all night.

The  tears

The rest of the day was fraught too.  I went food shoping, habitually checking the packaging for things low in fat, low in sugar.  Then I suddenely
remembered I didn’t need to do that anymore, even though I knew I still would -what was it the Consultant told us “a diabetic diet is the healthiest diet anyone can have”.  The tears welled in my eyes “Oh God please dont let anyone I know see me” Just get on with your shopping.
But had I taught her properly to look after herself?  I had shown her some recipes, resulting in her getting the joke nickname ‘Chef Hannah’
for which I had an apron embroidered specially to take with her.  I had provided her with some recipe books, the regulation jar of sweetener
(that dreaded aspartame again), the slow cooker for one so she could make herself well balanced nutritious meals and so on.

Now, three weeks later, she’s coming back to visit.  The intial worry is over, I will never fully get over it but I can say that she obviously was well
prepared.  She calls me regularly, she eats well, hasn’t been tempted to go crazy with alcohol, knows her limits, walks everywhere because of
course exercise is the best thing for a diabetic and has even joined the local tennis club.

She’s coming home to visit

She’s coming home and I can enjoy filling the fridge with healthy options and sugar free goodies.  Of course she was never going to let something like diabetes stop her pursuing her lifelong dream of studying to become a Lawyer – we can blame Ally McBeal for that.

How could I have ever dreamt of preventing her from doing this.  In fact it had been me that had encouraged her to study hard.  How could she be made to feel that Diabetes should blight her life.  With the right care, planning and exercise she should be able to do anything and she was about to show them all and other sufferers that it is possible”

In the meantime, I’ll still worry as any Mother would, its just that bit worst.

Photo credit: Photostock

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  1. Linda Evans

    October 9, 2011

    I cried for days when my ‘baby’ went to University. I totally understand the Diabetic issue though. But do not fear! My husband developed Type 1 at 25. Four years later, to the horror of many, he took a job as an internal auditor for a film company and for the next 2 years, travelled around the world. In Taiwan, he had to have his hotel address written on a card as taxi drivers didn’t speak any English and he ate at Dim Sum types restaurants so he could ‘point and eat’. In all that time he was fine.
    He skis, sails, and rides a bike 30 miles most Sunday mornings. He’s never let Diabetes stop him doing anything, but equally has always been ‘up front’ with friends and colleagues and taught them how to spot early warning signs of a hypo.
    I know how you’re feeling on both counts, we fear for our children forever….I’m sure she’ll be fine!

  2. Jennifer Soodek

    October 10, 2011

    It is always hard to face the empty nest, but I think even harder when there are health issues to worry about. My bet it that you did such a great job preparing her for this big day and transition in her life. My guess is that she is more than ready, can handle her situation and knows where to get help if she needs it.

    I wonder though, how much time did you work on preparing for your transition? As one who knows, my nest is empty now too, it can be much harder on the parent than the child. Walking through a clean, empty house feels strange, sounds even stranger. Time helps but if you need someone to talk to or work through this transition I have actually started a business helping people just like myself figure out how to take hold of this next phase of life and transform it into the very best it can be. It is exciting and energizing. Let me know if you want to chat; who know, maybe I can help you through this transition and you can begin to think about where you would like your next steps to take you!
    Sincerely yours,
    Jennifer Soodek

  3. Brigid

    October 16, 2011

    Susan – whsat a treat for me to know you and Hannah – reading this beautiful article brought on the tears! What a fabulous Mum you are, and needless to say Hannah is such a fabulous character that she will outshine any other freshers with her cheeky grin, lovely manners, and great positive spirit. Well done you two!

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