Though no one can say how or why anyone develops Type 1 Diabetes, one theory states that it can develop as a result of a shock to the body, such as an infection or virus. It is thought that while fighting off the illness, the body gets confused and begins to attack itself, resulting in an auto-immune disease such as Type 1 Diabetes.
In Type 1 Diabetes, beta cells in the pancreas are attacked. These are the cells that produce insulin, a hormone that is needed to live. People with Type 1 Diabetes are no longer able to produce their own insulin, and must give themselves insulin through shots or pump infusion to survive. Without insulin, discovered as a treatment in the 1920s, Type 1 Diabetes is fatal.
(FYI, Type 2 Diabetes works a bit differently. Type 2 Diabetics can still produce their own insulin, their cells just have trouble using it properly. They take oral medication or extra insulin, coupled with diet and exercise, to help their bodies with this process. So, there is no "worse" kind of diabetes - they are just different.)
The virus theory seems to fit in my case. I experienced flu-like symptoms and a sinus infection in Fall 2004, just after turning 21. I was attending college at The Ohio State University, and attributed this to being generally run down.
Over the next few months, I became increasingly sleepy, was eating and drinking a lot, started losing weight (during the holiday season!?), and could no longer stand to wear my contacts because my eyes were so dry and blurry. By Christmas, I knew something wasn't right, but being a college kid, ignored my intuition.
When I went back to visit my parents on New Year's Day 2005, thinner and thirstier, my mom insisted she check my blood sugar. We went to my grandma's house to use her glucose meter, and my blood sugar checked in so high that it couldn't even be read by an at-home meter (most go up to 500, normal is 70-120). As it was New Year's Day, and no one was open, we called an ER, and they recommended I be brought in right away. When blood sugar levels are high, as mine had likely been for several weeks, it can result in a coma and a whole host of other nasty side effects.
Arriving at the ER, my blood sugar checked in at nearly 600. I later learned that having high blood sugar will rob your body of nutrients, causing dehydration and weight loss. Without insulin, the body cannot use the glucose in food (carbs), so it begins to burn body fat for energy. Sounds nice, but this process takes place in the kidneys, and produces a byproduct called ketones, which is toxic.
I was immediately taken ahead of the rest of the ER line to a room and put on an insulin drip and fluids. I spent the night in the hospital, and was so dehydrated that I gained almost ten pounds overnight from the fluid drip alone. The next day, I was given a packet of information and a crash course in carb-counting and giving myself shots.
Many times, I have heard people say "Oh, I could never give myself/my child a shot!" I assure you, when faced with the reality that you can either choose a shot or death, you can overcome a fear of needles pretty quickly. In addition to insulin shots, I began testing my blood sugar via finger-prick 6-8 times a day. Everyday. Forever.
Think about your day. Now think about how your day would change if you had Type 1 Diabetes. Every bite of food you eat must be accounted for. Do you know how many carbs are in a cookie, a slice of bread, an apple, a bowl of pasta from Olive Garden? For a Type 1 Diabetic, we have to learn, and learn to guess. Not a single carb can pass our lips without considering how it will effect blood sugar levels. Going on a walk or to the gym? There's another variable! Because activity burns energy, it can cause low blood sugar, which makes me feel shaky, sweaty, and sleepy. I am lucky enough to feel these episodes coming on and have never passed out, but it could happen. We've all seen the "Drink your juice, Shelby!" scene in Steel Magnolias. It's a bit over the top, but you get the idea.
For me, planning is key. If I'm going somewhere with you and ask detailed questions, I'm trying to figure out how to plan my treatment for the day. Spontaneity can be difficult to orchestrate.
Here's a great two-minute video about Type 1 Diabetes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OOWhuC_9Lw&feature=related.