Phil Gulley: Ill at Ease

As a hypochondriac, I was sick of being healthy. Then diabetes came along.

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Illustration by Ryan Snook

Several years ago, my doctor phoned to tell me I had Type II diabetes. I’m a notorious hypochondriac but had been cursed with good health for some time, so I was elated to discover something was actually wrong with me.

“You’re just barely a diabetic,” my doctor explained. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say you’re pre-diabetic. With the proper medicine and diet, we can get this turned around.”

I refused to be discouraged by his sunny optimism.

I hail from a long line of sick people. My father’s family, the Gulleys, were an incredibly feeble lot, dying like flies on a windowsill. Cancer, heart disease, massive tumors in various organs, bleeding disorders, a veritable buffet of sickness and death. We gathered twice a year—in the summer at my Cousin Pooner’s house in Valier, Illinois, and in the winter at my Grandmother Gulley’s house in Vincennes. There we would update one another on our illnesses, passing around colonoscopy pictures, showing off suspicious moles, cheerfully describing the passage of kidney stones. Cousin Pooner would sit in a metal lawnchair, eased up on one cheek, describing his recent hemorrhoid surgery.

“I tell you, it was as big as a baseball, maybe bigger,” he’d say. We listened, awed by his good fortune.

When I was 10 years old, I convinced myself I had menopause. I had all the symptoms, a general weariness, and profuse sweating. It turns out I was mistaken. I had dengue fever, which was even better. It is typically confined to Africa, but I had been watching a lot of Tarzan movies and must have caught it that way. It lasted six months, but the time flew by. I got ice cream every day and didn’t have to go to school. Watching television to pass the time, I got hooked on General Hospital. My hypochondria, which had not fully taken hold, flared up, and I’ve been sick with one thing or another ever since.

My favorite illness is bronchitis, which I get every winter. It’s a conspicuous illness, which is the best kind to have. There’s nothing worse than being sick with something other people don’t notice. I try always, if I’m going to be sick, to get something that causes me to writhe around on the floor, moaning and groaning. Coughing up blood is good, too. It’s hard to ignore someone coughing up blood.

Growing up, we lived down the street from Baker’s Funeral Home. I would ride my bicycle—somewhat tricky with the leg braces I wore—to visit Rawleigh Baker, who in addition to running the funeral home also provided the ambulance service for our town. He would give me tips about sickness and death, suggesting illnesses to avoid and recommending others. He was a big fan of broken legs.

“Sure, it hurts, but only for a little while,” he said. “Then you get a cast, and people can’t do enough for you. Yessir, I’d say a broken leg is just about the perfect illness.”

Try as I might, I couldn’t break a leg, being plagued with Gumby-like bones. Then, in a stroke of good luck, Eddie Swanson broke my arm in the sixth grade while playing football. I was flopping on the ground until Rawleigh Baker came in his ambulance and drove me to the hospital for a cast. The pain was gone by the next day, but for six weeks I lived in a state of glory, the memory of which still delights me.

So now I have diabetes, which no one can tell by looking at me, so I make sure to let everyone know.

So now I have diabetes, which no one can tell by looking at me, so I make sure to let everyone know. I’m keeping it under control, not wanting to get my toes lopped off, nursing it along so it’s just bad enough to get me out of meetings.

“I’m sorry,” I say, five minutes into a meeting, “but I’m feeling rather peckish. I have diabetes, you know. If you’ll excuse me, I need to eat.” I slip away, grimacing, with everyone wishing me luck.

My mother-in-law, Ruby Apple, had the great misfortune of never being sick a day in her life. When the women at church would discuss their ailments, she stood there mute, silenced by good health. Of course, people told her to count her blessings, and she would smile and say she did, but on the inside she was hurting. In her late 70s, she thought she was having a heart attack, but it turned out to be gas. The thing is, despite these disappointments, she never lost hope. I think of her example whenever I’m well.

Having diabetes isn’t all sunshine and roses. There’s a certain stigma attached to Type II diabetes, given its link to obesity. I’m 5’11” and weigh 165 pounds, not including my torso. So it’s not like all I do is sit around eating. I’m not one of those guys who is so big he needs the fire department to lift him out of a window when he leaves home to go on The Jerry Springer Show. The doctor isn’t even sure how I got diabetes. He said it was one of life’s mysteries, like Rush Limbaugh finding four women to marry him.

So far, the only downside to diabetes is not being able to eat Cinnabons at the airport. There was nothing better than scarfing down a roll, getting on the airplane, lapsing into a sugar coma, and then waking up an hour later at the Atlanta airport, a few steps away from another Cinnabon bakery. But those treats have 58 grams of sugar, so I haven’t eaten one in two years. I went through withdrawal and thought of smoking to take the edge off, believing cigarettes were healthier than Cinnabons. It turns out I was wrong. The average cigarette is 20 percent sugar. No wonder they kill you.

Some people hope their dogs will be in heaven. I like dogs as much as the next man, but who cares if they’re in heaven? Not me. I don’t want to spend eternity taking dogs outside to poop. But I do hope there are Cinnabons. Kiosks on every corner.

Cinnabon lady: Can I help you?

Me: Yes, I’d like a Cinnabon, with a side of CinnaPretzels, and for my dessert I’d like some Cinnabon Stix.

I’d hate to think I’ve been good all these years just to die and find out heaven doesn’t have high-fructose corn syrup.

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