Sharing a Slice of Sonia Sotomayor's "Beloved World" with Type 1 Diabetes
Each year about 1 in 300 Americans is diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. When Sonia Sotomayor was 8, she too was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Like many of you reading this, I share this disease with a lot of ballsy, wonderful people. And while there are an overwhelming number of inspiring role models in the world today who have turned obstacles into opportunities, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s story resonated deeply with me and my own life. It is a well-written from-the-heart-tale of perseverance and success told with unflinching honesty and courage. And like us, type 1 diabetes was her constant companion through it all.
Sotomayor is a Supreme Court Justice and Puerto-Rican American who grew up in the projects of the Bronx. I am white. I grew up in a middle-class family in suburban Milwaukee. I haven’t known hunger or poverty. I have no experience being a minority in a largely anti-affirmative action America.
But boy did I feel a connection to the feisty, strong-willed girl Sonia was growing up as a little girl with diabetes in an unstable world. Buried in books and finding solace in friends and school. Giving herself her own shots and taking care of her bloodsugar without her parents there much of the time. Feeling the weight of that. The pain and the resilience of a close but tumultous family life.
Reading Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World (or Mi mundo adorado) brought back forgotten memories from my childhood, many that mirrored Sotomayor’s, and stirred up my emotions. Some painful. Some so full of joy I'd have jumped in a time machine and headed back in a heartbeat.
Even if you don’t agree with Sotomayor’s positions as Supreme Court Justice or particularly relate to her story, My Beloved World is a compelling read. After all, you don’t have to be a tough Puerto-Rican American from the Bronx to understand heartbreak. To understand loss. To know adversity.
You don’t have to have type 1 diabetes to know what it feels like to be vulnerable. To feel your body has betrayed you. To grow up knowing tomorrow isn’t promised to you. To look mortality in the face, smile, give it the finger, and keep on living anyway.
You don’t have to be Supreme Court Justice to be filled with toughness and defiance. To know you’re here to make a difference in the world. To use your life to help kids and your fellow man. To feel that your story—your history—the hand you’ve been dealt--is more than a series of obstacles to be overcome. Is more than a “Woes I” scenario. To be here for a purpose greater than yourself.
You don’t have to grow up in an alcoholic home to know what discord and strife look like. To have to look out for yourself and your siblings because Mom and Dad are absent. Physically. Emotionally. You get the picture.
As Sotomayor puts it, “There are uses to adversity, and thy don’t reveal themselves until tested. Whether it’s serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unsuspected strengths. It doesn’t always, of course: I’ve seen life beat people down until they can’t get up. But I have never had to face anything that could overwhelm the native optimism and stubborn perseverance I was blessed with.
At the same time, I would never claim to be self-made—quite the contrary: at every stage of my life, I have always felt that the support I’ve drawn from those closest to me has made the decisive difference between success and failure. And this was true from the beginning. Whatever their limitations and frailties, those who raised me loved me and did the best they knew how. Of that I am sure." (p. 11)
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A lump grew in my throat as I read Sotomayor’s diagnosis story. Without insulin pumps or even disposable needles available, Sotomayor recalled getting up early to boil water and sterilize needles. She knew she had to rely on herself if she was going to survive. Sonia recalls how she was so little she had to pull a chair over to the stove just to be able to reach the pot.
Sonia says, "the truth is that since childhood I had cultivated an existential independence. It came from perceiving the adults around me as unreliable, and without it I felt I wouldn’t have survived. I cared deeply for everyone in my family, but in the end I depended on myself.”
Sonia’s weight loss and the lethargy that dogged her eventually landed her in the hospital. She recalls the hidden shame of wetting her bed (to the point she would avoid sleep), and the agony of having her blood drawn (over and over and over again with thick needles) at the hospital.
The first time the nurse took out a large needle to draw blood at the lab, little Sonia was so scared that she tore from the room, raced out of the hospital, and hid, shaking and scrunched up in a ball underneath a parked car. After hospital staff dragged the kicking and screaming little Sonia back to the lab and completed tests, she listened through the half-closed door as the doctor told her mother she had Type 1 diabetes. It was the first time she saw her mother cry.
The doctor told Sonia diabetes wasn't so bad, and focused on small changes. Sonia thought to herself, “This doesn’t add up. He’s making it sound as if it’s no big deal. Just skip dessert and drink a different soda. Why is my mother so upset? (p. 7) I couldn’t help thinking this was the start of Sotomayer’s bullshit meter when it came to doctors. That questioning and stubborn self-will and desire to reach a deeper truth is part of what saved her from lesser fates.
Sonia admits, “I am the most obstinate person you will ever meet. I have a streak of stubbornness in me that I think is what has accounted for some of my success in life. There is some personal need to persevere, to fight the fight. And if you just try and be stubborn about trying you can do what you set your mind to.
Back in the Bronx as a girl, she set her heart on being a cop --inspired by Nancy Drew novels and TV. But by the age of 8, the plot of her life was rewritten by diabetes. The doctors told her because of her Type 1 diabetes she couldn’t be a cop.
My twin sister was also eight when a speaker visiting her third grade classroom told her she couldn’t be an FBI agent because she had type 1 diabetes. It was a moment she never forgot. Her anger and frustration of knowing her dream was shattered because of diabetes bears a striking similarity to Sotomayer’s. My sister may not have become an FBI agent, but good luck trying to get anything past her (a quality that has served her well as a mom of three).
My point is this: there are myriad ways people deal with life-changing news, life changing circumstances. The immediate reaction might be to scream or cry, to deny the reality of it even for a little while. But eventually, we come to terms with things in one way or another. Sotomayer says she “figured out very quickly, watching "Perry Mason," that I could do some of the same things by being a lawyer.”
And look at her now.
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If you’re reading this, chances are you or someone you love may forever be dependent on insulin in ways that change things, but our ambitions and dreams? Those still belong to us. No one—and no THING can take that away. We may have to change the trajectory a bit, but there is a defiance and stubbornness that comes with having life-threatening obstacles thrown in your path from a young age on…it just makes you want to LIVE and PROVE THE WORLD WRONG. Which is exactly what Sonia Sotomayer and so many other inspiring people not so unlike you and me are doing.