What "The Baby-Sitters Club" Taught Me About My Disease
"As a girl, I knew no diabetics, or really any other kids afflicted with disease. The fictional character of Stacey McGill alleviated the loneliness of being sick."
The summer of 1991 lingers in my memory as a series of sweaty vignettes, scenes in which a scrawny and sun-burnished version of me ran around a YMCA day camp, crisscrossed with half-assed tan lines and bedecked in neons. Bryan Adams serenaded me with "Everything I Do" in perpetuity, Terminator 2's special effects blew my fucking mind, and I was strapped into a fanny pack for all of it.
The fanny pack was a new accessory that I had adopted for utility, not fashion. It was just a happy coincidence that the fanny pack zeitgeist was in full swing. Rather than slap bracelets or the other traditional trappings of a '90s tween, though, my nylon sherpa carried a blood tester, an ice-pack case containing insulin and syringes, and a roll of Lifesavers. I was a freshly minted juvenile diabetic.
Just weeks before, cotton-mouthed and blinking in and out of consciousness, I had heard an urgent-care doctor say to my mother, "...or it could be diabetes."
Coooool, I remember thinking, like Stacey. She's so cool — before slipping back into the deepest sleep I have ever known.
Anastasia "Stacey" McGill, was the COOLEST babysitter in The Baby-Sitters Club (BSC) canon. Stacey was from NEW YORK CITY. Stacey was BLONDE and had a PERM. She dotted her i's with HEARTS. Stacey was into FASHION. Though my cognizance was flickering like a film strip with missing frames, I understood on that gurney that of all the maladies I could incur, I had been struck with the same disease as STACEY MCGILL, coolest of the babysitters.
I discovered The Baby-Sitters Club series the previous year. Dissimilar to Stacey McGill, my favorite place was the school library. During one fated visit, Logan Likes Mary Anne! (book #10) beckoned me from its pedestal by the entrance. A self-effacing, dorky 10-year-old, I was drawn to the book. On the cover, the titular characters beam at each other over a copper-haired child whose hand is held hostage by a jar (he appears to be lovestruck by Logan too). The cosmos clearly orchestrated this discovery, so dutifully I checked out Logan Likes Mary Anne!, and thereafter was a fervent Baby-Sitters Club disciple.
The Baby-Sitters Club is a small band of middle-school girls (and once in a while the besotted Logan), who are less of a club and more like the controlling mafia caring for the forsaken children of fictional Stoneybrook, Connecticut. The girls meet three times a week in Claudia Kishi's bedroom (because that baller has her own landline) to await calls from parents and generally bro-down (at least as much as hard-ass and autocratic BSC President Kristy Thomas will allow).
Killjoy Kristy is their tomboy dictator, for she is bossy and the BSC was her brainchild; Claudia, the club's benign VP (because private landline), is creative, and at least once per novel something she is wearing is described as "funky"; when Mary Anne Spier isn't making googly eyes over a lodged ankle-biter at Logan, she enjoys the tedious honor of club secretary. She has the best penmanship, but I suspect her role as the gang milquetoast won her the shittiest job; lastly, numeral savant Stacey serves as BSC treasurer.
All of the books in The Baby-Sitters Club series meander in the same way. Each novel focuses on one of the girls and their conflict du jour. After said conflict is introduced, the club's origin story is retold, and the members of the coterie are described ad nauseum. Then the story and the subplots resume until the conflict's conclusion. In addition to the original four girls, the BSC adopts Dawn Schafer, a hippie native of California. Mallory Pike and Jessi Ramsey become junior members (which means they're ELEVEN. What business do 11-year-olds have getting paid to be caregivers to other tiny humans?!). Later on in the series, Abby Steveson joins the BSC and is allergic to everything.
This goes on for 213 novels.
Although I was most similar to Mary-Anne, of all Stoneybrook's young wardens, my admiration for Stacey was the strongest. Her first episodic arc in the Baby-Sitters Club catalog is entitled The Truth About Stacey. Stacey's "truth" is that her parents are mishandling her diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. In the very first novel, we learn that Stacey recently emigrated from New York City, where she was teased and rejected by her friends after being diagnosed with diabetes. She elects to hide her disease from the BSC sister-wives in Stoneybrook. After they catch her in some lies and misinterpret her abstinence from sweets as anorexia, she confesses that she's a juvenile diabetic.
In The Truth About Stacey, Stacey's parents derail her life by dragging her back to NYC to meet with various doctors in hopes they'll present them with some kind of miracle cure (including holistic medicine!) for the incurable disease. Being schlepped around by her delusional parents to these visits, after her move and diagnosis, causes her to feel alienated and melancholic. I felt sympathy for Stacey, but was unable to relate.
On the morning of June 18, 1991, I informed my mother that I would not be going to school that day, an unprecedented declaration; I lived for school. My mother hauled me, her nauseous co-pilot, along with her to run errands, but found it difficult to buy groceries with a green-faced, vomity 11-year-old in tow, so back home we went. The next day, she took me to urgent care.
My body had been poisoning me with ketones for months. As I experienced that day and have many times since, your brain is the first organ to fail you when you suffer ketoacidosis. You get stupid; you lose the ability to be self-aware and understand things complexly. My body began to shut down. I was tired all the time. When I got home from school I slept. I asked the school nurses if I could nap during recess, which they allowed. Evidently, my teachers assumed I was depressed. At their behest, my mom brought me to a psychiatrist, much to my confusion. I couldn't eat much, resulting in a 30-pound loss from my scraggly frame. I woke up at night so frequently to drink water and urinate, I would fill up the water bottle for my bike and hide it under my pillow so I could quench my thirst throughout the night. I've never been trapped in the Sahara or marooned on a life raft or deserted island, but this undying thirst felt like the droughtier version of all those scenarios combined.
The 43rd Baby-Sitters Club text, Stacey's Emergency, was published two months before my diagnosis. Stacey McGill suffers protracted sadness, which she copes with by covertly eating sugary garbage, ultimately sending her to the ER. Preceding her hospitalization, she too has unquenchable thirst, and is inexplicably ever-tired. Because my brain had dissolved into a cranium-encased bowl of useless ooze, I never put together that we were experiencing the same symptoms. Also, I thought I was doing something illicit, being awake at night and unbelievably thirsty, and kept this new nocturnal routine secret. Physically and intellectually, I had become a wisp of myself until I was diagnosed.
When I overheard the doctor saying that I might be diabetic, I didn't even think about mortality. I just finally realized what Stacey McGill and I had in common.
I woke up in the hospital alone. Then a doctor came to my bedside, joined by my mom, to deliver his oration regarding my new disease. He gravely explained that from now on, I would have to plan and monitor everything I ate and any bit of exercise I performed, and synchronize it with my synthetic insulin shots. I would administer two kinds of insulin injections multiple times every day, and I would need to test my blood-sugar levels more than that. There is a narrow, capricious aperture where every person's blood sugar must reside to stay alive; I was told how to recognize low-blood-sugar attack symptoms and prepare for them (though, holy shit can you not emotionally brace for them) and be able to identify the hallmarks of high blood sugar. Most importantly, if I fucked this up, I should expect blindness, kidney failure, amputation, death, et fucking cetera.
After the doctor delivered this speech, he and my mom left. I went back to sleep. An affable nurse woke me to demonstrate how to give myself injections. The staff nutritionist stopped by to explain meal plans, and how to choose food based on my prescribed insulin doses. Had my brain been firing on all cylinders, and had I not been a Baby-Sitters Club devotee, this grim and significant life change would have been infinitely scarier. It was impossible to concentrate on the diabetes symposium being held at my bedside, after being zonked out for so many hours, following months of debilitating sickness, while still being a fanciful kid.
Thankfully, the BSC had already burrowed a foundational knowledge of the disease into my brain, undoubtedly mitigating the confusion and freaked-out-ness of being confronted with my own mortality for the first time. Being bookish, I was somewhat equipped for my definitive coming-of-age event.
As a girl, I knew no diabetics, or really any other kids afflicted with disease. The fictional character of Stacey McGill alleviated the loneliness of being sick. Diabetes wasn't foreign or stigmatized, because badass Stacey was my sole association with the condition. But Stacey was only 13, and naturally unable to prepare me for some of the experiences I would have as a diabetic. She couldn't have predicted that when I returned home from the hospital, I would be too scared to give myself my own injections (for years), or that I'd wet the bed for those first two weeks. A 13-year-old character cannot describe how having a low-blood-sugar attack feels like being both underwater and shit-hammered drunk, as every cell in your body screams that you need to consume sugar IMMEDIATELY. She was too young to pull over her car to suck down juice boxes and then sit there sweaty and tear-faced until the fructose kicked in, though she, too, passed out in public.
Stacey never describes taking shots in disgusting bathrooms — or worse, porta-potties — to avoid unwanted attention at shows, bars, or restaurants. You never learn the universe has conjured up countless bizarre situations to put you in the hospital, like losing your insulin on a flight to D.C., or your insulin mysteriously losing effectiveness in Brooklyn, or that time the vial fell out of your purse and was immediately run over by a car the night before your brother's college graduation; and you can't just go get more because insurance companies are the nefarious, mustache-twirling villains of real life.
And speaking of insurance, unless Stacey McGill became independently wealthy, there would be no Eat, Pray, Love storyline for her, because access to health insurance dictates your life as an adult. There is no episode revolving around the use of the word "cheating" to convey eating food outside your nutrition plan (though her shame is amply connoted). Had her fictive life continued after middle school, perhaps the ghostwriter might chronicle the times the vision in her right eye is obscured by blood, because her diabetic retinopathy caused the vessels to burst, at age 34. You can't extrapolate from pages the insidious voices that will attempt to convince you that your body is your enemy, not your instrument.
In this modern world of ours, diabetes (specifically Type 2, the much stigmatized, formally adult-onset rendition) is part of our national conversation, thanks to its correlation with the obesity epidemic. It now permeates pop culture (David Sedaris), typically as a punch line (Broad City), often gotten wrong (looking at YOU, Always Sunny!).The advent of the internet has made information about diabetes readily available. Tweens don't necessarily need a Stacey McGill, because the interweb connects juvenile diabetics across the world who can share their anecdotes; I went down a weepy YouTube rabbit hole watching girls rate their insulin pumps and offer each other support. Gone are the days in which I must experience my disease in a silo and can only make allusions to Steel Magnolias ("Shelby, you need some juice... DRINK THE JUICE") or reference Panic Room (but seriously, how do you not have juice in your panic room?!), in an attempt to explain my condition.
I couldn't worship at the altar of the BSC forever. I would soon transform into an insufferable, brooding punk who used a backpack instead of a fanny pack to ferry my medical supplies. I sold my library of Baby-Sitters Club books and propaganda at a relative's yard sale when I was 14. I had already ventured into the dark, torrid fictional world of Christopher Pike, where teenage-girl (sometimes spectral) protagonists experienced sex, drugs, and violence, and where diabetes was wielded as a murder weapon.
I still remember the girl who bought my BSC collection. She stood pensively before me, no older than 10, refusing to make eye contact as she regarded the bounty for sale. She walked away, and returned using her mother for a shield (obviously, a Mary-Anne). She peeked out from behind her mother's legs as I accepted $5 for the lot, and together we wordlessly packed up The Baby-Sitters Club.
Joy is pizza, dinosaurs, pinball, reading outside, and animals doing people things. April De Costa reads and writes in Austin, TX.