Once in a while, if someone knows or notices that I wear an insulin pump, that person says to me, “Don’t you love it?”, gushing on the word love.
This happened to me recently, during my annual check-up. I was sitting on the table with a paper gown wrapped around me and talking to my doctor, whom I like, and the medical student who was observing. It was my doctor who asked the question and gushed on “love.” Clearly, even though it was an endocrinologist and not she who had prescribed it for me, she considered the pump a marvel. As miniature devices go, this one is indeed remarkable in what it can do.
Because she is a doctor, and because I feel able to speak frankly to her, I replied honestly: “No.”
Dr. H.’s lips pressed together and then broadened into a smile, which I took as a signal: Go on.
I elaborated. “Sure, I appreciate the technology, and it’s more convenient than multiple injections, but, no. Loving it would be like being an amputee and loving a cool prosthetic leg, when what I want is my real leg.”
Dr. H. took a tiny step back but kept smiling. “Still, it’s better for you.”
“It is better for me, yes.”
I’ll admit that the pump may be better for me medically, but I’m not sure it is better for me personally. I wear it 24/7, tucked into my waistband, and all the time it reminds me of who I am inside my clothes, inside my skin. I have become accustomed to the device and its weight and presence, yet I am not as sanguine about its being a part of me. In fact, I often think of it as more apart from me. That’s not so outrageous: the machine itself is physically separate and the nylon line that attaches it to me is delicate and even transparent. You almost can’t see it.
When I say it is apart from me, I am really saying that — intellectually, emotionally — I try to stay detached. The mind game I play with myself can be boiled down to this: “This thing I’m attached to? It’s not me.”
My external, mechanical pancreas can’t be me, because I am a healthy person, a strong one, from a family of stoics.
And this is how it goes.
I think my self-identity has a lot to do with my awareness of the self I show to the world. I try to present a certain self (strong, capable), one I imagine that I control, because that is how I want to be viewed by an audience: of intimates, of friends, of colleagues and students, of strangers.
Last week at work I attended a lecture by a couple of colleagues on making an oral presentation. MIT is a presentation-dense environment, and this happens to be a part of my job — thinking about, teaching, designing, coaching, rehearsing, and giving presentations of all sorts — that I really like.
In her presentation on presenting, Karen, another lecturer, ended with advice from some engineers at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, “home of Kierkagaard, the existential philosopher,” as Karen reminded us. The advice? “Accept that in the end, by giving a talk, you express who you are.” Not “break a leg.” Not “go get ’em.” Not “be your best.”
Accept who you are.
The advice from the Danish engineers is in keeping with a message I took away from a public speaking workshop I took several years ago with Dale DeLetis, a marvelous, poised, and lively speaker himself. Commenting on body language, Dale observed that many people, in front of a large audience, have the inclination to protect themselves, and this leads to self-hugging, hands in pockets, hair- and face-touching, and hovering behind the podium. Dale admonished us to do the opposite: step out from behind the podium, relax our arms, and walk *closer* to the audience. “Present yourself.” In so many words, he was saying: Take down your defenses. Be vulnerable. Let them see you.
And it is true, when I am in an audience, I am more engaged by the remarks and message of a speaker who walks toward what he may fear — the audience — and puts down the notes, relaxes his arms, smiles, and looks at us for a long second, his body saying: I know that you are looking at me, and I accept your attention.
Oddly, it takes practice to be that presenter, the one who is him or herself in front of an audience. Openness is not a letting down of hair, a display of bad habits. Openness, paradoxically, requires strength and deliberateness.
Imagine stepping out from behind that podium, that shield, the paper gown that protects you from the other people in the same room.
Only once has a security guard at a gate stopped me and inspected my insulin pump. This happened in the fall of 2005, at the Detroit airport.
The guard, a woman with blond hair pulled back into what my sister Emily calls a chip clip, pulled me over to the side. She apologized as she asked me to roll up my tshirt and fold down the waistband of my pants. My bare midriff was exposed to her and my bare back visible to all the people still in line waiting to pass through the machine, as the guard waved some sort of wand over my skin and the bandage that attaches the cannula to my flesh.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Do you want to go into a private inspection room?”
For a second, I considered her offer. Then something inside me gave way — it felt like a collapse — and I relinquished my vain dignity. Take it, I thought.
“It’s okay,” I said. I looked at her very carefully. I mean, she was looking at me, so why not reciprocate? She was a full head shorter than me. Her uniform, pants and a buttoned shirt, in dark and light blue, were tight; there was no space between the cloth and her skin, and her large stomach and large breasts were compressed into rolls that rested on her belt. Her face was pretty, un-made-up, and young.
She asked me to hand her my pump, and I unclipped it. Still attached to me by the tubing, it was now in her hand, and she was brushing it with a cloth that looked like a fabric softener sheet. “Gotta check for radiation,” she explained. She touched the same cloth to the bandage on my abdomen. Weirdly, I felt as if we were holding hands, joined somehow.
“You’re clear,” she said finally. I rolled down my shirt, my moment of exposure over.
I wish I could say that I was cured by that experience of my natural modesty. Although I did not suffer, I was not liberated either. I still wear my insulin pump inside my pants, or at least in a pocket, with a shirt or sweater hanging down over. The pump is secure and pretty invisible.
Once in a while, however, the pump wriggles free with the motion of my walking, and it takes a nose dive. That feeling of its plummet makes me want to yelp. The pump hangs by the plastic tubing and nuzzles my knee. I reach my hand into my clothes and reel it back in. Not many people have seen this happen.
I have a frequent fantasy, which is also a worry, that this will happen during a big presentation: my talk will be going really well, my pump will break free from my waistband, I’ll startle, and the pump will hang there, bulging through my pants leg or swinging below the hem of my skirt.
And how will the audience respond? I have a feeling that it would be up to me to make it all right, to signal that the unexpected moment was acceptable and not awkward. I could inject the moment with humor, or at least matter-of-factness. And yet, although I recognize that it would be up to me to make this acceptable, often I wish for the opposite: that human oddities like this could simply be just one of many variations. Not weird, and not cool either.
Like most fantasies, dark or sunny, though, it’s unlikely that this wished-for disclosure to an audience will just happen. I’ll have to make it happen.
Photo, of my hands shielding my head from the clematis, by Eli Guterman.