Chapter 17, Maddie Dowdney: It's Okay to Be Human

Updated: Dec 24, 2020

Corps de ballet dancer with Bayerisches Staatsballett

Photo by Nich R Photography

It all happened in a week, I was working a lot at the time in the lead up to a premiere, and our toughest part of the season was about to commence, “ballet week”, during this week we perform a different ballet every night for usually just over a week, despite the name. As I recall, the symptoms developed slowly at first, if I remember correctly the first thing I was slightly concerned about was my eyesight, my vision had started to become blurry, but being short-sighted I thought that I just needed to pay another visit to the opticians. However, I soon realised that my decreasing vision was not the only thing that was wrong with me, and perhaps this could be a part of something much bigger.

I felt tired, more so than usual, and given that the dancer's tendency is to push through, I just put it down to my increased workload and ignored it. I also began losing weight, another thing we may experience quite frequently, and just like with the tiredness I brushed it off, justifying it with my increased workload I mentioned before.

The week of ballet week all these symptoms dramatically increased, I was so incredibly tired I couldn’t even hold my arms in second position. I could barely walk to work and yet, I felt like I had no choice but to go on. Now, when asked what is more important, ballet, or your health? The answer is obvious, right? Yet somehow, when we are in the thick of it all, this clarity seems to elude us as dancers and I know I am not the only dancer to feel this way. Many have pushed themselves more than they should, whether it was an injury or in my case illness. We live in a bubble that makes us believe we are superhumans, and we are weak if we need to ask for help or admit there is something stopping us from doing our jobs properly. Perhaps this is due to the fact that dancers are so easily replaceable or perhaps we really are just mad! So, there I was in the thick of the madness and I felt I had no choice but to go on, I felt I couldn’t let my colleagues down as we are all tired and no one wants to jump in on the day of a show. I didn’t really know what was wrong with me and I just had to make it through that week!

That week felt like the longest week of my life, on top of the symptoms I mentioned before, which were still increasing, I developed a few more. I had become very thirsty and I needed to visit the bathroom a lot more often, my mouth was very dry and I was unable to taste properly and since my mouth was so dry sometimes when I would eat, the food would become powdery which made it quite difficult to swallow. On top of all this, my weight loss had rapidly increased, I was losing possibly a kilo day and becoming very boney which of course caused some obvious rumours. The next symptom was possibly the worst, I experienced severe cramping, mostly at night whilst I was sleeping my muscles would just start to cramp and for the life of me, I could not get them to stop. I began radiating heat from my extremities and my hands were extremely dry, I had lightning sparks in the corner of my eyes, like seeing stars but only on the side. Finally, on the last evening of ballet week, I had lost my appetite and I was feeling very nauseous and I threw up.

Photo by Nich R Photography

I went to the emergency room the next day and spent a night in intensive care and a week in the hospital. Most of these symptoms happened in the space of a week, a week that I spent immersed in that ballet bubble I’m sure you all know I’m talking about, the space where we feel we aren’t allowed to be human and most of the time we’re not. However, hindsight is a beautiful thing and all I can say is don’t let it take an experience like mine to make you realise ballet is not as important as we all think it is, we need to take a step back from it and evaluate how we are really feeling, and question our actions and decisions more often. You are the only person that is going to put you first and sometimes we really do have to do that. If I had worked 2 more days I could have gone into a coma with only a 50% survival rate, and yet during the whole experience, the only thing that was on my mind was that I can look after myself after this week!

So, what is life like on the other side of that dramatic experience? There is constantly something else on my mind, I have to keep my blood sugar within a certain range to avoid other complications, which non-diabetics body’s do themselves. So, as a type 1 diabetic, my pancreas no longer creates insulin, meaning I have to inject insulin every time I consume carbs to prevent high blood sugar levels, and allowing my body to use the glucose from the carbs for energy. I have a set ratio for carbs:insulin, so for example, if my ratio is 10g:0.5units that would mean for every 10 grams of carbs I consume I need to inject 0.5 units of insulin, 20 grams would be 1 unit, and so on.

Photo by Nich R Photography

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, there are a number of factors that affect your blood sugar levels, to give a few examples, adrenaline is one of them, so for example during a show if I have a lot of adrenaline my blood sugar can spike, usually if this happens I would inject to control the level and bring it back down. During a show, however, we are exercising a lot which brings blood sugar levels down, if I were to inject too much I could experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) on stage, which could cause me to pass out and maybe even have a fit, not such a good idea. So, it is about finding a balance; I allow my blood sugar to go a little higher than I usually would as I know it will drop again after the show.

As our schedule changes my ratio changes, this is because exercise lowers blood sugar levels, so on heavier days sometimes I don’t need to inject for some carbs at all as the exercise naturally brings my blood sugar levels into a safe range. In summer I also inject less as the heat speeds up the absorption of the insulin.

I mostly try not to let it bother me too much and just roll with the rollercoaster that is diabetes and ballet, but things I struggle with are that you can do everything “right” and your blood sugar just doesn’t want to play ball that day even though everything was the same yesterday and you do exactly the same the next day and your blood sugar is either constantly high or low and you just fight it all day long on top of trying to ballet! Another thing that is difficult is that no matter how hard they try no one will understand what it takes to deal with this on a daily basis other than another diabetic. I remember when I was first diagnosed, I saw people eating normally and I just thought you have no idea how many carbs are in that and you can just eat it! I felt sorry for myself for about 30 seconds and then moved on as unfortunately willing to go back to not being diabetic is not going to make it go away!

I hope this has given you a little insight into life as a type 1 diabetic ballerina. The most important lesson I learned from my experience is, it’s ok to be human, it’s ok to say when you can’t manage and occasionally step out of the ballet bubble to evaluate yourself. I hope you can take something from this and I wish you all look after yourselves as a priority as I now make an effort to remind myself of almost daily!

Connect with Maddie via

Instagram: @maddie.dowdney

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