This Woman Needed Help Dealing With a Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis—So She Came Up With an Alter Ego
Paloma Kemak came up with "Glitter Glucose" to understand her disease—and to help others understand it, too.
All superheroes have an origin story: Diana Prince was sculpted out of clay by her mother and given superpowers by Zeus to become Wonder Woman. Carol Danvers was just an average NASA employee before a machine turned her into Captain Marvel. For Paloma Kemak, the path to becoming Glitter Glucose, an alter ego she created because of the fear she felt around having Type 1 diabetes, goes back to her days on a chicken farm.
"Growing up I was always really into fashion and dressing up," she tells Health. "Even out there playing with the chickens or going to Burger King, I loved glitter and would always wear colorful tutus and dresses. It was always just a part of my personality."
In those early years in Arizona, Kemak knew she wanted to pursue a career in fashion and that led her to apply to the Fashion Institute of Design in California. "It was a dream come true to get accepted and be able to move to California for school," she says. "After I graduated and moved back home to Arizona and was able to get a job in fashion where I was working in accessories and getting to travel. I had always had a strong worth ethic and really threw myself into my new job and my new life."
She was 22 at the time, working in the industry she had always wanted to be a part of—so when she started experiencing some nagging physical symptoms, she brushed them off. "I had been feeling what I now know are the symptoms of diabetes for a long time. I just made excuses for them," she says. "I was super thirsty? OK, well, I live in Arizona, so of course I'm thirsty. I'm tired all the time? OK, I'm working and always on the go, so of course I'm tired."
But eventually, Kemak couldn't ignore the symptoms anymore, and they began to take over her daily life. "I couldn't get through an hour without chugging water bottles and I was going to the bathroom constantly," she says. "So, like we all do, I went on Google."
That's where Kemak first learned her symptoms—the extreme thirst and fatigue—were consistent with type 1 diabetes. She immediately made an appointment with a doctor, and was officially diagnosed with type 1 diabetes—but it didn't really register to her at first.
"When I was first diagnosed, I don't think I really understood the emotional impact. I was told I had diabetes and it went in one ear and out there," she says. "I didn't really get a lot of education as to what diabetes was. I think the doctor assumed, because I was an adult, I knew what to do but I had no idea. I think I ignored it because I wasn't ready to face it."
The refusal to accept her diagnosis took its toll on Kemak's physical health. She spent a lot of time in bed and had to cut back on hours at the job she loved. "There were days where I would sit in my car outside the office, unable to get my self out to do my job," she says. "I feel like I had lost who I was."
Kemak continued to ignore her health issues for two years—not regularly checking her blood sugar levels or forgetting to take her insulin—until her sister stepped in. "She is a nurse and saw how much I was struggling," she says, adding that her sister suggested "that maybe we aren't doing everything we need to be doing to manage this."
At her sister's request, Kemak went to see a specialist and started to take her health more seriously. There was just one problem: Despite her desire to understand how best to manage her diabetes, Kemak struggled to find resources aimed at someone like her—a 20-something woman, not a child—dealing with a new type 1 diabetes diagnosis.
"I felt like there were no resources catered to me," she says, pointing out that most resources available were for young kids newly diagnosed with the disease. "They have support groups and camps. But there was nothing really for adults." Because of that, Kemak became a camp counselor for kids with type 1 diabetes. "I was really seeking some sense of community, a sense of belonging."
But despite making these changes—taking better care of her physical health and learning more about her diagnosis as she worked with children—Kemak still found herself struggling to talk about her disease. "I didn't feel comfortable as Kemak to come out and say 'I have a chronic illness,'" she says.
She knew she had to do something to help her deal with the emotional impact of her illness—that's where her alter ego, Glitter Glucose, came from. "What I wanted was an alter ego who could be brave and talk about the things I was going through," she says.
Like Kemak herself, Glitter Glucose was also all about having fun, dressing, up and showing the world you can still live your best life with type 1 diabetes. "It started as an Instagram page and very quickly all different types of people from all over the world were contacting me," she says. "It really showed me how much of a need there was, not just for me, but for all these other people to connect and feel a sense of togetherness."
Glitter Glucose also taught Kemak to think differently about living with what she felt were burdens of type 1 diabetes. "I didn't want to lose myself to diabetes and so when it came to the devices, I would hide them because I was embarrassed," she says. But she soon realized no one cared. "I had created it in my head. And from there I really set out to personalize my devices; make them more colorful, more me. I wanted to make diabetes fit my life instead of fitting my life around it."
Glitter Glucose eventually resonated with people in the diabetes community so much that it became like a full-time job for Kemak. "I really wasn't prepared for it to take off as quickly as it did," she says, noting that she was offered a new job in fashion around the same time that Glitter Glucose really started to grow. "I had to decide which direction I wanted to go in, and ultimately I felt a calling to Glitter Glucose and this community of people who had helped me, and who I was now able to help."
Now, Kemak does everything from providing moral support to someone recently diagnosed with diabetes, to giving diabetics advice on what to order at Starbucks. She also makes a pont to write letters to children struggling with their own new type 1 diabetes diagnoses—anything to let someone with diabetes know that she sees them and knows what they're going through.
"Selfishly I started Glitter Glucose because I felt alone and I'm so lucky that sharing my story has allowed me to inspire others," she says.
Kemak may not be faster than a locomotive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. But through Glitter Glucose, and the heroic act of bearing her own insecurities, she continues to be a source of hope and positivity for countless people struggling with a chronic illness.
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