Nursing student and single mom Michelle Ray talks about the diabetes diagnosis that threw her life off track until her daughter Uriel, 4, was born, the challenges of managing chronic disease while homeless and finding a way out with help from UMOM New Day Centers.
You were diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 12. What were the symptoms?
I just got really sick. I lost a lot of weight. I do remember my mom taking me to the doctor, and they told her that I had the flu and strep throat. I went home and my family tried to take care of me. They realized I wasn’t getting better. I started hallucinating and ultimately ended up in the hospital.
As you began to recover, you found that you’d have to learn how to manage your disease—testing your insulin levels, paying close attention to diet, giving yourself injections. What’s it like for a young teen to receive and absorb that kind of information?
I didn’t go to school for about three months, I had to meet with doctors. You realize you can’t eat sugar. You have to take shots every day. I didn’t like poking my fingers, because my fingers would get bruised. And it hurt. That’s a lot for a 12-year-old. It didn’t really faze me at first—they were kind of worried because I didn’t cry. It took me about two months before I cried and wanted to know, why me? It was two weeks before my 13th birthday.
What effect did the diagnosis ultimately have on your middle and high school years?
I was really self-conscious about it. I didn’t want the other students to know what happened or what was wrong with me because at that age I felt like I wasn’t normal. Then, some kids used to think that they’d catch what was wrong with me. I rebelled a little bit. I slept a lot if I wasn’t in school. I kind of kept to myself. I didn’t like for people to know I was diabetic. My mom couldn’t get me to wear a medical-alert bracelet. She couldn’t get me to talk about it.
As you began the adult phase of your life you lived an unstructured life and slid into some risky behavior situations. You relied on friends and relatives for a place to stay. Your diet, so important for good health in diabetics, was unpredictable. How did this affect your health?
If it’s not your kitchen, it’s not your house, it’s not your food—you’re kind of going to be hesitant and shy when you need to eat. You think, what should I do now? Walk to the store in the middle of the night? Ask somebody to cruise through Jack-in-the Box, get something off the dollar menu?
How do you think you managed?
I think I’m lucky. Doing some of the stuff I did, and some of the stuff I was around, I’m very lucky to be sitting here right now. I could have ended up in a coma and not woken up.
When did you come to terms with your situation and decide to make some changes?
I realized it once I had my daughter, Uriel. I ended up in the hospital, just because of my lifestyle. I didn’t know I was pregnant, but I was five months at the time. You have a child inside of you; you need to take care of that child. I knew things needed to change.
You weren’t exactly sleeping on the sidewalk. Would you say that you were homeless?
No, I was never sleeping on the sidewalk. People don’t realize that if you were to see me walking down the street or even at a store, or at school or working, that my daughter and I were homeless, that we live in a shelter. The people that you’re used to seeing at the corner, their appearances aren’t the best, they’re holding a sign, asking for help—people associate that with being homeless.
You and Uriel were accepted at a UMOM transitional shelter for families that provides support and services. You found scholarships to help pay for your nursing education, a job, daycare—and you now live in the “next step” housing program. When you entered the program, how did you feel about the people who stepped up to help you?
At first, you question them. You are not used to getting the help. You think, what do they want in return? In the lifestyle you’re used to, you know nothing is given for free. But all they are trying to do is to help you to be self-sufficient, for you to be able to take care of your family. To see a smile on your face and for your child to be safe. That’s it. Without the support and the people at UMOM, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.
You are on track to become a nurse and help children with diabetes. You’re raising Uriel, working, studying—much different from the life you led before. What would you like people to know about those who are struggling during the holiday season, and how programs like UMOM help?
When you’re a kid, you [don’t] tell people, “When I grow up I’m going to do this, this…and live in a shelter.” But things happen. Sometimes life deals you some bumps that you have to get through. It can happen to anybody. You don’t realize how important it is to have a set of keys to somewhere. When you move in to UMOM, you get a set of keys. And you can lock the door. Even though it is one room, it’s your home, it’s your stuff. That’s huge.
Multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for Raising Arizona Kids through her own company, Small Change Productions.