Natalie Balmain was just 20 when she was told she had type 1 diabetes, and was so devastated she suffered a mental breakdown.
“I’m a strong-minded person, but being diagnosed at that age affected my mental health. I had a nervous breakdown after my diagnosis. I attempted suicide,” she says.
“It happened really quickly. I came out of hospital and then it hit me. I was having to inject myself and I couldn’t cope. I trashed my room and tried to drink a bottle of shampoo. My housemates called my dad and he called an ambulance. The rest is a blur.”
Now Natalie has used her experiences to advise Coronation Street on Summer Spellman’s recent diabetes storyline, and has also spoken to actress Harriet Bibby about how she felt.
“I was asked to speak with Harriet because I was a similar age when I was diagnosed.
“You’re just getting to know who you are as a person and thinking about the life you’re going to have. Then diabetes comes along and rips that away from you. You have to grieve for the life you imagined for yourself.”
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Type 1 diabetes, which is different to the more common type 2 diabetes, causes the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood to become too high. It requires insulin injections or insulin delivered via a pump to keep blood glucose levels under control.
After her diagnosis Natalie, now 35, suffered depression for four years, exacerbated by the number of hypos she was experiencing. Hypoglycaemia – a hypo – happens when blood glucose levels drop too low, usually below four millimoles per litre.
Symptoms include sweating, blurred sight, trembling, difficulty concentrating and feeling hungry or anxious.
They normally happen when someone delays meals, drinks alcohol on an empty stomach or does a lot of exercise.
Natalie says: “I felt I’d completely lost control of my life – I couldn’t even go for a long walk or clean the house without feeling unwell.”
On screen, schoolgirl Summer is struggling to come to terms with her diagnosis and collapses after convincing herself that energy drinks and fruit cider won’t upset her blood sugar levels. Natalie, who lives in Manchester and works as a hospital director of communications, says she too discovered very early on diabetes would have a major impact on her lifestyle.
“I was a student when I was diagnosed. At the time my blood sugars were out of control and I had to stop partying,” she recalls.“
Alcohol has a profound effect on type 1, and I’d have hypos from dancing. There were so many risks and I had to grow up very quickly.”
Natalie was diagnosed in 2007 while studying at Birmingham University. It came just three months before her 21st birthday. Like Summer on screen, her first symptom was weight loss, followed by a raging thirst.
“Some evenings I drank so much water I threw it back up. Also, my vision was blurry, but I didn’t realise it was anything serious.”
It was only when Natalie went home to visit her parents that diabetes was diagnosed. On screen, Summer’s family noticed her weight loss and assumed she had an eating disorder. Angry Summer denied it and Natalie says it mirrored her experience.
“My parents were horrified as I’d lost 3.5st. I’m 5ft 7in and dropped to 6st,” she recalls.
They took her to the GP, who did a finger prick blood test which showed Natalie’s blood sugar levels were 39.9 mmol/l, rather than between the normal four to seven.
She was sent to Worcester Royal Hospital where she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and almost immediately a nurse showed her how to do an injection.
“She said, ‘you’ll do these for the rest of your life.’ I couldn’t get my head round it,” Natalie recalls.
It was only after she began antidepressants and took a carbohydrate-counting course in her mid-20s that she started to recover. The courses teach people how to manage blood glucose levels better by matching insulin doses to the amount of carbohydrates in meals.
Corrie actress Harriet, 23, says she is so grateful for Natalie’s insight, admitting she knew little about diabetes before being handed her storyline.
“One of the things Natalie and I spoke about was that when you have diabetes you can’t be as spontaneous and carefree as you’d like,” Harriet says.
“If you go out, you need to know you have enough insulin.
“Natalie said you have to grow up quickly. Type 1 diabetes is a condition that will never go away. You have to take insulin for the rest of your life, which is very difficult to come to terms with.”
Natalie took matters into her own hands to make life a little easier and help others. In 2017 she set up her own fashion line, Type 1 Clothing, with clothing that features zips and stylish holes in sections where people inject, including tops of the arm and the stomach and upper thigh areas.
She still finds it frustrating that people confuse the two different kinds of diabetes.
“People read diabetes can be cured by diet, but that’s definitely not the case for type 1. People also think it’s self-inflicted. I’ve had guys ask me on a first date: ‘so what did you eat to give yourself that?’ It’s cruel and also incorrect.
“I’ve seen type 1 portrayed incorrectly in Hollywood, so I’m delighted that Coronation Street and Harriet reached out to Diabetes UK and myself, because it could potentially save somebody’s life.”