Thursday, October 8, 2009

author article: zippora karz

As someone who loves the ballet, I'm thrilled that I will soon be reviewing Zippora Karz's book The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina's Triumph Over Diabetes. In anticipation of that review, here's an article Karz wrote about her diabetes diagnosis.

The Sugarless Plum

I left my home in Los Angeles at the age of 15 to study at the famed School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. By the age of 18, I became a full member of the NYC Ballet. By 20, I was starring as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, dancing roles created by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins.

The following year I was featured in a new ballet by Peter Martins (the company director following Balanchine's death). It was an incredibly exciting time, but also a very exhausting one. Dancing all day and performing every night, I ignored the strange symptoms I was feeling. I didn't think anything was wrong.

I thought I was feeling thirsty and hungry, spaced out, having to urinate frequently, and losing weight because of the intense schedule and my nerves for the big premiere. I would have continued to ignore my symptoms had it not been for the sores under my arms that had become infected. It was terribly painful to lift my arms, not to mention how unattractive it was. I was often dizzy and I found it hard to feel my extremities, particularly my toes, when I danced.

My diagnosis was informal and cold. I sat in that office and was handed pamphlet after pamphlet about diabetes and its terrifying complications, anything from heart disease and stroke, to blindness, kidney failure and loss of limbs. All I could think about was getting back to the theater. I left the doctor's office confused and annoyed. Back at the theatre, I convinced myself the blood work was off because of my exhaustion or a lab error. I was a 21-year-old aspiring ballerina with the New York City Ballet. A disease people give money to for charity had nothing to do with me.

I was clearly in denial, fueled by the fact that because of my age, doctors assumed I had type 2 diabetes (associated with lifestyle, being overweight and inactivity) and I was put on oral medication. Everything came crashing down when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Going on insulin felt like the ultimate failure. I hated my body for its inadequacies. I felt hopeless at the thought of how I would juggle shots of insulin with my performance schedule. I was inexperienced with how much insulin to take at any given time before dancing, and unaware of the immediate danger of taking too much.

I should have discussed my concerns and difficulties with my doctor, but at the time it was easier to find a new one rather than try to communicate with the old one. Once again I was told I had type 2 diabetes. This new doctor even took me off insulin, to even stop checking my sugar levels. He thought the lows on stage were far more dangerous than letting my sugars go up a bit. He thought I was being obsessive. Could he have been right?

How could I have convinced myself it was okay to let my blood sugars go high? I was still hoping the whole thing would go away or would reverse itself. I was still in denial, happy to put the meter away and stop my shots. It didn't take long for my original symptoms to return. I think dancing all day and night, and eating as perfectly as I could, is how I survived with no insulin for almost a year. But I looked and felt terrible. Even though the company still let me dance in the Corp de ballet every night, there were no leading roles coming my way. When I finally "woke up" and checked my blood sugar levels, the meter would not go that high. It was time to end my denial, take responsibility for my body, and accept my insulin-dependent diabetes.

I started a balanced insulin program and began looking and feeling better. Ironically, as I learned how to perform every night without experiencing extreme lows, I also psychologically started to question the reality of my situation.

Was this a suitable lifestyle for a person with type 1 diabetes? Maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. I was exhausted from all the ups and downs with my physiology and from trying so hard to prove I was the same promising dancer I once was. I was not the same. Maybe it was time for me to admit I had accomplished a lot, but it was time to find a more suitable lifestyle for an insulin-dependent diabetic.

As much as I wanted to quit dancing, I just could not let myself do it. When I listened to the small voice in my heart, I admitted to myself that if I quit, I would be using diabetes as an excuse. The truth is I was more tired about wishing I could be the dancer I once was, alive and joyful, than I was tired of diabetes. I told myself I hadn't yet danced on the right insulin regime for long enough and didn't know what was possible. I did not want to look back with regret. I knew I would always wonder, so I had to stay and keep trying.

Nine years after I joined the company (six years after my diagnosis), I was promoted to Soloist Ballerina of the New York City Ballet. I performed with the company another 7 years, 16 years total with the company and 13 with diabetes. I loved every performance and am grateful for every moment I had on stage. Today I am a teacher and I stage George Balanchine ballets all over the world.

We all have a story. We all experience obstacles that affect our motivation and ability to take the best care possible. We can't always see the light at the end of the tunnel, even though it is there, brighter than we can imagine. If, in the end, it is just too much, know that you did the best you could. I believe our best is good enough!
©2009 Zippora Karz, author of The Sugarless Plum

Zippora Karz, author of The Sugarless Plum: A Ballerina's Triumph Over Diabetes, is a former soloist ballerina with the New York City Ballet where she performed for 16 years on stage and in televised performances. She was featured in a variety of roles choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (The Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker being one of her favorites) as well as works choreographed for her by such choreographers as Peter Martins and Lynne Taylor Corbett. Miss Karz danced with the New York City Ballet from 1983 through 1999. She now serves as a teacher and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing and staging Balanchine's choreography for a host of national and international dance companies. She is also a diabetes spokesperson and educator who regularly addresses major diabetes conferences and organizations worldwide. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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