Diabetes, Music, and Meaning Making

John A. Carranza //  “There’s days I wanna close my eyes and never wake up to my numbers high / Just lay there until all I read is low / I’m sick as shit of all these pricks / And everybody’s ignorance…”

So goes the refrain to the song “Double Arrows Down” by the punk band The Bombpops. The song’s energy conveys the frustration that Poli van Dam, one of the vocalists and guitarists in the band, occasionally feels with having type 1 diabetes. The frustration builds until toward the end of the song when van Dam recounts a terrifying moment on tour in which she had a seizure at a gas station. The band’s tour manager was able to inject her with a glucagon pen (Diener). While the incident was distressing, it is remarkable that van Dam was willing to be so straightforward and honest about her experiences.

Click here to view the “Double Arrows Down” music video.

Van Dam is one of 34.2 million people living with diabetes in the United States today, according to the CDC. It is a manageable chronic illness that requires frequent monitoring of insulin levels, which indicate how much glucose should enter the bloodstream to be turned into a source of energy. Before van Dam’s diagnosis, type 1 diabetes had always been a part of her life as her father and younger brother both had diabetes (Kasper). Many Americans with type 1 or type 2 diabetes believe that they experience stigma related to the disease, and this has to do with the belief that a person’s diagnosis is self-imposed because of lapses in personal responsibility (Liu et al). The inability to speak about diabetes has only reinforced the stigma surrounding the illness, but increasingly that is beginning to change, thanks to men and women willing to speak about their experiences.

“Double Arrows Down” dispensed with any notion of stigma about diabetes, and Poli’s frustration and fear were apparent.  The song is an artistic representation of a personal history of what it is like to live with a chronic illness. Some research carried out on the production of art by diabetic women has highlighted how significant it was to use creative processes to make meaning of the illness. Many respondents reported that monitoring their insulin levels became a preoccupation, which reinforced a clinical way of looking at the disease. Ever since insulin was discovered in 1922, surveillance and diabetic technologies have been the hallmark of daily management (Gardner 172). However, creating art removed the clinical gaze and ensured that “participants were able to make a tangible expression of the meaning of diabetes in a positive way” (Stuckey and Tisdell 52).

“I’m sitting there
In another cold pharmacy chair
Standing by
While they suck my veins and wallet dry
I can write all these defiant songs
But my life is still reliant on machines
And all I do is bleed”

-From “Double Arrows Down” by The Bombpops

The possibilities of meaning making and the ability to reduce stigma become apparent when media technologies are incorporated into the dissemination of this art and personal history. Siobhán McHugh has argued that oral history on the radio has the benefit of conveying the oral (“fact and quality of oral/verbal communication”) and aural (sense of hearing) nature of speaking about the past and that the medium is potentially available for wider audiences (490-91). According to McHugh, the affective response of the listener is also provoked through the use of oral history (495-96). This is the case with highly personal songs such as “Double Arrows Down” since the listener is responding not only to the story, but also to the music that propels the story forward. This is heavily supported not just by the use of radio, but also the newer development in technology that has made listening to music all the easier. Streaming services such as Spotify make the song available to new and old listeners; YouTube has the track recording and music video for free. (You just have to watch an advertisement, of course.)

The availability of songs that speak frankly about personal experiences has added a new depth to which art, narrative, health, and technology are intertwined. Rather than view music as a means for helping to heal (van Dam has said that her “down” days help her to write her best songs), it is an important outlet for artists to talk about and record for posterity their own stories. These stories, made available through the prevalence of streaming services, have the potential to make chronic illnesses such as diabetes visible and to help remove stigma. Van Dam recounts at least one instance of a fan connecting with her by flashing their pump at her during a performance (Kasper).

Works Cited

Diener, Jonathan. “Poli Van Dam of The Bombpops On Touring With Type 1 Diabetes.” Hard Noise, 30 Nov. 2019. noise.thehardtimes.net/2019/11/29/the-bombpops-poli-van-dam-on-touring-with-type-1-diabetes/.

Gardner, Kirsten E. “‘The Art of Insulin Treatment:’ Diabetes, Insulin, and the 1920s.” Journal of Medical Humanities, vol. 40, no. 2, 2017, pp. 171–180, doi:10.1007/s10912-017-9493-x.

Kasper, Craig, host. “Bravest 011: Exploring the Crossroads of Diabetes & the Life of a Punk Rocker.” Bravest Podcast, episode 11. https://www.thebravestlife.com/011.

Liu, Nancy F., et al. “Stigma in People With Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes.” Clinical Diabetes, vol. 35, no. 1, 2017, pp. 27–34, doi:10.2337/cd16-0020.

McHugh, Siobhán. “The Affective Power of Sound: Oral History on Radio.” The Oral History Reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, third ed., Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2016, pp. 490–507.

Stuckey, Heather L., and Elizabeth J. Tisdell. “The Role of Creative Expression in Diabetes: An Exploration Into the Meaning-Making Process.” Qualitative Health Research, vol. 20, no. 1, 2009, pp. 42–56, doi:10.1177/1049732309355286.

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