Ice Cream Math

“Oh, hey. Kyle said you tried the Tchoupitoulas once. You didn’t, right? I was like, That had to have been someone else.

I know what’s coming. I take a breath and remind myself this is casual conversation, not an attack. “I did.”

This isn’t the answer my coworker expected. He squints at me, then glances away. I assume he’s compiling anecdotes about Type 1 diabetes from his memory. But maybe he’s just picturing me inhaling a sundae bigger than my head.

“But isn’t that, like… really dangerous?”

Yes. It was.

 

Uptown New Orleans’ premier ice cream parlor is a legacy building. It once housed a branch of a now-defunct local institution, McKenzie’s Bakery. Nostalgia is built into its fancy bricks. Every surface shines, from the mint green metal awning to the spackled layers of red on its floor.

I first learned of the Creole Creamery as an eighteen-year-old student in Southern California. I clicked onto my AOL homepage, as I did every morning, and stumbled across a listicle of the United States’ best chocolate desserts. One of the most intriguing desserts was the I Scream Fudge, a delicacy that resided in New Orleans, a city to which I was already obsessed with moving. I bookmarked it on my ‘04 laptop, alongside Craigslist listings for NOLA apartments, and the site of the indie bookshop where I dreamed of working.

When I arrived in town months later, I saw that the I Scream Fudge was only the first specialty sundae on a menu that ends with the Tchoupitoulas Challenge—a treat as big as its name! To get onto the Tchoupitoulas Hall of Fame, one must consume a whole giant bowl of food: eight scoops of ice cream, eight toppings, whipped cream, wafers, and cherries, with ABSOLUTELY NO HELP!

In summer ‘05, I made the Creamery my haunt and put a dent in the menu. Ice cream had always been a particular joy in my life, and not being from New Orleans meant no one knew I had diabetes. No one would lecture me about proper eating based on ignorant rumors, characters from the Baby-Sitters Club, or apocryphal tales of amputations. I became great at subtly injecting in booths, even with strangers everywhere. I had it down to a science: Eyeball the food. Estimate its carbohydrate grams. Divide that number by seven. Pull the needle out of my bag. Inject the new number of units into my thigh under the table. Put it away. Look up as if nothing’s happened. Dig in.

Like most diners of its era, the Creamery strives for a Norman Rockwell/Happy Days aesthetic. It runs on nostalgia, not that I minded. I always wanted to feel like I was somewhere, sometime, someone else. It was why I’d moved 3000 miles, by myself, as a barely-adult in the first place.

And it was why I cried when I went back west for college, one week before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf.

 

When I returned to New Orleans at the age of twenty-six (a proper adult), I moved down the street from the Creamery. In addition to ice cream, the block housed a 24-hour drug store/pharmacy, plus more than one therapist’s office. It seemed like a good place for me.

In the days leading up to my twenty-eighth birthday, I practiced and planned. I walked to and from the parlor and ate the rest of the Creole Creamery’s sundaes, all generous in size. I measured how much ice cream I could put away, and what it would do to my sugar levels.

By the time I did the Tchoupitoulas Challenge, I was prepared. I sent three potential friends an evite, with a photo of Sesame Street’s Ernie holding a stacked ice cream cone as tall as the sky. “Will that be okay for you?” Rose asked on our way. “I mean, you know…”

I knew. On our first outing, we had gone for pancakes, and it’s harder to casually give yourself an injection when you’re not alone.

“Yeah, it will. I know what to do. Anyway, ice cream doesn’t have that much sugar,” I assured her. And that’s true. A scoop of cake, of frosting, of fruity candy, or butterscotch topping, will always have more sugar than a scoop of frozen milk fat.

But a scoop of ice cream with all those other things as toppings, or a gallon of ice cream with those toppings, does have that much sugar. Anything does if you multiply it enough times. But she wasn’t a jerk. She didn’t press the issue.

 

Attempting the Tchoupitoulas Challenge was the closest I could get to showing how important this birthday was to me. Two years prior, immediately before my New Orleanian return, I had cut ties with my parents. They could pay my outlandish medical fees, but they also had brutalized me, and after years of compartmentalizing, the latter finally outweighed everything. Before I made my last phone call, I sat for weeks with what it would mean. I could die, I thought. I would be out of an awful paradigm, but I could die.

On the other hand, I preached autonomy and accountability in my writing. I advocated for children’s rights and nonviolent conflict resolution. And I had stayed connected to people who had beaten me, verbally abused me, and then denied any of it had happened. And this, without a doubt, was killing me.

I would rather die.

 

Several times during the next eighteen months, I nearly did. I knew my parents had caused me unforgivable pain, but it turned out I had been protecting myself. At the time of the abuse, I felt only a small fraction of it. In my first months of estrangement, flashbacks and agoraphobia reigned supreme. I spent afternoons crying on the carpet in my new apartment, calling suicide lines, and trying to talk myself out the front door. Even in public, I felt hopelessly isolated and defective at a glance, a broken doll behind glass.

With my bank account collapsing like a balloon, I told myself I could afford one visit to the local psychiatrist, but only one.

She prescribed a new, experimental antidepressant. I began to sleep fourteen hours a day. I realized the two were connected immediately, but I didn’t know how to meet new people and had a string of low-paying and demoralizing jobs. Plus, my naps were so deep I could get off my mattress for the bathroom, lie back down, and fall directly back into the same dream. It was cool when the dreams were innocent. I saw no reason not to give the sleepy life a try.

The novelty wore off. I faded in and out of Technicolor nightmares about being trapped inside cycles of violence. When I woke, I shattered. The characters in my memories lined themselves up into two chains: people who had been terrible and people who had left because I wasn’t good enough. I called suicide hotlines and listened for the moment when the volunteer realized I was out of their depth, had damage nothing could surmount. I hatched plans involving a tall downtown building and an old Halloween wig. Even if someone spotted me from the street, they wouldn’t figure out who I was until I hit the ground.

For my twenty-seventh birthday, I gave myself another trip to the doctor. She suggested I submit to inpatient care over the whole suicidality thing, but I couldn’t afford it. Instead, I switched medication again in a last-ditch attempt at living.

Immediately, I became more lucid. My trauma receded to a background roar, and my bodily needs rose and clamored as my meager savings shrunk. I was more active, so I needed more food, so I needed more insulin. Despite my best efforts, I struggled to make ends meet.

Once, I hit the end of a vial but had too little in my account for another one, even at the charity hospital. I ate as little as I could stand, but by evening I still felt out-of-whack, like my heart was beating with no blood. My nausea rose as the hours passed. I scoured the internet and found an overnight, under-the-table job background acting in a music video for $100 cash.

By 7 A.M., I had money in my hand. It took eight hours of pretending to fistfight other girls in a cold barn while a popular rapper smoked his bong in the corner.

I threw up between the shoot and the pharmacy.

On another occasion, I waited until midnight with dangerously low blood sugar, because there were no carbs in my possession and no dollars in my account. When 12:00 hit, my food stamps went through, so I stumbled to the all-night drugstore for sweets.

There was never enough for food, especially not for someone buying insulin. I adjusted around the cold, growing ache in my gut. My eye sockets widened in my face; my pale skin became translucent; my clothes puddled around me. The only regular job I found involved long hours of bodily labor, stacking and disassembling hundreds of pounds of magazines to display throughout the city. As I worked, my brain felt bright and dizzy and half-asleep, and my future narrowed to a pinprick: Finish unloading these twelve boxes, and you can buy that microwave entree. Wait until the deposit at 3 o’clock, and then you can buy some more test strips.

Then, I found another job: as an outdoor server in the French Quarter, as I had when I was eighteen. It wasn’t a good job; in fact, it was terrible. But I ended each day with cash in my hand, and sometimes even got leftover food from the cafe. My income remained below the poverty line, but once I had that job, I never went without insulin or snacks again.

Before I left for the cafe one July morning, I received an email from a publishing house. For the first time ever, a work of my short fiction had been chosen to appear in an anthology, an actual book rather than a magazine everyone forgot as soon as it left the stands. The story, about a sexual encounter between three strangers at a Pride event, was not my magnum opus, but it was joyful and would make people happy. I was finally on my way.

My new girlfriend broke up with me the following day. Her sister had had a miscarriage, she told me, and she was too sad to continue heading towards love. Even through sadness, it energized me: I had been someone she could love, because I was worthy of love again. I was not too broken. I was alive.

The twenty-third crept closer. My birthday gave me a shrewd, hairy eyeball as it approached. Another year gone? What do you have to show for it? What have you accomplished?

I had come back to life. I needed something to show for it.

Something as big as its name.

 

More than once in times of limited food, I had eaten a half-gallon of ice cream. I knew the way my blood sugar spiked and plateaued, had monitored my levels over hours. I planned my Tchoupitoulas toppings ahead, multiplied their carb numbers, wrote a staggered plan of insulin dosing for the big day. But why did I go to that effort for something so unnecessary?

Rose took me to meet my two other guests at the Creamery. None had met each other before, but they were some of the only maybe-friends I had. When the massive salad bowl of food filled up our table, I plunged in with gusto, let the gourmet flavors fill my head. Nutella, strawberry, peanut, cotton candy, absinthe, basil…

Halfway through the challenge, my stomach began to protest. My maybe-friends chatted about high school reunions, Rocky Horror, how good my enormous scoop of Blueberry Mojito sorbet looked. But it didn’t taste good anymore. Nothing did. Too much food. Too much sweet. I had the insulin for it, but did I have the bodily ability?

I could go the extra mile, I realized, but only if I’m sick afterwards. I hate vomiting. And this was my birthday. And with all that prep insulin to avoid a high blood sugar, throwing up and not digesting the sugars would risk a low…

“Want some Blueberry Mojito sorbet?” I asked Joel. He lifted a spoon, then hesitated, raising an eyebrow as if to ask You sure? I nodded, shrugged, gave my actively competing dish one last glance.

ABSOLUTELY NO HELP!

While they finished my work, I pulled my blood sugar meter back into my lap. My levels were normal. They would remain normal the rest of the evening.

I have Type 1 diabetes, and I took the Tchoupitoulas Challenge. It was complicated and risky and required a lot of extra care. That was why I had to do it—to prove that I could take care of myself through my chosen adventures, no matter what. I don’t recommend what I did, wouldn’t do it again, and do not regret it at all.

I survived every hardship by fighting tooth-and-nail, then I survived something fun, because I was still alive and starting to believe I had a future.

I lost the Challenge, but I won the night.