A Punk Rock Star’s Advice to T1Ds…Go Forth and Slay!

Punk Rock Star and T1D Poli van Dam

We sat down with punk rock star Poli van Dam to talk about how she manages type 1 diabetes while globetrotting around the world with a high-octane music career.

When you were diagnosed with type 1 diabetes? Do you mind sharing your diagnosis story?

I was 16 years old when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The disease was no stranger to our family: my dad was diagnosed when he was 16, and my brother who is 7 years younger than me was diagnosed at the age of 5. As a kid I didn’t even give it any thought, I mean what are the odds? There was no chance of me getting it…right? The summer of 2007 rolled around, and we were on a family RV road trip when all my symptoms fully manifested. I was 16. I wanted to be with my friends, I was stuck in an RV with my family. I was tired, extra moody, and endlessly thirsty. I was sleeping so much, too, but I chalked it all up to just hating life as a 16-year-old trapped in the chaos of a family road trip. When we returned home from that trip, I finally mentioned to my mom how thirsty I had been for the past couple of weeks. I had also lost a lot of weight. My mom suggested we test my blood, and my blood sugar was in the 400s. We knew, right then and there. The next day we went to my little brother’s endocrinologist and just like that, I became a person with diabetes, saddled with a responsibility that no child should ever have to think about.

How did you manage your diabetes back then?

Not very responsibly. I rebelled and spiraled into a deep depression. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t even real. It was such a tough time to be diagnosed. I just got my driver’s license, I was gaining new-found freedom, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was managing this disease. At this point I was finger-sticking maybe a couple of times a day, and keeping it very low profile, I really don’t think anybody knew, even my schoolteachers. My dad and my brother were there and could relate to me, but I still felt alone. It wasn’t their fault; I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the fact that I had diabetes.

Tell us about your foray into the music scene with the added challenge of living with diabetes.

By the time I was diagnosed, I was already very heavily into the local music scene. I was playing in bars from age 13, rocking those X’s on the back of my hands so the bartenders wouldn’t accidentally serve me, with my dad waiting to drag me out of there as soon as I was off stage. Honestly, it was never a thought in my mind that diabetes would stop or hinder me from doing what I wanted to do. Maybe this was the first of many times that music really saved me. My grand rock n’ roll distraction/motivation. I don’t think the complications of dealing with diabetes while touring crossed my mind until that was a reality in my timeline.

Do you have a “typical” management routine when you’re touring and performing?

It depends. Right now, I am in between projects. Last summer I went out on the road playing guitar with a super rad band. That was by far the biggest tour of my life, but I’ve toured the U.S. a bunch and Europe a handful of times. There is no easy way to plan or stay consistently in a routine. The tour last summer was by far the easiest time I’ve had managing my glucose on the road, because we were very spoiled with amazing hospitality and I was able to lock in a routine more easily than on the other tours I’ve done. I’ve learned that all I can do is try my very best, and it’s nearly impossible to be perfect out there.

How have you educated your band members about diabetes?

I’ve always kind of brushed the seriousness of it under the rug, but I really learned the importance of being prepared and educating the crew after I had a seizure while out on tour in 2018. My tour manager saved my life because he chose to bring his own glucagon pen (his wife is type 1 and made him bring it). Without it, I would have been dead. You absolutely must be prepared and educate the people around you, as complicated as it can be to explain. 

Have you ever had a low onstage?  How do you stay on top of your blood sugar numbers during a show?

Thankfully I have never had a bad low on stage. My adrenaline always makes my levels run high before I go on, and unfortunately, I kind of have to deal with that crappy feeling post-show. I’ve had a bad low once like 30 minutes before going on stage and that was not fun, but I pulled through just in time. The best way I am able to manage is by keeping my phone close by me or on my amp, or in a tour manager’s hand so my glucose can be constantly monitored. If I were to ever have a bad low on stage, either myself or the manager can be alerted of where my glucose levels are trending and act quickly.

Do you notice different trends when you’re on the road vs a longer stretch of time at home?

Adrenaline is a major factor in my highs. I used to get so sad that the thing I love to do most makes me physically sick. I never want to lose that pre-show adrenaline feeling. It’s what I live for, so I think I will be constantly trying to figure out how I can course correct.

Aside from touring challenges, what do you find most challenging about living with diabetes?

The mental aspect. It makes me sad sometimes, real sad. Because I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed, I’m not thinking day-by-day but thinking, holy crap, I have to do this forever? I think we are allowed to give ourselves those moments, and they are just moments, I come out of them. Speaking up about the real struggles of this disease has given me a whole new purpose. Life is hard for everyone. In the end we truly are just all in this together, and that’s what gets me through.

Do you have a favorite go-to food when you’re low?

I’m a simple glass of OJ or sugar packet straight into the mouth kind of gal.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

I’m super sappy and sentimental. I pretty much cry at the drop of a hat. I also kind of despise going out and will choose home over everything else any chance I can. I’ve always been that way, which is weird because I obviously travel so much. I soak up all the little things.

What’s something you wish people without diabetes knew about living with diabetes?

Just that it’s so much more than dealing with food. It’s not just injections and food. It’s nonstop management. There are so many factors that go into what affects our glucose. We can eat pretty much what we want, in moderation, like everyone else, as long as we dose correctly. Don’t come at me with the “Can you eat that?” stuff.

Has diabetes had a positive impact on your life in any way?

Absolutely. I am so emotional about this exact topic now. I have turned the most depressing, debilitating thing in my life into something inspiring (at least I’m hoping and working towards that). I want to make my family proud and to help others. I know that is what I’m here to do, through my music and advocating for diabetics everywhere.

Do you have any advice for young people with type 1 who have dreams of a music career?

Don’t let it stop you. It can’t. Keep on track of what you know you need to be doing. We have this amazing technology to help us manage the disease. Use your voice and your art to get those feelings out. We have them—they are valid. Go forth and slay.

How can people connect with you online?

Instagram: @polivandam

Never hesitate to reach out. I’m here and will respond.

Is there anything you haven’t done yet musically that you’d like to?

Just keep making new music, trying all sorts of new styles. I’m always open to opportunities that come my way and can’t freaking wait to see what’s next.

Poli van Dam   

Photo Credit: Through the Eyes of a Queen


Editor’s note: 

This content was made possible with support from Abbott, an active partner of Taking Control of Your Diabetes® at the time of publication.





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    Great read, thanks for interviewing this punk rock Queen!

  2. Avatar

    What an inspiration to so many! She is a star in so many ways!

  3. Avatar

    I’m a bombpops fan I’ve tourd in a punkrock band and if touring alone don’t kill you but manage this disease you truly are an inspiration may your star shine bright forever!

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