Country music star Eric Paslay long ago lost track of the number of times he’s interrupted a concert to take a few swigs from the red Solo cup he keeps perched on a nearby stool, up on stage with him.
“The crowd will be cheering, ‘Chug! Chug! Chug!’” Paslay says with a laugh. “I don’t always tell them it’s not beer— and that it’s actually a big batch of orange juice, which is my go-to when my blood sugar level is really crashing.”
Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when he was 10, the laidback, bushy-bearded singer-songwriter has long been focused on changing the way people — and especially other diabetics — think about this autoimmune disorder that affects 1.25 million. (Another 28 million in the U.S. have type 2 diabetes.)
“I’ve always wanted to make sure that type 1 diabetics know that there are others out there just like them who are rocking at life and that they’re not alone,” says the 36-year-old “Friday Night” singer.
Earlier this year, Paslay spent several weeks interviewing other type 1 diabetics for his podcast Level With Me about how they manage this chronic illness that impairs the body’s ability to process blood sugar.
“Sharing stories and promoting camaraderie with other diabetics,” he says, “is a great way to make everyone feel like they’re part of a community and not alone.”
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It was Paslay’s grandmother, a nurse’s aid in Temple, Texas, who first noticed that something was wrong with her grandson.
“I’d always go over to her house and play,” recalls Paslay, whose great uncle had been diagnosed with the disorder years earlier. “I’d run inside, chug a glass of water, go pee, head back outside, then 10 minutes later do it all over again.”
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Paslay admits that the health condition at times left him feeling like he was “broken,” but he also credits it with forcing him “to grow up a little faster” than his classmates.
“In a way I’m very much grateful to have been given something that got me out of my comfort zone as a kid,” says Paslay, who welcomed a baby girl, Piper, with his wife Natalie in December 2018. “It’s definitely helped me step out on stage every night to sing and be completely vulnerable.”
For more on Eric Paslay, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
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