How Mike Michel's struggle with tinnitus brought new meaning to his music

Mike Michel.

Mike Michel. Photo by Mike Madison.

Mike Michel used to live the way a lot of musicians do: He’d play a gig, finish up around 2 a.m., eat a big meal, drink a couple beers, and crash into bed.

Then, on Thanksgiving of 2013, tinnitus hit. The condition turns off the “gating systems” in the brain so sounds people weren’t meant to hear -- heartbeats, digestion, one’s electromagnetic highway -- become disturbingly audible. For a professional musician like Michel, tinnitus was downright debilitating.

When Western medicine failed to ease his suffering, Michel turned to holistic treatments. After three years of an East-meets-West combination of strategies, he began to heal and returned to music making. By sharing his story, he raised $13,500 on GoFundMe for his new album On The Mend. The celebratory collection of all-acoustic pop grooves was recorded at the Terrarium and released in collaboration with Think Piece Publishing.

We asked the 48-year-old about this arduous journey before his album release show.

City Pages: On The Mend is so much more than an album.

Mike Michel: I call it a “campaign.” Hopefully a non-intrusive one. We’re raising awareness for what we call “invisible conditions.” What I have is invisible but we also think of mental heath as invisible. A lot of people are suffering and you just don’t know. I want to share this information because I think it could really work for people. We all need these different tools in our lives to maintain sanity and wellness.

CP: When the tinnitus started, did it immediately interfere with your ability to make music?

MM: I felt violated, like, “Oh my God. How am I going to survive?” I took it really hard. I know a lot of people that have mild doses: “Yeah, I hear a bunch of noises, but I gotta go to work.” But as musicians, my theory is, our auditory cortexes are so developed, we hear things other people don’t. We have more sensitive auditory regions in our brain. It kind of affects us worse because we’re in tune with it.

CP: What treatments did you try? I understand Western medicine wasn’t necessarily helpful.

MM: Part of this has been dismal and overwhelming but part of it’s been fascinating. What I learned from a bunch of neurologists is that we’re really at the beginning of brain research. My general practitioner and audiologists and ENTs were really good people, but it’s brain related, so they didn’t have a clue. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s probably this, but there’s nothing you can do.” A lot of people painted a really grim picture, like, “Maybe look into another career.” My personal experience was, out of the gate, a negative one.

CP: What are some of the tools that worked for you?

MM: I had to really restructure my life and eliminate the unnecessary stressful things. I went to a therapist and learned about mindfulness and got more involved in physical activity. You change your diet because you want to de-adrenalize your body and lower your cortisol levels. I cut out caffeine. I don’t really drink that much alcohol anymore. I really focus on sleep. You learn about ototoxicity, medications that can exacerbate these conditions.

And then re-hardwiring the brain to neuroplasticity. That involves what’s called audio habituation or tinnitus retraining therapy where you, on a subconscious level, try to diffuse your brain which is emitting these sounds. I wear headphones two to four hours a day with different sounds so my own conscious mind doesn’t focus on the sounds. That really calms the central nervous system so over time, you literally rewire your brain. Like a stroke victim, you try to rewire the way you think and the way you hear.

CP: That’s really complicated.

MM: Part of the mission, too, is not to bum everybody out. And not to scare people. These conditions come from 20 different things. We want to say, “Hey, there’s all these different ways that can trigger this, but there’s also all these managerial tools at your disposable that you really got to dig deep and find.”

Finding a sense of purpose was the biggest one for me. I realized that I was off-track, on a musical gerbil wheel, and would rather focus on what is my most meaningful thing as musician: writing inspirational message-theme songs.

CP: Is a full recovery possible?

MM: I believe so. I have a lot of examples of people in my life who have been able to rewire themselves. I’m about halfway there. I’m feeling more confident. My mental health is better and that really has helped because your central nervous system is a part of your auditory tract. It’s all connected.

CP: Forgive me for how this is going to sound, but, in some ways, do you feel that this has been a blessing in disguise?

MM: Yes. I would never want anybody to go through this, not even my worst enemy. I don’t want people to experience mental anguish. But I looked at my life and I didn’t feel like I was a resilient being. Through this experience, I’ve learned high levels of resiliency. I was afforded to revitalize my career. I’m writing the songs I’ve always wanted to write. It’s more of an acoustic fashion right now, but my goal is to get back to the electric playing at some point. Just to be out performing and writing music is a miracle, man. I’m super grateful for that.

Mike Michel
With: Troubadour James Rone
Where: Icehouse
When: 3 p.m. Saturday, May 20
Tickets: All ages; $8/$10; more info here