Music has always been at the center of Mike Michel’s life. So, a little over three years ago, when he was hit with a severe case of tinnitus that forced him to put down his guitar, he felt like his life was over.
An award-winning songwriter and guitarist who has been a major presence in Minnesota’s music scene for the last two decades, Michel was driven to distraction by the noises ricocheting in his head. He consulted mainstream doctors who told him there was nothing they could do to help him, so he decided to take his health into his own hands.
After months of dedicated research, Michel eventually landed on an approach that appears to be helping him live with his tinnitus and reduce its impact on his musical career. In May, after a seven-year recording hiatus, he partnered with Adam Wahlberg of Minneapolis-based Think Piece Publishing to release and promote “On the Mend,” an album that chronicles a journey with chronic illness — and celebrates Michel’s progress.
“The songs that I wrote helped me regain mental focus and get though the depression that I fell into from having this experience,” Michel told me. “There is something cool and mystical about these songs. They are accessible, but they also have an important message about resiliency and tinnitus.”
Recently, I met Michel for coffee. We talked about his mental and physical health, his new recording, and his hopes for the future.
MinnPost: What is tinnitus?
Mike Michel: There have been many definitions of tinnitus, but the best way to describe it is your auditory cortex focusing inward on body sounds that are always happening but most people usually don’t hear. We don’t usually hear our heartbeat or all of our digestion. We don’t usually hear our electromagnetic highway, but with tinnitus you start hearing everything. That’s kind of mind blowing.
MP: If these noises are going on inside our bodies all the time, why don’t we usually hear them?
MM: If you are healthy, there are gating systems in your brain that work to focus out those sounds. With tinnitus, it doesn’t work that way. The gating systems malfunction.
MP: So all this noise is going on in my body, and I’m basically ignoring it?
MM: Yep. You just don’t think about it. Here’s an example: Do you feel your left foot?
MM: But you were thinking about your left foot when you said that, right? If you aren’t thinking about your foot, you don’t usually feel it. That’s your gating system.
MP: What does your tinnitus sound like?
MM: In my left auditory cortex I hear a 70-decibel beat. That is pretty intense. I can hear it over traffic. And then I have this snake hiss that travels my brain, depending on my stress levels or what I eat or if I have caffeine or alcohol. It circles or stays stationary. And I have two little whooshing noises over in my right cortex.
MP: Can tinnitus be painful or debilitating?
MM: I developed another condition related to my tinnitus. It’s called hyperacusis, or extreme sound sensitivity. With hyperacusis, your tolerance for sound decreases. Eventually I developed physical pain in my jaw and head. For me that was scarier for me than tinnitus. Severe tinnitus patients like me usually get hyperacusis. That’s a real double whammy.
MP: That sounds awful.
MM: It was. Fortunately, the hyperacusis has been decreasing in the last month. I’ve done a lot of research and I’m on to some new information about ways to retrain the neural pathways in my brain so I can deal with the hyperacusis, and that’s really helped. The retraining is helping to calm my central nervous system. This also helps calm the tinnitus.
MP: Before you figured out this approach, it got to the point where you had to step away from music, right?
MM: I was in physical brain pain. I couldn’t even handle strumming an acoustic guitar. It was physical pain like a migraine. I started going the traditional medicine route, and my experience was doctors and ENTs pretty much telling me, “There is nothing we can do. Good luck.”
Eventually I developed a real fear of sound. So I became a recluse. I wore earplugs inside and all this Howard Hughes kind of stuff. At that time I was teaching guitar, and I gave up half of my teaching roster. I could only teach people who were into quiet stuff like James Taylor.
Eventually it got so bad that looked into disability. I lived on credit cards.
MP: Tinnitus is a physical ailment, but you’ve said that in your case, you believe there is a clear psychological connection. Can you tell me more about this?
MM: I have OCD. I’ve had it for most of my life, since about age 11 or 12. The major symptom of my OCD has been unchecked rumination. Here’s my example: If an elderly woman is walking a dog down the street, a normal person might say, “I’m so happy they have each other. Isn’t that great?” But because of my OCD, I say, “I hope they don’t get hit by a car. What if the woman dies in the apartment and that dog is left alone? What if the dog dies?” I don’t see the charm in the story. That’s always been my problem.
I realize now that the unique way my brain is wired only exacerbates my tinnitus and hyperacusis. The brain retraining appears to be helping with that, and I’ve discovered that it also is the way to go with my OCD. Living through the challenge of tinnitus helped me realize that I’ve been covering up my real problem for most of my life: Every five or six years, I freak out and I go see a therapist and take some medication. I get better for a time, but it doesn’t stick.
This time around, when I got hit by tinnitus and hyperacusis, I realized I have to revolutionize my approach. I decided that I needed to acknowledge my sounds and just be with them and figure them out instead of running away or freezing. I need to take action to heal myself.
MP: How do you take action?
MM: Tinnitus made me a shut-in. The action I’m taking now has to do with focusing on my brain, talking to my amygdala, basically saying, “Hey, man: It’s OK. We are working together and we are going to figure this out.” Somehow it’s working. One year ago I would’ve had to wear earplugs just to talk to you. I definitely could not have been in this coffee shop.
I’m forcing myself back into situations that I feared.
MP: Can you give me an example?
MM: Lately I’ve been putting my head between my speakers at home and listening to Iron Maiden at a very low volume. I tell my amygdala, “This is not 85 decibels. You are not going to die from this sound. You actually liked to do this when you were a kid.”
MP: And that’s helping?
MP: Are there other things you are doing to treat your tinnitus?
MM: I’m doing a lot of Eastern stuff. I went to a psychotherapist. I saw an osteopath. I went to a hypnotist. I’ve got a mindfulness counselor. I’ve revitalized how I live: I don’t have caffeine anymore. I don’t drink that much. I don’t eat a lot of salty things. I try to go to bed before 12:30. I’ve discovered that sleep is No. 1 for the restoration of the brain.
MP: Isn’t tinnitus common among musicians? I thought it had something to do with all the noise that they are exposed to.
MM: Many musicians have tinnitus, but tinnitus isn’t just an audio-based condition. Because musicians spend their lifetime developing that part of the brain, we’re more affected by tinnitus because our auditory cortex is more sensitive to stimuli.
There are so many triggers that have been shown to cause tinnitus: Chemo can do it. Some antibiotics can trigger it. There are literally two-dozen triggers. Part of my campaign with this album is destroying the myth that tinnitus is just an audio-based condition. That’s the easy explanation, because it does happen to a lot of musicians. But it affects so many more people, as many as 50 million people.
MP: How does your new album address your health journey?
MM: These songs celebrate rebirth. I think art can be a tool of empowerment. When I was at my worst, I didn’t like to listen to music, which for me is hard to imagine. But part of my therapy is to listen to music. In the early days of my recovery, I had three artists I listened to repetitively: A guy named Josh Brill, some old U2 and old Peter Gabriel. I put that on repeat. I think my record can be one of those tools, too.
MP: Do you think you’ve discovered a successful approach for treating tinnitus?
MM: I don’t want to be known as Mr. Tinnitus yet, because I’m still going through this. I’m not completely in the clear. But I do feel like I have some hope and confidence. I’ve seen some progress. It’s a good sign. But I still have a way to go.