Imagine a carpenter suddenly developing a debilitating allergy to wood fiber, or a chef suddenly having a painful olfactory response to the scent of seasonings. Those unlikely scenarios give some sense of what musician Mike Michel has experienced over the past few years.
Michel — a career musician who has lived in Minneapolis for 20 years — is about to release a new album, On The Mend. But the road to the album’s release has been painful, distressing, arduous … and ultimately uplifting.
Nearly four years ago, Michel was feeling distraught following some unpleasant litigation with a former business partner. Then he got kicked while he was down. “About Thanksgiving of 2013, I literally woke up and started hearing these noises emulating from my head,” Michel recalls.
Following a visit to his general practitioner, Michel was told he might have tinnitus. Although he remembered a familial genetic link to tinnitus, “I started freaking out because the noises were pretty intrusive right away,” he recalls.
“Tinnitus is where you hear the electromagnetic highway of your internal body,” Michel explains, citing the circulatory and digestive systems as examples. “Your gating systems in your brain shut those noises off. In tinnitus, those gating systems kind of open, and you start hearing the sounds you’re not supposed to hear in your body.”
At the time, the medical response to Michel’s conditions was there was nothing he could do, and that he should probably look for work in a different field. Exacerbating the situation, Michel began to develop hyperacusis, which is extreme sensitivity to sound. “I started panicking because I’ve been a professional musician since the early ’90s,” Michel says, “so really I had no other option or occupation other than doing music and teaching music for a living.”
In response, Michel began to withdraw from the world he knew. He couldn’t go to the grocery store or to restaurants, much less go see or perform live music. Even strumming an acoustic guitar became painful for him.
Michel began to realize that, at the heart of his struggle, were some mental-health issues that remained unchecked. Primarily, he faces an obsessive-compulsive disorder of intrusive rumination, so once his tinnitus was diagnosed, Michel says his OCD made matters worse by constantly thinking about it. And then another health issue emerged. “I developed severe depression,” Michel recalls. “That’s where I told a lot of my student roster no longer will I be teaching, gave up all my gigs … and that was intense to get out of, because all of a sudden, you’re dealing with finance, and I was looking into disability, I was looking into bankruptcy, I was looking into many things.”
Ironically, it was Michel’s OCD that provided some early help. “Fortunately, miraculously, the good thing about OCD — and there is a good thing — is that you generally are a very thorough personality and you’re very proactive.
“Even through the depression where I wasn’t eating and there wasn’t a sense of purpose at all, I still had this little spark of ‘I see the higher life lessons in this’,” Michel continues. “I knew I was going to somehow find out more about this and change this.”
So Michel set to work researching his condition, and he began to find answers. He found management tools in a combination of Western and Eastern medicine, including counseling therapy, mindfulness, medication, acupuncture, and a regimen of cranio-sacral therapy. “It’s brain massage, where your cerebellum fluid is equally distributed through your brain for healing,” Michel explains. “So I started doing that.”
Michel also found more advanced research on the subject of tinnitus in Germany and in England. Closer to home, he came upon a helpful book by Kevin Hogan of Eden Prairie, Minn., a psychologist who suffered extreme tinnitus in the early 1990s. Critically, Michel learned he wasn’t alone. He discovered that approximately 50 million Americans have some form of tinnitus, and that many returning war veterans struggle with tinnitus and hyperacusis. Michel learned about and draws inspiration from musician Ryan Adams, who manages tinnitus having had Menière’s disease. Michel also learned there were a lot of people he knows who have tinnitus, too.
Through his research and by connecting with the right people and resources, Michel set to work re-hardwiring his brain, noting that sound is processed in the brain — not in the ears, as is commonly thought. “It’s about retraining your brain, period,” Michel says. “It’s not different than stroke victims or people with Parkinson’s retraining new neural networks. It’s very similar stuff.”
As Michel made strides managing his depression and his auditory cortex, something vital happened: he saw the old, Spanish acoustic guitar that had been in his family as long as he could remember. “I just pulled it out because a classical guitar has nylon strings, they’re really soft, and I started strumming my little G chords and my little D chords and I was like, ‘Oh!'”
And he began to write music again.
“It’s really cliché when artists say, ‘I just channeled the music and it just came out of me and I wrote a song in 30 seconds’,” Michel says. “I’ve never done that, but I sure did this time. Those started coming out. And then I think for my personal case of being an artist, is that sense of purpose is number one. The number-one treatment actually counteracted my depression. It sort of reinvigorated my desire to further research the brain and these conditions and not take no for an answer.”
At the time the darkness of his depression began to break and music began to re-enter his life, Michel was contacted by Adam Wahlberg, founder of ThinkPiece Publishing LLC, which promotes mental health advocacy through the arts. Wahlberg originally met Michel during Michel’s days with the band Iffy. “He added this element to Iffy that I always appreciated,” Wahlberg says. “I saw him millions of times back in those days and I just thought Mike was so tasty to listen to.”
Wahlberg got in touch with Michel because ThinkPiece had committed to releasing Adam Levy’s record, Naubinway, which was inspired by the loss of Levy’s son Daniel. Because it was the first music project ThinkPiece had undertaken to that point, Wahlberg sought Michel’s insights as a professional musician. “Then he told me his own story about tinnitus and how he’s using mindfulness to rewire his brain,” Wahlberg recalls. “I reached out to him for music advice about Adam Levy and by the end of it, I was like, ‘Dude, we’ve got to share your story with people.'”
The resulting album, On The Mend, releases Saturday, May 20, with an all-ages show at 3 p.m. at Icehouse in Minneapolis. “In Mike’s case and with so many people, when you get to do something you thought was taken away from you because of a condition, it’s a rebirth,” Wahlberg says. “So On The Mend is about Mike returning to Mike.”
Michel says the creation of On The Mend saw him hone his craft as a songwriter, part of which was allowing himself to be autobiographical and therefore a bit more vulnerable. He also worked out the arrangements for acoustic guitar performance, whereas he’d always performed on electric guitar throughout his career. During the recording process at The Terrarium in Minneapolis, Michel was grateful to work with Jason Orris because Orris, who had dealt with tinnitus himself, provided valuable coaching. And although Michel hadn’t originally planned to sing on the album, he worked with vocal coach Libby Turner to develop a more soulful vocal style.
Each song on the album has a theme, and each has a specific story about going through chronic illness. But Michel wants the music to come first. “Whether people even groove on the lyrics, I don’t know,” he says. “A lot of people don’t listen to lyrics, so I wanted a groove so people feel, I wanted a bassline so people feel, and I wanted a vocal melody that is hooky, inviting, memorable.”
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.
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.