Please welcome Twin Cities musician Mike Michel! Mike has had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since childhood, but another chronic condition, tinnitus, reared its ugly head a few years ago and turned his life upside down. Suddenly everything he loved—not to mention his livelihood—brought him pain and frustration. He didn’t give up, though, and he’ll tell you all about the journey himself. (The twist is that obsessive Googling eventually led Mike to the right help, but I know you won’t take that as justification, right?) Thanks for sharing your story, Mike!
When you were diagnosed with tinnitus in 2013 you took a hiatus from your career in music. After years of seeking treatment and finally getting some relief, you recently released your latest album, On The Mend. Can you tell us more about the album and how you were able to complete it?
On The Mend is a new recording and music campaign dedicated to raising awareness for invisible brain conditions. On The Mend is my first acoustic recording and draws upon afro-cuban grooves, positive messages of resiliency, and creating memorable melody. It was written during the midst of me being diagnosed with severe tinnitus (auditory cortex malfunction) and hyperacusis (extreme sound sensitivity). Both conditions were exacerbated by intense rumination from chronic OCD issues. Despite living with conditions where there are officially “no cures” I wanted the record to be upbeat and hopefully a healing tool for others.
After 20-plus years of being a professional musician, I made the decision to stop recording, writing, and performing music when these conditions were at their worst. I’m a music educator as well and I also cut my teaching duties by 70 percent. Since music and the arts is all I know, all I’ve ever trained for, and my highest life-skill set, I was traumatized and fell into a deep depression. My situation was unique as I was dealing with some genetic pre-disposition to these conditions (brain gating), a sphenoid compression (old head injury), and other variables. Musicians focus on developing their auditory cortex over many years, so it makes sense we’re more sensitive to sound over time as we are “always listening” for a pin to drop.
I reflected daily if this was a sign that I was supposed to move on from the arts. I looked into going back to school, volunteered at a mental health treatment center for seniors at a local hospital, and sought counseling and spiritual advice. Needless to say, nothing gave me more of a sense of purpose than my music, so I made the challenging decision to somehow get back into my craft in any way, shape, or form.
My OCD did come in handy, as I was a vigilant researcher of my conditions (insert smiley face). After a year of Googling, I came upon two people who had severe tinnitus and hyperacusis and they wrote books on how to heal yourself. That gave me hope and energized my will to carry on, so I pulled out an old classical guitar that belonged to my sister. Classical guitars have soft strings. Miraculously, strumming that instrument without ear plugs didn’t spike my tinnitus. At this point I sold a lot of my electric music gear, and the sight of an amplifier made me sick to my stomach. It pained me that I couldn’t plug in. After a few minutes strumming the old classical guitar, I realized my depression was due to the fact that I had no sense of purpose. I started to write some killer melodies on the guitar and lyrics, messages, and good stuff flowed pretty effortlessly. I started to get the higher life lessons involved with illness, why I received my conditions, and what I had to do to overcome this. I was lucky, as I wanted to live. Some people with severe cases of tinnitus and hyperacusis literally check out or go insane. Invisible conditions based in the brain are tough, right? We just don’t know a ton about the brain yet, so that adds another layer of stress on really not knowing the complete picture of what you have.
God bless LinkedIn. Really! My old friend Adam Wahlberg owns a Minnesota-based publishing company called Think Piece. Think Piece puts out books and music that deal with mental health, wellness, and resiliency. I saw one of his posts about his collaboration with Adam Levy and together they were releasing a record called Naubinway. I reconnected online with Adam to say hello and we decided to have lunch and talk about old times and mental health. I told him my story about leaving music due to my conditions but that I was finding a new sense of purpose writing these little tunes on this old guitar. After that lunch we decided that in due time it would be cool to collaborate on a music project together and release these tunes. I called the collection of songs “On The Mend.” I was broke, very vulnerable, and isolating myself since I couldn’t go see live music anymore but really wanted to somehow mold this music into a record. I didn’t know how I would physically record On The Mend as my fear of sound was increasing, but I knew intuitively I was supposed to.
I decided to start a GoFundMe, and it was really scary asking for money. Not a habit of mine. I reached to students, friends, and family and raised enough money to pay for a recording and hire great musicians and engineers to help me complete the process. I was completely overwhelmed by people’s generosity. I truly did not expect to raise much. With the help of this miraculous event and wonderful people I wanted to fulfill one of my objectives and work with producer/engineer Jason Orris at The Terrarium. Outside of being a great friend and talented musician, Jason has also dealt with tinnitus and won. He’s really got a grip on it and has gone on to make lots of music in the last two decades. His energy and compassion are what I needed to see this record through. I had good days and bad and I limited my time in the studio. Recording with ear plugs was maddening and challenging. I could barely hear a thing during the recording process. Sound travels through bone (skull) and some days I would drive home with immense facial pain. I needed to go through that process and build my confidence back up. I had to teach myself how to sing again as it had been seven years since I’d sung a tune in a recording studio. That was a trip, but I was a disciplined artist for the first time in my life and I truly thank these conditions for rerouting me and getting me back on my new path as a songwriter and an activist.
Having OCD myself, many lyrics in On The Mend spoke to me. Some snippets: Rumination leads to destruction. You look for reasons, you look for safety. Liberation comes with patience. Your pain is invisible…real as an open wound. Are any of the songs specifically about OCD, or was the whole album a reflection on chronic invisible illness in general?
Both. I was trying to make the connection on songs like “Full Of Positives” that mind and body are connected. This is not a new revelation to most, but for me I realized that 20–30 years of being nervous person, having intermittent sleep, and always thinking the worst can lead to illness. I was a workaholic and not hardwired to deal with it. I always thought I was type A, but I was wrong. I’m in the process of learning how to live life in a new way. My therapist calls it my lower gear. I’m prone with OCD and, with that, I always get things finished in a complete manner in a short amount of time. I’m always against the clock and having one task unattended to used to keep me up at night. I’m still working on this concept of “letting go.” I’m learning new mindfulness skills with my therapist and it’s becoming a part of my life, which makes me feel so relieved! On paper mindfulness looks easy, but for my personality type it’s like climbing Mount Everest.
How long have you had OCD, and when did you realize that what you’d been going through was OCD? Can you share some of your symptoms and the techniques you’ve employed to combat them?
My first signs of OCD were around the age of 11. I keep getting vertigo in my big old Catholic church in Cincinnati where I grew up. I went to my pediatrician and he diagnosed me with vertigo, but we never got to the source or triggers. It was in the early ’80s and the awareness levels for mental health just weren’t that deep. Vertigo led to heart palpitations, panic attacks, and two seizures that I never told anyone about till this article. My intense rumination was wreaking havoc on my body. I thought about death and dying almost every day for 20 years. An 11-year-old kid shouldn’t be thinking of dying every day. I have my traditional moments of checking the stove burner three times, scratching my head all night, grinding my teeth all day, and being manic about to-do lists. To date, I’m happy to report that I’ve cut the severity of most of my symptoms by 50 percent. Since I haven’t been working as much in the last three years I applied for MinnesotaCare (a blessing beyond measure). My main priority in the last three years has been working on my physical, emotional, and spiritual self. To me there is no separation between them. Our brains are made of neurons, chemicals, and electromagnetic energy. Mindfulness, soothing supplements, non-ototoxic anti-anxiety medication, and amygdala training have been key to my current recovery. I look at this as a lifelong journey, and de-stressing my life is my top priority each day. It’s very challenging in a modern world to do this, but I do try each day to live moment by moment and not five years ahead anymore.
Neither OCD nor tinnitus is an illness others can see, but tinnitus is perhaps more socially acceptable. How did you tell family, friends, and coworkers about each diagnosis? Did you notice a difference in how people seemed to receive the news?
Here’s the miracle here. I was highly concerned that people in my life would be uncomfortable around me if I told them about my struggles. My GoFundMe was my coming-out party. I just laid it on the line, the darkness, the history, the tinnitus, hyperacusis, depression, and OCD. I realized it wasn’t about me; it was about making a record to help others. So I took my ego out of it finally and said fuck it, I might lose a lot of friends. The opposite happened and I can’t even explain how incredible that felt. I was totally supported in ways that I have never experienced. It was overwhelming to receive that amount of love. Another lesson for me was about the art of receiving, but with humility, grace, and acceptance. I grew immensely from the GoFundMe experience.
Say a fan approaches you and says, “My chronic illness has a profound effect on my life, but people tend to downplay it because they can’t see it. How can I help them understand what I’m going through?”
This is tough again as someone with illness has the right to vent. Any illness is confusing, stressful, and exhausting. But if you become your illness it will stay on board. I found myself wanting to educate everyone about tinnitus and hyperacusis for a while but I realized it has to be in small doses. First, out of respect to myself and not becoming my illness, and second, not cramming information down people’s throats. I believe in a healthy balance of education and empowerment. The reality is that until someone has gone through a major illness they really are not going to get where you are and may not care that much. We hear this quote a lot from people going through a health crisis: “I want my life back.” That sits so deep with me. To me that means I want to do normal stuff like work in the yard, go to a movie, get groceries, go see a friend, or have coffee with someone. When you have chronic illness all of the daily things you take for granted are gone and the smallest things are struggles. Hopefully not forever. So, I’ve discovered having a lighter delivery describing my conditions along with a calm demeanor works best. Touches of humor help, too. The preachy thing doesn’t work.
Finding people who are going through similar situations was a priority for me. Every illness has different levels. I have at least 100 people in my life that I’ve met with tinnitus. Since the launching of On The Mend, I have received dozens of emails from people all around the world asking about tinnitus management tools. That’s a tricky one, as thinking about tinnitus all the time is a not a healthy move, as it brings your awareness back to your internal sounds and intensifies them. To deal with this predicament, my OCD came in handy and I wrote an eight-page tinnitus/hyperacusis management manual for musicians. Now I can simply send a compassionate PDF via email and get back to my day. I would like to restate that I’m a work in progress and my tinnitus manual is simply a collection of positive data and resources that can point you to the fabulous practitioners who understand these conditions best. Most tinnitus cases are mild. Statistics show that 50 million Americans have some form of mild tinnitus. Three to five million have severe cases like mine. The difference between mild and severe tinnitus/hyperacusis is immense. The latter is debilitating.
So heading back to your original question, there have been many moments during my wellness journey where I’ve been approached by people with mild tinnitus and they say “I just tune out my tinnitus and forget about it, why can’t you?” Judgmental tones like this are the truest test of one’s ego and are a fabulous moment to educate people about compassion, awareness, and empathy. The “you’re weak” look gets old, too. My biggest recommendation is learning to let go of these judgments and formulate a standardized rebuttal that leads to a respectful educational moment for your agitator.
You noted in an interview with The Current that while having OCD meant you ruminated on the tinnitus, making it even more unbearable, it also pushed you to seek help. You said, “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.” What steps did you take to balance tinnitus, OCD, and depression?
I’m still working on all the above. I’m a work in progress for sure, but from day one I knew I was not going to accept the general medical community’s belief that there was nothing I could do and just live with it. I spent hundreds of hours researching. Google forums can be destructive, and I had many dark setbacks researching. Tinnitus and hyperacusis generally have dismal articles written about them because they are brain conditions that are completely unknown to most neurologists. It’s a doom and gloom subject for sure. Nobody wants to talk about hearing intrusive noises in your head. OCD did assist my attitude of never giving up. I was lucky in the fact that even through these most challenging times, including severe depression, I had a small spark to carry on and make this a mystical health journey to fulfill higher life lessons and to evolve as a person. OCD helped me be a bad-ass researcher. I finally found the needle in the haystack and found a dozen practitioners who have helped me over the course of three and a half years.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others with OCD, what would it be?
You can talk to yourself all day, go to a million therapy appointments to vent and process, but action is needed to manage these conditions. Rewiring the brain is what is really going on. I’m hardly a brain expert, but seeing a therapist and hypnotist taught me about the power of the subconscious mind. Taking physical action, rerouting the energy, and raising your awareness levels take work. Finding your triggers takes time. It’s deep, the deepest part of your being. Rewiring a brain that’s been acting the same way, say like mine for 30 years, can’t be done in six months. My OCD would like to think so, but doing little exercises each day in a healthy way adds up. Thanks for letting me tell my story! Here’s to a healthy mind!
Thanks for this Q&A, I really appreciated it! I have both OCD and tinnitus, too. I agree, its much easier to tell someone I have tinnitus than OCD. I appreciate this blog, and your willingness to help share truth and understanding about this illness.