Bret Michaels, Diabetic Lead Singer of Poison
This article was originally published in Diabetes Health in August, 2007.
Bret Michaels was only six years old when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Now 44 years old, he's a twenty-year veteran of the rock and roll scene as the lead singer of the eighties band "Poison."
Not one to slow down, he's soon going on tour with the band again. And he's about to appear in his own Vh-1 reality show, in which several uninhibited women vie for his attention and spar with each other in an attempt to win his heart. But in spite of his raunchy public style and rocker persona, there's a deep undercurrent of mature common sense when it comes to his life with diabetes.
Living by the mantra "you can't bury your head in the sand," and the motto "mind, muscle, and motorcycles over matter," he works just as hard as he plays, which is pretty hard indeed.
An Early Diagnosis
Bret describes his diagnosis with type 1 diabetes at such a young age as a blessing in disguise because it has always been with him, accepted as part of life from the beginning. A very active child, he remembers feeling "really, really worn out," before his diagnosis, having a funny taste in his mouth and itchy skin, and being, of course, thirsty beyond belief.
His family attributed his symptoms to various temporary illnesses, so by the time he got to the hospital his sugar level was sky high and he was going into severe ketoacidosis. He remained in the hospital for three weeks, during which his parents helped him realize that "it's not going to be fun, but it's part of life now."
For the first few years of his life, Bret's parents gave him his single daily injection of slow-acting insulin in the morning. He was really thin and active, and he had more lows than highs. He went into insulin shock about four times when he was younger, once at the school cafeteria and once at home. That time, he almost bit his father's finger off while his dad, afraid that he was seizing, was trying to open his mouth.
At about age ten, Bret went to a diabetes camp, the optimistically named Camp Kno-Koma, where he met other diabetic children for the first time while learning to give himself shots and eat properly. He still feels strongly about the value of camp, and many of his fundraisers underwrite camp scholarships.
Bret's Current Regimen
Now Bret takes three injections a day, at breakfast, again at dinner, and then a little bit at night. In the morning he usually takes about six units of NPH; his dose of fast-acting Humalog depends on his blood sugar.
If he's at 78 mg/dl, he'll take about four units; if it's 220, he'll take eight or ten. His last A1c was around seven percent. "I know injections are a little old school," Bret comments, "but it's worked for me." He is moving toward getting a pump in the next year or two, but he isn't "cosmetically ready for the pump just yet."
Bret has two meters: he usually uses a FreeStyle Flash, but he also has an old LifeScan meter "the size of a brick" that he keeps with him all the time as a good luck talisman. He usually checks his blood glucose four to six times a day, but when he's on tour, he ups it to at least eight times a day. He doesn't want to dump sugar into his body thinking he needs it and then have a 350 blood sugar, but he also doesn't want to be on stage with a blood sugar of 42.
First thing in the morning, Bret eats a light breakfast of egg whites, wheat toast, and a little bit of peanut butter. Peanut butter is his " favorite food of all time. Man, I could eat a jar of it, and that's why I have to just keep it away from me."
He has a really light lunch, maybe a turkey sandwich without one of the bread slices. Sometime he just drinks a Boost or Glucerna for a pick-me-up at mid-day because "it gives a perfect balance of protein, carbs and fat, and it just gets me through without loading down on a whole lot of carbohydrates."
Bret takes a specially formulated packet of diabetes supplements every day, but he doesn't follow any particular formal diet. His main strategy is portion control: "Cut 'em back." He says, "The more carbs you pound in, the more your blood sugar's just going to rise. Your blood sugar goes high, you start to gain a lot of weight, and next thing you know, it's a lose, lose, lose situation that just spirals down."
Bret runs around a lot on stage, so he doesn't eat like to eat much before a concert and takes very little insulin before performing. The band has deliberately built two breaks into the show, a guitar solo and a drum solo, just so that Bret can go to the dressing room under the stage and check his blood sugar.
The stage is also stocked with water, orange juice, and Gatorade for Bret's use. "If I'm feeling good, I drink water; if I'm feeling a little low-Gatorade; and if I'm starting to feel real low, I go right for the orange juice, which bumps it up pretty quick."
Just after his career took off, before he'd gotten his stage routine down, Bret had a severe low in, of all places, Madison Square Garden. It had always been his big dream to play there, and he was so nervous that he couldn't eat anything beforehand, though he'd already given himself his insulin. He walked out, made it through about six songs, and then collapsed onstage - that was the last thing he remembers until he woke up in the hospital.
Bret notes that one thing he's learned from having diabetes so long is how to control his emotions. He deliberately refuses to become scared and paranoid when he's having a low "because the more scared you get and the more your adrenaline pumps, the quicker your blood sugar's going low."
He does not have hypoglycemic unawareness - a low blood sugar will wake him up even when he is sleeping. He keeps glucose tablets by the bed because he knows that if he is at a certain level, four of them do the trick; if he's really in trouble, he takes eight. He finds tablets preferable to drinking orange juice or eating jelly because he can control how high up he's going; he doesn't want to overshoot the mark.
The Hazards of Touring
When Bret is touring, alcohol is pretty much a fixture of backstage life. He emphasizes, however, that he drinks moderately and accommodates his drinking to his diabetes. "If I start to feel like I'm getting a little bit drunk," he says, "I immediately let someone know around me, and I'm going to check my blood sugar right now. I want to know that my blood sugar's 160, not 25. If you're going to drink, you can't kid yourself and drink an entire bottle of Jack Daniels and pass out, because you can go into insulin shock and never know it."
"It's all about maintaining a balance," says Bret. "That's the weirdest thing for a rock star to say: 'balance.' But as a diabetic rock star, it's been about balance in my life. For every rose, there's a thorn: that's a song we have, and that's what it is. It's finding a sense of balance."
Exercise is Paramount
Bret works out every morning, even when touring. When everyone else in the band has been up until 4:00 in the morning and is sleeping in until twelve or one the next day, Bret's still up at nine or ten a.m. to carry out his usual regime of eating breakfast and working out. He might take a nap later in the afternoon, but "you have to find a way to make it work, and that's what it's all about."
The band carries around the components of a full gym in one of their tour trucks, and the equipment is set up in a room at every venue. Bret also takes his mountain bike with him on tour so he can bike around the ampitheaters: "There are tons of places to go ride; you just have to get the bike out and do it." He hauls his Harley along to tour around the various cities, and he has a dirt bike that he takes to the track when it's close enough to the concert site.
Bret confesses that he still goes out and plays basketball by himself, pretending to shoot balls to himself and acting like a kid. His philosophy about working out is "Don't over-think exercise. Just find something you like and do it. Jump on your mountain bike and go out for eight minutes. Because you know what happens - eight minutes into it, your endorphins kick in, and that's the best high you can get - you're ready to ride another hour."
Bret's New Reality Show
Bret's reality show on Vh1 starts on July 15, 2007, and runs for two-and-a-half months. Called "Rock of Love with Bret Michaels," it pits 25 beautiful women against each other in a contest to win Bret's affections. He describes the series as a genuine reality show, "as real as it gets," and an honest attempt to find a girlfriend.
He adds, "I've done a lot of crazy things in my life, a lot of crazy things, but this would be the most bizarre thing I've ever done. I've never dated in this fashion before, and the show is entertaining to say the least." He reports that prior to the show, he'd always been either in a long-term relationship or on the road. Consequently, the standard rituals of courtship were unfamiliar to him, and much of the show's humor is associated with watching him "stumble and bumble" through dates.
Bret's contract mandates that the reality show clearly acknowledge his diabetes. It was very important to him to convey the fact that he has survived well with it for a long time. Obviously, how much of his daily life with diabetes is portrayed will depend upon how the show is edited. During the filming, however, he explained diabetes to all the women, and he tested his blood sugar and injected his insulin in front of them. All of them were interested and genuinely concerned, Bret says.
"It was actually really nice, and it all played into the show." Some of the women even took it upon themselves to read up on diabetes. Those women, Bret notes, lasted longer on the show than some who were not very proactive. He even asked the women to give injections into an orange, and the one who did the best job was asked to give him an injection. Says Bret, "I found the smallest needle I could find. It was the top of the butt cheek, the safest area I could think of with the most fat in it, and I said fire away. She did a pretty good job."
A couple episodes into the show, Bret did have a really low blood sugar while filming. He'd been at the beach all day and taken his insulin, but hadn't eaten before they started shooting again. Thinking that he was just tired and sunburnt, he didn't heed the usual low sugar warning signs. "Right in the middle of it I was having a low blood sugar," he says, "and they just kept the cameras rolling, apparently." The woman whom he was dating that evening rushed around trying to get orange juice, and "it was pretty intense for a few minutes." His blood sugar was probably down around the thirties at the time.
Bret's Advice for Kids
Bret acknowledges that diabetes can become mentally depressing if you think too much about the potential complications or a lifetime of injections, especially for a youngster looking down the long road ahead. To them he says, "I use diabetes just as one more challenge in my life. You have to accept it because there is no other choice. You either do well with it or it will take over your life, and then it's not going to be so great."
Bret emphasizes that it isn't easy to keep everything under control all the time. He really wants to convey the understanding that the control comes with a lot of work. It's no easier for him than for anyone. In fact, what with all the travel, plane food, and general mayhem of his touring life, it could be even more difficult. He tells youngsters who come to his concerts, "Listen, I live a really tough lifestyle on the road, and I've managed to control it, so you can manage to control it."
He says, "I kind of do the tough love thing, and I tell them, you've just got to make it happen. When you're younger and you have diabetes, you might be able to get away with self-pity for a little while, but when you get into the adult world and everyone has their own set of problems to deal with, they're not as concerned about your problem anymore. And that's why I try to tell the kids to be self-reliant. You'd better start to prepare for this life."
To kids who reach the rebellious teenage years, Bret repeats the same admonition: "You've got to take care of it." He acknowledges that teenagers are "going to try drinking, they're going to try risky things because they've got to get it out of their system. But at the same time, at the back of your brain, you've got to take care of your diabetes." He explains, "As much as I was rebellious on my right hand, on the other hand I also had common sense enough to take care of my health. If you don't build in that safety factor to take care of your diabetes, the downside could be pretty horrific."
Bret attributes his safe passage through his rebellious years to the common sense attitude of his parents, who said, "You better make sure your buddies know what to do if you go into insulin shock. If you're going to go out there and not come home, and think you're going to party with your buddies, you'd better make sure you've got insulin and your stuff, because your friends are going to want to run around with girls. They're not going to care about your diabetes. You need to take care of yourself."
"Keep pulling your head out of the sand," says Bret, "and accept it. Once I had that safety net built in, I could go have a great time. I never had a lot to worry about, because I knew I had OJ in the car, I knew that I had my insulin with me and a couple of buddies around me who were good people. So I knew I could have a great time, and be rebellious. I'm still doing that, as a matter of fact, but at a different level."
Influences and Beliefs
The biggest influences in Bret's early personal life were his mom and dad. "Whether I loved them at the moment, or was in my rebellious teens and thought that I hated them (which I didn't) my parents were my biggest influence in my early personal life."
When Bret was a kid, his most influential role model was a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker by the name of Jack Lambert. Says Bret, "He was one of these people that just had this ferocious go-for-it attitude. And that's the attitude that helped to develop my thinking. When they would be losing games, you could just see him come on the field and motivate that team to win. Finding a way. You're not going to win every game, you're not going to have a platinum record every time you put a song out, but it's the going for it that is really the pot of gold. As I've gone along, as I've experienced life, I've learned that it's the going after it that's the really awesome thing."
Bret believes in a higher power, and he's convinced that your energy and your soul go to a better place. He also believes that good positive energy and what you've done right in your life comes back in good karma. He says, "I try to respect everyone around me, and then if they are not respectful back, it's okay to be angry and get them out of your life. They say that positive energy causes positive things. For the most part, it does. At least it does for me."
For his parting words, Bret says, "Look at diabetes as a blessing in this way: If you deal with it right, it will give you total awareness of your body and what your limitations are, what you can and can't do. It may actually be an advantage, because it made me self-reliant at a young age and put me ahead of the game. It made me a non-self-pitying kid. When I wanted something, it was all about going for it, just like Jack Lambert. He always willed his team to win the game, and we got four Superbowls out of it. I can do it; you can do it - let's rock."
Years with Diabetes: 38
Blood Tests: 110,960
Top 40 Singles: Ten
Albums Sold: 25 million
Ranking on Playgirl's "Sexiest Rock Stars" list: Top ten
Bones Broken in 1994 Ferrari Accident: Nose, Ribs, Jaw, and Fingers