By: Pat Piper
It’s Labor Day weekend in Pittsburgh, just outside of the Steelers’ Heinz Field, and the Bret Michaels Band has come home for some hard-driving rock and roll. The 20,000 screaming fans are a generational mix, shrieking 16-year-old girls side-by-side with moms and dads who have temporarily abandoned their parental roles to dance, sing the familiar words to “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” and howl into the nighttime air. On stage is Bret Michaels, the boy from Butler, Pennsylvania, a coal mining town just an hour north.
Clad in his signature bandanna and cowboy hat, Michaels is holding the microphone in both hands and seductively singing to a woman in the front rows. Then he’s off to the opposite side of the stage, pointing to a couple farther back waving the Steelers’ well-known gold and black “Terrible Towels.” He runs to the center, leaps onto the platform where drummer Chuck Fanslau sits, turns toward the audience, and launches himself into the air just as bass player Ray Scheuring and guitarist Pete Evick begin rotating in circles on either side of him. Right on cue, Michaels lands at the same time that his band mates come out of their spins, ending the hit song on a powerful downbeat. The crowd explodes with more screams and applause, cameras flash, and a sweat-drenched Michaels takes a bow. Even people out for an evening stroll along Pittsburgh’s nearby Riverwalk stop to applaud.
Then, illuminated with a spotlight that sets his blue mohawk hair glowing, Fanslau spins a drumstick and begins a drum solo. The crowd is right with him, clapping in time as Michaels steps away from the microphone and slips behind his hard-working drummer. A drum solo is part of every band’s set list, but there’s another reason that this one is happening now. Michaels’ assistant Brian is standing backstage with a glucose meter and an open bottle of orange juice mixed with a few drops of honey. The drum solo is built into the band’s routine because years earlier, Michael had a low blood sugar just six songs into his first show as Poison’s front man at Madison Square Garden. He collapsed onstage and woke up in the hospital. There’s a second break built in later on, a guitar solo by Pete Evick, for the same reason. Michaels quickly tests his blood sugar, takes a long swig of juice, and nods to Brian that he’s in shape to go back to work.
Diabetes has always been a teacher for this rock and roller, and he’s learned from his missteps that these breaks are crucial. “Sometimes if I know I’m totally good, I’ll stay up there,” he says as he relaxes in his tour bus before the show. The bus is emblazoned with the words “Bret Michaels Wants to Stop Diabetes” and a shirtless photo of him promoting the “Roses & Thorn” tour that will continue for another four months. “It looks like it’s part of the show when Pete starts playing the blues, and I’ll just walk back, and then I come back out with a different guitar. I’ll stay out there if I know I’m running at 150. But the guys in the band can see if something’s not right. They know what to look for. My eyes get a little glossy, or they’ll say ‘you have that distant look.’ I’m told it can look like I’m just daydreaming, or my skin looks a little washed out, but they know. There have been times when I feel it happening, and I’ll turn and look at Pete and say ‘I’m low,’ and we’ll go into the solo a little earlier. I’ve learned how life can catch up to me.”
Life is always in motion around Michaels. Consider the events of just the past year: Last May, Michaels won Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” (donating the $300,000 prize to the American Diabetes Association). In August, he co-hosted the Miss Universe contest with NBC’s Natalie Morales. For three years, he was the central player in VH1’s highly rated “Rock of Love,” which has transformed into a behind-the-scenes look at his world in “Life As I Know It” (on VH1 since last October). At the same time, the Bret Michaels Band has been on tour for a year promoting their new album “Custom Built.” Next month, on his 48th birthday, Michaels’ autobiography Roses & Thorn is scheduled for publication.
And then there’s the health story. In April, the band was about to play in San Antonio when Michaels thought he had a bad case of the flu. He went to the emergency room and within hours underwent an appendectomy. Eleven days later, after a workout in his home gym in Arizona, he was watching television with longtime girlfriend Kristi Gibson and their daughters Raine and Jorja, when he developed “a migraine times 10.” His next stop was the emergency room, where doctors diagnosed a brain hemorrhage. A month later, he felt the left side of his face go numb and made a return trip the ER, where he learned that he had suffered a small stroke stemming from a hole in his heart that required surgery.
Through it all, Michaels has made it a point to learn from the ups (which are many) and the downs (which for the past year have been more than planned). Diabetes has been along for this wild ride since he was six. Michaels talks of the physical part of diabetes (the insulin, the diet, the exercise) that he’s had to learn and relearn, as well as the mental element. He credits his parents and, to a lesser degree, rock and roll, with getting him through the mental part. “My dad and mom have been instrumental because they always told me not to fear things in life; instead, embrace my diabetes,” he says.
Surrounded by Pittsburgh Steeler jerseys and caps and sitting at a table covered with a black and gold Steelers tablecloth, Michaels recalls how diabetes was handled when his family brought him home with the diagnosis. “My parents let everybody know. We went the exact opposite from others who would have kept it quiet to friends and neighbors. My parents didn’t hide it. They were like, ‘Look, my son is a diabetic. We don’t know a lot about the disease yet, and he’s only six.’ I remember being in kindergarten and people worried if I took a sip of Coke, was I going to die? It’s like a balance beam–people didn’t know what to feed me, and I had to say ‘You can feed me regular food.’ I was never embarrassed to tell my friends I was diabetic. I remember playing football and having to go to the sidelines for a blood sugar test, and that was back when there wasn’t a glucose meter. Instead, you had to pee into a cup, drop a pill into it, and wait 45 minutes until it bubbled up. I was like a lab rat, but I was very fortunate because I’m one of these guys who doesn’t fear what people think of me. It wasn’t like ‘Oh my god, this is so embarrassing because now I gotta do this for the rest of my life.’ My dad and mom told me more than once that these are the cards you were dealt. It’s not fun, but you either embrace it or it’s going to embrace you, and that’s not what you want.”
During the filming of the VH1 “Rock of Love” series, Michaels had a low blood sugar while talking to one of the women vying for his attention. He had been upfront with the crew about what could happen and how to react, but, for whatever reason, the cameras continued rolling until it was obvious that something wasn’t right. That moment wasn’t unique for Michaels. He recalls the early days when he’d go out with a woman on a date. “I would tell her, ‘Listen, if I start to look pale, or if I’m talking and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, I may be having a low blood sugar.’ It’s funny. People embraced you if you weren’t embarrassed by it. However, if you were embarrassed and didn’t say anything, they didn’t know what you were doing or what to think. If you’re high, that’s a different element–you feel good and you’re aware of what’s going on. It’s the low blood sugars that really throw me off.”
In October 2007, Michaels had a low at a hotel outside Washington’s Dulles Airport. The band was leaving that day on a flight to London, then Kuwait City, and finally to Al Asad Airfield, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, to perform for the troops in Iraq. “I was trying to pack, and I was probably subconsciously nervous about it and thinking, we’re going into a real war zone, and we’re going to play in all of these forward operating bases. I checked my blood sugar and I was at 33, and I knew I was light-headed. I already knew this was trouble, and in the midst of thinking about it, I continued packing all my stuff and not doing anything about the reading I just got. And yes, life caught up to me. Then I get what I call that ‘first effect’ because I get real calm. My best friend Big John and Pete (the guitar player) were with me. I was looking at them and thinking that I really don’t know who any of these people are.”
” Big John picked up on this and got everybody out of the room and shut the door, and he handed me an orange juice. But I remember going to the corner and standing there, and I had to focus on something that I knew. My guitar was there, so I said ‘OK, this is my guitar. Don’t lose it.’ I was about to go into insulin shock. I could feel it. My leg was shaking and my mouth was numb. Nothing made sense to me at all, but I had one trickle of something left to know that I had to start guzzling orange juice. I knew if I didn’t counter the insulin, I wasn’t going to be in Iraq. And then, after the guitar, I focused on my hat on the counter and started asking, ‘Why do we wear hats?’ Then I asked, ‘Why is one boot off and why is one boot on?’ That’s when John explained I had been taking a boot off and then putting it back on. You feel like the world you’re in has become another world.” As he drank the glass of juice and then a second glass, the world came back into focus. A few hours later, the band was bound for Iraq.
Hanging onto a familiar image is common for people coming off a low blood sugar. Many have explained that it’s the foundation they use as a way to rejoin the real world again. Through the years, Michaels has noticed another common reaction after a low: He wants to show those who have witnessed it, and himself, that he can still “do it.” “When I have a low blood sugar, it’s almost like a constant need in my soul, which is the ‘Rose Has Its Thorn’ part of my life. I’m constantly trying to prove that through all adversity, I can still do it.”
Well aware that he has put band members, family members, crew members, and even a few fans though low blood sugars, Michaels offers advice to Diabetes Health readers who have had to face terrified looks from friends and family during a low. His partner Kristi has witnessed how fast it can happen and how quickly one needs to react. Still, says Michaels, there’s reacting and there’s “Reacting.”
“You know what makes me frantic?” Michaels says, shaking his head, then taking a deep breath during a long pause. “If they overreact and move too quickly. Now, my brain says ‘I’m very thankful,’ but if you can move a little slower and just give me what I need, that’s all you have to do. Kristi is very in tune when it happens, and she’ll sometimes say ‘You’re not answering my question very well.’ I’ve asked her to just sit across the table from me, hold my hand, and let me take the stuff I need. Now, I know she wants to react quickly to get me orange juice or glucose tablets and, yes, you do have a small window of opportunity to do that, but as a diabetic you just want someone to move slow and say ‘you’re going to be fine‘ and get you what’s needed. That’s it. Sometimes, I can’t open the containers, and she’ll be all over me battling and trying to open the cap of the juice or the glucose. I know all of her love and her intentions, and I’m never mad about it but, still, the calmer you react, the better.”
Bret Michaels sincerely believes that “the Cure” is going to happen. When the topic of a cure comes up, it becomes quiet on the bus. “I have to be honest with you,” he says softly. “I’ve been dealing with it for a long time, and I’m starting to see some of the effects a little more as I get older, and I just pray that there’s a cure. I work hard to find a cure, and, yes, I tell myself, yes, there will be a cure.”
Asked what he is going to do when that days comes, Michaels’ infectious smile returns just as his hand slams down on the table. “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” he laughs, “I’m going to make every night Halloween! For every trick-or-treat night that I couldn’t eat anything that we were given, I’m going to find the thickest, fattest piece of cake I can find and I’m eating it! Then, everyone step back, because I may go back to Denny’s for a second Grand Slam Breakfast with all the real syrup–not the fake god-awful stuff. I’m not riding my bike for twelve hours!”
The bike he’s talking about is farther back on the bus. When the band is traveling to their next gig, Bret is usually putting it to use if he isn’t sleeping. “I ride when I’m on the road. We travel at night so when I wake up, if we’re almost to where we’re going, I’ll have them pull up to a gym, and it forces me to start my day, and I check my blood sugar and have some egg whites (yes, I make them myself) to keep me in control. We carry turkey, tomatoes, celery, and peanut butter with us, so you can say I have a large supply of boring food. I’ll go into the gym and work out, but if we have to keep moving, I’ll get on my bike and just pedal it. By the time I’m done doing any business or reading, I’ve been on this thing for an hour, so it keeps my sugar level at the best level I can do.”
Michaels is quick to agree that touring the country playing rock and roll while filming a reality TV show isn’t a good way to keep blood sugar under control. Just a few hundred feet from where his tour bus is parked, the famous Pittsburgh Ribfest is underway. There’s smoked barbecue, funnel cakes, huge drinks in plastic coconuts, fried vegetables, and foot-long hot dogs. He remarks that food portions in restaurants are huge, adding that his children are content to sit in front of a computer playing games half the day instead of riding bikes or shooting hoops outside. Raine, age 10, is pre-diabetic, and Michaels reinforces the importance of being active to both his children.
“My being diabetic has been a blessing in some strange way because it has kept me in tune. I want to win this battle in getting people to realize how much stuff we eat and ingest that we absolutely do not need. We played a festival, and they had deep-fried Oreos wrapped in bacon! I know we really do have a right to eat this and we have the right to do as we please, but the second side of this is you’re probably not going to be around long enough to enjoy it.” There’s a pause as if he’s wondering whether he can say what he’s thinking without damaging his hard-driving reputation. “This is going to be the strangest thing that a rock star has ever said, but here it is,” he offers. “Find balance. The thing about being a rocker is ‘I don’t care about balance,’ but the truth is, if you want to live a long life, you have to find balance. And I have to check my sugar now. I feel that first little trickle on my mouth.”
Michaels gets up and returns with a True2Go glucose meter. Directly across from the Steelers-decorated table is a refrigerator stocked with orange juice, and sitting on the black and gold tablecloth is a plastic jar of glucose tablets. “You know, I used to get a blood sample from the tip of my finger,” he says while doing the test. “But when I would be playing guitar after doing that, some thought the faces I was making were because I was into it, but it really was a big pain rebound.” Glucose tests are done on the side of his finger now. The glucose level comes in at 63, and he empties three glucose tablets into his hand.
Bret Michaels is the poster boy for seeing the good in the bad, and over the past year, there’s been a lot of both. “As sad as it was to go through those events in the emergency room, and as eye opening as it was, I keep thinking it was a blessing in a weird way because I could have been
on the road or stuck in a truck stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, and nobody would have known what to do with me, so maybe, in some sick way, all of this domino effect on my body has actually saved my life.”
With that, he’s up and at the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of “Trop-A-Rocka” tea (the profits goes to the American Diabetes Association). He takes a sip before setting it back on the table. “My curtain call is not going to be that I had a brain hemorrhage. My legacy is going to be that I came, I rocked, and, even though I was a diabetic, I was still able to throw the most energy onstage, play and sing through it.” Thirty minutes later, Bret Michaels is standing backstage as the other band members begin the opening chords to their hit “Talk Dirty to Me.” His father comes by and gives him a high five, as do some lucky fans who have won the chance to see him in action. And then, on cue, Bret grabs a microphone from his assistant Brian and sprints up a ramp. Pittsburgh erupts with screams. “Let’s make this the biggest party anywhere in Pittsburgh tonight!” he yells. True to his word, as the party begins, he’s rocking, there’s lots of energy…and nearby, there’s a bottle or two of orange juice.
One of my pet peeves is the battle it takes to get the plastic off a new glucose tablet container. I love that they assure me that nobody has poisoned the tablets inside, but in the hour-and-a-half it takes me to open them, I’m going even lower. Just the other day before going onstage, I checked my blood sugar and I’m at a low 60. I can hear the band starting the song and, through sheer power, I tear the container apart to get to them. Now I make a point to pre-open the package before a low blood sugar.
Advice to the Newly Diagnosed
Here’s the first thing you want to do: Know there is a great future. The first things everyone told us when I was diagnosed were the horror stories about the kidneys and amputations. There’s a great opportunity today. If I can live this crazy life, you can do whatever you want. Read a lot and learn, and while you’re reading, ride your bike. You can read about being healthy, but unless you do it, just reading doesn’t do you a lot of good.
Advice to Family and Friends of the Newly Diagnosed
Read a lot, learn a lot, help them with nutrition. Be calm during low blood sugar moments. From a personal standpoint, if everyone overreacts, it makes my heart pound more, and the lower my blood sugar goes. As a family of a diabetic, know this: There’s a lot of mood swings involved that aren’t necessarily meant toward you. When I’m having blood sugars all over the place, my mood is swinging, not because I want it to, but because stress will cause high blood sugars. My piece of advice to the family: Accept it, and let everybody know you have it. In the old days, you didn’t talk about that stuff. Nowadays my thing is shouting it from the rooftop. It’s important to let friends and family know someone is diabetic, and this is their situation, and here’s what they’ll need to do to deal with it. This is a disease that is un-ignorable because it’s coming at you like a freight train, so don’t be embarrassed by it.
Facts about Bret Michaels
He uses Humalog and NPH insulin.
He tests eight times a day.
His A1C percentages range from the low 7s to the mid 6s.
He has thought about using a pump sometime in the future, but wants one without tubes. He says his lifestyle won’t work for an insulin pump right now, and that daily injections work well.
He and Poison have sold more than 25 million records.
He has written ten Top 40 singles (including “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”).
His music was featured in the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie film “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
His album “Custom Built” debuted in July 2010 at #1 on the hard rock charts.
The American Diabetes Association has named him “The Face of Diabetes” as he promotes his www.StopDiabetes.com website.
For more information about upcoming appearances, go to www.BretMichaels.com