Bret Michaels on the challenges of life with diabetes: 'It motivates me to work harder rather than give up’

It’s not every day that a rock musician — let alone Bret Michaels, best known as the bandanna-clad frontman of the ’80s rock band Poison — talks about finding “balance.” But for Michaels, who has type 1 diabetes, finding that balance can be a matter of life and death.

“Diabetes is a very complicated disease,” Michaels tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When you’re diabetic, there’s this everyday balance. The pancreas is no longer secreting the amount of insulin you need to cover the food intake, your carb intake. This is an incurable disease. You treat it with medication and with doing the right thing to stay healthy.”

The 55-year-old singer has been coping with the disease for most of his life. At 6 years old, Michaels blood sugar levels were running “incredibly high,” although no one knew it at the time. His parents, worried about their son’s health, took him to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “At that point, I was severely going into ketoacidosis, which … your body at that point is starting to shut down,” he says.

Michaels, who has been getting daily insulin shots since then, remembers being the only kid in his Pennsylvania school who had diabetes. “I remember having low blood sugar and passing out,” Michaels recalls. Some parents at Michaels’s school mistakenly believed at the time that diabetes was contagious and didn’t allow their kids around him. “I just wanted to be a normal kid,” he says.

Brett Michaels shares what it’s like to live with type 1 diabetes. (Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images)
Brett Michaels shares what it’s like to live with type 1 diabetes. (Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images)

But the disease constantly challenged Michaels. “My challenge was brought on early because I had no choice,” he says. “And in some great way it really helped me step up to the plate.”

As Michaels puts it, “I’m not gonna lie, it’s tough” when it comes to living with diabetes, but he credits his parents with teaching him the best lesson: to not have self-pity. Instead, he decided to motivate himself and “work twice or three times as hard to get there.”

He also says music has been incredibly helpful in terms of him processing his feelings and the health challenges he’s had to face. “To me, music was absolutely 1 million percent therapeutic,” Michaels says. “For some other people, [they] would want to talk through their problems. I would put it into music and it helped me to deal with what I was going through in life.”

He recalls being onstage with Poison at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in 1987 and his blood sugar “just dropped right out from under me,” sending him into “insulin shock.” Michaels collapsed onstage and was rushed to the hospital. With many people speculating about what caused the collapse — including drugs — Michaels realized he needed to share publicly that he had type 1 diabetes. “Every time I get punched in the face, it motivates me to work harder rather than give up,” he says.

Along with not giving up, Michaels is also passionate about giving back — a trait for which he credits his parents. “For me, charity and being philanthropic came at a very early age,” he says. “My mom and dad helped put together the first youth diabetic camp, which still exists to this day in Harrisburg, Pa.”

When Michaels won “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010, he donated his winnings to the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). He also founded Life Rocks Foundation — a charity that helps kids with diabetes, including sending them to camps dedicated to helping young people with diabetes. “It’s something I really love doing,” he says.

Though coping with diabetes has never been easy for Michaels, he’s still able to find a silver lining. “It’s supposed to be a curse,” he says. “It ends up being a blessing in some strange way.”

He adds, “I’ve been beat up, but I’ve never felt defeated.”

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