Rock Drummer Brad Wilk on Type 1 and Touring
Drummer Brad Wilk has scarcely missed a beat in the 12 years since he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Wilk, 40, a member of the rap metal pioneers Rage Against the Machine, is in a rare class of musicians considered both artistically influential and commercially successful. After Rage broke up in 2001, Wilk and bandmates Tom Morello (guitar) and Tim Commerford (bass) joined forces with Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell to form the band Audioslave. However, in 2007, Rage reunited for several festival performances. Since then, the band has played occasional gigs and expects to perform in Britain and maybe South America this year. Here's what Wilk had to say to Diabetes Forecast recently about life on the road.
You were diagnosed while on tour, right? What were your symptoms?
I was first diagnosed with type 1 in 1997. One night on tour I went to bed and had to get up to urinate four or five times during the night—and I didn't drink anything before I went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, my eyesight had diminished by about 40 percent. I could barely see 10 feet in front of me. Everything was a blur. I also felt seriously weighed down and sluggish.
How did you initially respond to the diagnosis?
I became pretty depressed. I knew that it was going to be incredibly difficult for me to continue touring while trying to figure out this disease and how it affected my body. I wasn't sure if I could even do it. But then I just buckled down and tried to make the best of it. I had a huge backpack and carried my own food with me around the world. I had my wife, Selene (my girlfriend at the time), come with me for support. From Israel to Spain, Australia, then to Japan, I accepted the challenge and moved forward. I was not going to let diabetes control my life. I was going to instead control my diabetes and live my life with an open mind and accept this lifestyle change. It was not easy at first, but I persevered.
It seems that drumming—especially in bands as heavy and fast-paced as Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave—would cause rapid shifts in blood glucose. Do you have a pre-show ritual?
It's true that my drumming can drastically change my blood sugar levels. Any time your heart rate gets that high through vigorous exercise, you're going to have to watch it. The tricky thing is that sometimes [drumming] can swing it high, but most times will swing it low. So usually I prepare for the latter because, as my doctor told me, "there is no such thing as a drummer with a blood sugar of 30."
So I will usually eat a banana right before I go on because it is high in potassium and helps muscle fatigue and, more importantly, keeps me from going into a diabetic coma! Bananas aren't always readily available all over the world, so, if necessary, I will substitute something else that has a good amount of natural sugar. I do also test myself sometimes between songs and always before an encore, just to make sure. I have a blood glucose monitor that gives me a result in five seconds. It's very helpful, and I have become quite fast at it. I also have the help of my drum tech, who has been with me since the inception of the band. He always has my monitor by his side and is ready to hand me the tester if I need it. I also always keep juice of some sort on my riser just in case. I like to cover my butt, and I'm not talking about a pair of shorts here.
Have you ever had any diabetes-related emergencies while performing?
I have had a few close calls. One night in France I was onstage and knew that my blood sugars were getting very low. I have a pretty good sense and pay attention to what my body is telling me. I checked my blood and it was at 60. So I drank about two-thirds of a bottle of Powerade. Two songs later I felt even worse and started to get disoriented and very dizzy. I began to slightly panic and couldn't understand why I wasn't feeling stabilized. So immediately after the song I still had sense enough to grab the bottle (which was in French, to make matters more difficult) and realized that they had given me a drink sweetened with sucralose [that] had next to no sugar or carbs!
My tech then had to make a mad dash back to the dressing rooms to find something else before it was too late. Luckily, he came through. I also have very understanding band members who just threw out a jam with no drums while I got what I needed. So hey, because of my diabetes, the audience got a little something extra. The glass is half full, people!
What are some of your activities outside of your main band commitments?
I am involved in a project with Tim Commerford, who plays bass in Rage Against the Machine. We are in the process of writing and recording a record now. I also have two little boys, Luka and Alex, 3 and 1 years old. My family is the best thing that ever happened to me. So, being able to spend quality time with them during the down times is amazing.
Do you have any advice for young people who have recently been diagnosed with diabetes?
Yes, I can say this: Diabetes is no walk in the park, I know. But with the proper care and knowledge, it can be a manageable disease. The more accepting you are about the fact that you have this disease, the better you will begin to take care of yourself. And it's nothing to be embarrassed [about] or ashamed of. Be proud of who you are, and don't let this disease keep you from doing what you want to do—unless, of course, you want to be a professional pie-eating contestant. [In that case] I would say find another passion. The world is your oyster! Find something you love and go for it!