Im Interview: Mike McTernan & Amber Lombardo

Mike, Neela, Amber

Als im damaligen Lockdown langsam aber sicher die grobe Idee zum Zusammenstellen eines Buches über Be Well und Mental Health immer greifbarer wurde, schwirrten mir permanent Namen im Kopf rum, bei denen ich dachte: Diese Leute MÜSSEN unbedingt ebenfalls zu Wort kommen, egal auf welche Art und Weise!! Zwei dieser Namen waren Mike McTernan (Damnation A.D.) und Amber Lombardo, die meiner Meinung nach auf gar keinen Fall bei diesem ganz besonderen Herzensprojekt fehlen durften…

Mike McTernan besitzt genau wie sein Bruder Brian McTernan diese ansteckende Leidenschaft zur Musik: mit seiner Band Damnation A.D. setzte er einen wichtigen Meilenstein nach dem nächsten. Intensive Shows, die ihm stets alles abverlangten. Völlige Hingabe, dieser gewaltige Stiimmenausbruch, der einen sofort die Kinnlade nach unten sacken lässt. Eine wahre Hardcoreperle, die bis zum heutigen Tage eine eingeschworene und treue Fangemeinde mit sich zieht, die es mit Bravour verhindert und weiterhin verhindern wird, dass diese Band eines Tages in der Versenkung verschwindet. Massives Talent, ausgestattet mit einem Humor, der stets alle in der Runde zum Lachen bringt. Das Herz am rechten Fleck und immer darauf bedacht, dass es seinen Liebsten, seiner Familie, seinen Freunden gut geht und an nichts fehlt.

Mit Amber und ihrer Tochter Neela fand er sein privates Glück: Eine kleine Familie, die perfekter nicht sein könnte. Diese unbändige Liebe, das gegenseitige Verständnis und dieser starke Zusammenhalt ist selbst dann zu spüren, wenn man sich all die Familienfotos anschaut und man sich dabei ertappt wie man anfängt zu lächeln, weil man sich so sehr für die drei freut, dass sie sich gefunden haben und das Zusammenleben, das Zusammensein so sehr genießen. Couple goals!

Dennoch kann es auch mal schwieriger werden, denn Mike, Amber und Neela haben mit Depressionen und Angstzuständen zu kämpfen und versuchen sich besonders in den schwereren Phasen gegenseitig Halt zu geben, füreinander da zu sein und vor allem ein offenes Ohr zu haben, aber auf der anderen Seite auch genügend Freiraum zu geben und zu lassen, wenn er gerade dringend benötigt wird.

Ich war und bin noch immer so glücklich darüber, dass sich Mike und Amber die nötige Zeit genommen haben, um all die Fragen zu beantworten, die ich zu diesem Zeitpunkt auf dem Herzen hatte und dafür werde ich ihnen wirklich immer dankbar sein. Wenn ich manchmal durch’s Buch blättere, freue ich mich jedes Mal auf’s Neue, wenn ich über dieses Interview mit diesen wundervollen Menschen stolpere und sie ein Teil dieses Projektes sind. In den folgenden Fragen geht es um den Umgang mit den psychischen Erkrankungen innerhalb der Familie, wann diese Krankheit zum ersten Mal so richtig wahrgenommen wurde, über Warnsignale, aber auch über die Beziehung zwischen Mike und Brian und warum gerade der Song Hello Sun von Be Well Amber so sehr berührt.

Wäre jeder mehr wie MIke und Amber – die Welt wäre ein viel besserer Ort! So, jetzt aber los mit dem Interview, ja?!

Mike, how are you doing these days?

Mike: 2020 was a really strange year. I started off in the hospital in January with pancreatitus and also got my gall bladder removed. I had a slow start back to work and then was furloughed within a few weeks. But in July I was brought back to work. Amber and I were able to by a house in October so I feel very lucky! We spent pretty much every moment of every day together during the pandemic and I think it made our relationship much stronger.

2020 was definitely not an easy year for people with mental health issues- how did you handle it?

Mike: I started off doing pretty well. We were walking a lot or taking drives. Once we got into our new place there was so much to do here. Between work and working on the house I think we both got really overwhelmed. In addition to that I was very unhappy with my new role at work. It took me about 6 months to adjust and love my job again. Spending time with Amber was so helpful because she is so patient with me when I am going through rough times.

When and how did you realize that you suffered from depression and how did you deal with the diagnosis?

Mike: I first started therapy when I was 11. We were supposed to go as a family but my dad refused to go and so I ended up going alone. I have been in therapy and taking medication for depression, anxiety and seizures since I was 11 and I am 47 now. I have come to the realization that I will most likely have to stay on this path for the rest of my life. But that is ok!

Amber: I was 19 when I was diagnosed with depression. I knew something was wrong because I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was sad and bummed. I felt like no one like me. I also cried a lot. My mom had recently started taking an antidepressant and had some stuff on depression. I remember reading it and realizing it was me. Thankfully I was and still am close to my mom so I was able to talk to her and we made an appt to see the Dr.

When were you told about the diagnosis and how did you deal with it?

Amber: I had no problem dealing with the diagnosis. I understood it was a chemical imbalance and medicine would help. The problem was when I told people about it. This was the mid 90’s and mental health wasn’t talked about like it is now. People made me feel shitty for being depressed. I was told “what do you have to be depressed about? You have friends, live with your parents who pay for your college, bought you a car.” Like it was that simple.

I was put on Prozac, which like most meds, has side effects. One was a decreased interest in sex. Here I was, 19-20, with my first serious boyfriend and no desire to have sex. He actually broke up with me once because of that. I did struggle with taking a medication at times. I was SXE and felt that taking something like this may not align with the clean/sober lifestyle I was living. Ultimately, I realized it was OK, I needed it.

If you had to explain the difference between sadness and depression- what would you say?

Mike: I actually talked about this with my dr a while ago. I told her that I am the happiest depressed person she would ever meet. I remember when I was really young I felt so guilty because I had so much but I could not figure out why I was so sad. Up until a couple of years ago I was not able to differentiate between sadness and depression. Now I realize that there are things that make me sad. The thought of losing someone or seeing someone I love in pain. That make me sad. Being depressed seems to have more physical effects. I am tired all the time and don’t have the physical or emotional energy to do anything.

What warning signs do you notice when you’re approaching another depressive episode?

Amber: My biggest warning sign is I’m more tired. I can’t wait to crawl in bed and I’m usually asleep by 8. I normally go to bed early but it’s worse when I’m depressed. Little things start to set me off. A messy kitchen when I get home from work, a smart answer from Neela that normally wouldn’t bother me, will cause me to snap back at her. Mike making a joke that normally I find funny will now bother me. My mood definitely changes.

How would you describe yourself when you are in a depressive phase?

Mike: When I am in a really dark place all I want to do is eat and sleep. Sometimes I force myself to go for walks when I can. I was really struggling at work a lot for several months, As soon as I would clock out I would have dinner and then Amber and I would go to bed. I think I made things difficult for her also because I was not easy to be around. I don’t want to project anything on her but it must have been like living with someone who was not there.

Amber: I’ve read so many articles, books, interviews about people describing their mental health. So many people are poetic in their descriptions of how they feel when they are depressed. I always think to myself “I wish I was that eloquent or descriptive when trying to describe how I feel.” I’ve come to realize; depression isn’t poetic for me. It’s simple. I’m sad. I cry, a lot. I exist. I go through the motions to get me through the day but I don’t feel like I’m living.

What symptoms bother you the most?

Mike: Even the most simple tasks are mentally taxing. Thinking if I close my eyes for 5 more minutes then I will be able to take a walk or put the dishes away. Everything is overwhelming. These questions are a perfect example. It is something I was looking forward to doing but I would kept putting it off because I felt anxious about doing it.

Amber: Loss of enjoyment/interest in all things I love. Some days I want to read. But all I can manage to do is just mindlessly scroll through my phone. There will be a new show we want to start watching but the thought of having to focus on something is too much for me.

Past and present: To what extent were you able to open up to others and talk about it when you were younger? And how difficult/easy is it for you today?

Mike: Before I understood the difference between sadness and depression I would always feel guilty. I never had anything to feel sad about. Now that I understand it is easier to process what I am feeling. When I was younger I was not able to talk about it so I would write it out. Even when I was able to start being more open about depression I still did not fully open up about the despair I felt.

How hard or how easy is it for you to talk about all that’s going on inside you?

Amber: Some days it‘s easier than others to talk about how I’m feeling. It’s also easier to talk to some people than others about how I‘m feeling. When I first starting living with Mike, I rarely talked about how I felt. I just kept it bottled up and would shut down. Over the years I’ve slowly opened up about it but in the last year I’ve gotten much better about letting him know what is going on with me.

I just recently started posting about it on social media. Usually, I‘m pretty private about things like that but it feels good to talk about it. I’m in the middle of a particularly hard time in my life and sharing that has been therapeutic. I have amazing friends who love me and are here for me always but I still feel alone at times. It’s reminded me that I’m not alone.

„If I’d knew better I would have focus on my mental health earlier.“ When and how did you start focusing more on your mental health?

Mike: I originally started therapy when I was 11. I have been going on and off since then. It was not until the last few years that I have started being 100% honest with my doctors and let them know how I was really feeling. Before that I would feel ashamed that I never felt like I was getting better so I would lie through each session and then stop going. Now I realize how much time I wasted by doing that. I am much more honest and will take notes during my low points so even if I don’t feel like that during the appointment I will have an acurate record so I can let her know where I was.

Your experience with therapy and medication? What has helped you the most?

Mike: I think medication works the best for me because I believe that there is a chemical imbalance that has a great impact on how my brain works. At the same time therapy is really beneficial. I speak with my psychiatrist about once a month and each appointment is about an hour so I feel like I am accomplishing both. At one point she felt like I needed a therapist at the same time and recommended that.

You, Neela and Mike all struggle with mental health issues: how do you cope? To what extent can you support each other in this? Are there also difficulties sometimes?

Amber: Having a 13yr old with ADHD, anxiety, depression and all the hormones, moodiness and PMS that comes along with being a teenager can be challenging. We try to be as supportive as we can. We’ve spent lockdown encouraging her to talk to us and get her out of the house, even if its just for a ride in the car. Not seeing her friends often, online learning, shes much more isolated.

We all go to therapy individually. I’ll admit, I believe in it but my past experiences weren’t terrible but nothing great. As I mentioned before, I started again this past June and love it. We have decided family therapy would be beneficial and plan on setting that up soon. Neela is going through a lot and we just want to be there for her the best we can.

Mike is great and always there for us. I feel bad because I know he sometimes puts his mental health on the back burner to make sure Neela and I are OK. I get so wrapped up in myself I forget to check in with him sometimes. He is very open talking about it and that helps. It’s hard to be a depressed and have to take care of your child. When Neela was younger, my mental health was put on the back burner. Now, I have Mike and Neela is older. I try not to be depressed around her; she picks up on it. She actually told Mike and I the other day she didn’t realize we get depressed because she doesn’t see us sad. As a parent, Neela is the most important person and her well-being comes before me. Mike is great too. When Im feeling really down and need some time to myself, he’ll hang out with Neela to give me some space.

Acceptance of this disease is still difficult for me today. How do you get closer to acceptance?

Mike: Once I started looking at it as any other disease I was able to more easily accept it. Mental health has a stigma attached to it because it is something that you cannot visualize and it impacts each individual differently. Now my goal is to be as open as I can be so others feel less alone.

What gives you hope?

Mike: That I am still here. A big turning point was when Cassidy (Brian’s daughter) was born. I did not want them to ever have to say „Uncle Mike would have been“ so proud of you. I want to be able to tell her myself. A song called No Lies Just Love sticks out in my head…

So I’d prefer to be remembered as a smiling face Not this fucking wreck That’s taken its place

I wrote this for a baby Who has yet to be born.
My brother’s first child. I hope that womb’s not too warm. ‚cause it’s cold out here.
And it’ll be quite a shock. To breathe this air. To discover loss.
So I’d like to make some changes. Before you arrive. So when your new eyes meet mine.
They won’t see no lies. Just love.

Is there anything positive you were able to draw from your mental illness?

Mike: I think the positive is that I am able to share my experiences with others and hopefully they will feel less alone. Also, Neela shows signs of depression and anxiety. Amber and I are better able to understand it. We are also more proactive to get her help because we both are familiar with it and what happens if gone untreated.

Be Well / Brian McTernan

What was it like for you when Brian first played you the songs that were meant for Be Well? What went through your mind when you heard all those heartbreaking lyrics?

Mike: It hurt. I can’t help but feel like I failed him. I keep looking for ways to respond to this question but I come up empty. It is hard to think about how much pain he was in and I was no were to be found. Lyrics from Make Do And Mend are able to sum up my thoughts much better than I can. This is from Stand/Stagger.

There must be perfect words
For feeling alone around the people that love you.
They hide their concern,
And keep their mouths shut while they watch you come unglued.
You are their oldest son!
They raised you better to be healthy and strong!
I haven’t felt that way in so long

How did you perceive Brian when it came to deciding whether or not to release these songs? Were there any doubts?

Mike: I had no doubts at all. He kept saying that he was a little bit nervous because this was a side of him that few people (even myself) knew. He has a platform to help people. How many bands around today are compromised of guys in their mid 40s who are talking about how we still have not figured life out. Not even have we not figured our own lives out but we now have kids to worry about. I think that is what a lot of the older people have been able to relate to.

How would you describe The Weight and The Cost? Why should people definitely listen to this record? What does this record mean to you?

Mike: I think it is written from someone who realized that there is not an age limit to do what you love. I think playing a bunch of shows with Battery made Brian realize that he still had a passion for writing and playing music. If there is one word that I would use to describe the record it would be love. Love of music. Love of family. Love of friends. Love of making an impact.

What is your favorite song and why this one in particular?

Mike: Definitely The Weight And the Cost. I think of his relationship with Cassidy and then our relationship with our father. There was not much of one. I know he cares about us but I am happy that Brian knows that he has to be different. He has to be present or else there is the risk of Cassidy growing up wondering why she is not good enough.

Which song appeals to you the most and why this one in particular?

Amber: Tiny Little Pieces has been my mantra this year. “I hope there’s a chance for me to learn to love myself a way that I don’t”. I have spent most of my life not loving myself and my body. I am really trying this year to love myself more. This song is helping.

„Repping Be Well today because I heard a song of theirs this weekend I can’t stop thinking about. It was heartbreaking and emotional and yes, made me cry.“ Tell us more about it!

Amber: Hello Sun is the song that made me cry the first time I heard it. Actually, Mike and I both cried when we heard it. You could hear the hurt and emotion in Brian’s voice. It made us realize you never know how much someone might be hurting. It is such a beautiful song though, definitely my favorite so far.

Fifteen years ago, I lost my first daughter, at 39 weeks. It was the hardest, most traumatic thing I have ever been through. I learned you never deal with it; you just live with it. The lines “All that’s left is an empty bed/a hole in my heart/I’m so lost in my head”. That was how I felt after losing Jaiden. I came home from the hospital to an empty crib. I was empty, having horrible panic attacks. I could barely work my part time job. It was a dark period in my life. Even now, every February is hard for me.

I ended up getting the words hello sun tattooed on my forearm this past March 1, the anniversary of losing Jaiden. I wanted a tattoo honoring her for years but never could bring myself to do it. I like to think that song gave me some strength to go ahead and do it. I cannot mention this without mentioning the love Mike has always showed me through this difficult time. Songs like this has made it a bit easier for me to talk about my loss. It has never been a secret but it’s still such a taboo subject. Songs that fill me with emotion make it easier to deal with tough situations. If that makes any sense.

„Am I a good influence?“ What does it mean to be a bad influence in your eyes? Especially in relation to your daughter?

Mike: I don’t want Neela to spend a second of her life with the dark cloud over her head that I have had almost my whole life. Without knowing it she has made me a better person. She needs to see someone who has confidence so she has condfidence. I want her to see me love myself so she learns to love herself. I want her to see me love other people so she learns to love other people. In addition to that I want to prove to Amber that I am worthy of being in her life.

How did you experience the very first concerts of Be Well and what makes this band so special?

Mike: The first time I saw them was in Philly with H20. It was so great because we all went to dinner before the show. Neela and Cassidy got to spend the evening together. It was really special. It also made me so proud because everyone watched and enjoyed their set. Needless to say I was very proud. I am still looking forward to seeing them now that people are familiar with the record.

How would you describe Brian to someone who has never met him?

Mike: He finds so much joy in so many little things and loves to share them. The number of times I have heard „this is my favorite place ever! We have to go there next time you are down here!“ He wants everyone to experience the things he loves!

What do you appreciate about Brian? What makes him so special – as a person and as a producer?

Mike: He is talented and passionate. He put’s 100% into every single thing he does. I can’t answer this question without Amber imitating me and saying „do you know who recorded this?“ I am proud of him. There is no doubt that I am his biggest fan.

How would you describe the relationship between Brian and Mike?

Foto: Nicole Caracia Photography

Amber: Mike is Brian’s biggest fan. He believes in Brian and is so proud of everything Brian has done and accomplished. The joy Mike has watching Be Well (or any band Brian has been in) or excitement in Mike’s face when he hears a new Be Well song is so cute. He will always point out bands Brian recorded when we listen to music. It is more than brotherly love; he is truly proud of the person Brian is and what he has done with his life.

What do you appreciate and love about Mike and in what way do you complement each other?

Amber: I don’t know where to begin with Mike. It is so difficult to write about him without gushing. Mike is the definition of a good person. He is kind, caring, genuine, fun and loving. He loves his friends and wants the best for everyone he cares about. Most importantly, he not only loves me, but he also loves Neela. He is calm and rational to my craziness. He loves me when I do not love myself. He reminds me every day I am beautiful and makes me repeat it.

Lately Neela has been struggling with her mental health and Mike has been there for her. She goes to him most times to talk before coming to me. I love that she feels so comfortable confiding in him. They have such a good relationship. Yes, they drive me crazy, but it is wonderful. I am incredibly lucky to be sharing my life and raising my daughter with Mike.

Anything else you wanna add?

Mike: Thank you for including me in this. I appreciate your patience and understanding that it took me so long to get it done.

Amber: Thank you Jasmin for putting all this together and getting me to talk about things that are otherwise uncomfortable to discuss.