Im XXL-Interview: Minu Aghevli & Brian McTernan

Minu und Brian lernten sich bereits in der High School kennen- und durch ein Fotoshooting für Ashes schließlich auch lieben! Diese starke Verbundenheit hält bis heute an und besonders in den letzten Jahren zeigte sich nochmal deutlich, welch einen enormen Halt sie sich gegenseitig in den scheinbar ausweglosesten Momenten und Situationen immer wieder gaben (und weiterhin geben) und somit das Boot, welches immer wieder kurz vor’m endgültigen Kentern war, irgendwie dennoch durch die allerschwersten Stürme lenken konnten, auch wenn es am Ende einige neue Dellen, Blessuren und Narben davon trug.

Die tiefe Liebe zueinander, die gemeinsame Tochter als Lebensmittepunkt, die permanente Unterstützung von Familie und Freunden und die immer wieder aufkeimende Hoffnung, dass noch längst nicht alles verloren ist, auch wenn es in diesem einen Moment vielleicht so scheint, lässt die Willenskraft, am Ende wieder mit beiden Beinen fest auf dem Boden stehen zu können, nur noch mehr wachsen.

Minu und Brian. Unfassbar inspirierende, kreative, offene und herzensgute Menschen, die nur das allerbeste verdient haben, aber das Leben, das Schicksal, hat leider oft ganz andere Pläne parat. In diesem jetzt folgenden XXL Interview geht es im ersten Abschnitt um Minu, die sich vor drei Jahren für ihre liebgewonnenen PatientInnen eingesetzt hat, um Missstände aufzudecken und ihre Stimme dafür einzusetzen, dass diese Menschen, all die Veteranen nicht noch mehr unter die Räder geraten. Minu ist eine ehrliche Haut, die keinerlei Ungerechtigkeiten unterstützt oder unter den Teppich kehrt. Sie erhebt die Stimme für diejenigen, die es selbst nicht können. Sie stand auf, als alle andere schweigend sitzen blieben. Die Konsequenz: sie verlor ihren geliebten Job, ihre geliebten PatientInnen und welch eine unglaublich schwere Zeit das war und noch immer ist, könnt ihr nun hier lesen. Vielen Dank an Minu für deinen Mut, für deine Offenheit und dass du so bist, wie du bist.

In der zweiten Hälfte geht es um den damaligen sehr tiefen Fall von Brian in den Alkoholismus und in die Depression. Das Hinschmeißen als Produzent, das komplette zur Seite schieben der Musik und rein in einen normalen, geregelten Arbeitstag, der ihn aber erst recht abrutschen ließ. Wie seine Frau Minu diese harte Zeit erlebte und wie sie versuchte, es der gemeinsamen Tochter zu erklären- das und noch mehr jetzt hier:

When did you first encounter mental illness/addiction?

Minu: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of people around me who were struggling with things- although I didn’t think of it as “mental illness” or “addiction.”  My grandfather had been a fighter pilot in WW2.  Now I know that he had severe PTSD and probably bipolar disorder, but as a very little kid I was just able to see that he was clearly uncomfortable around large groups of people, and had a kind of bone marrow-level sadness.  I grew up around DC during the crack epidemic, so it was impossible to not be aware of that, as well as how the fear of crack intersected with racist fears.  And then I had my own experiences with anxiety and trauma and mood disorders as a kid and young person. 

When exactly did you realize that you wanted to study psychology? What exactly fascinated you about choosing this path?

Minu: Mostly, I was just really interested in it.  I was fascinated by how genetics and environment and learning could all combine to affect how we experience life.  Also, I’d had such unhelpful experiences myself in therapy when I was younger that I was curious about whether there was some other way to understand treatment.  I felt basically skeptical about the idea that you could learn to get rid of depression or anxiety or negative thoughts- this just seemed ridiculous to me.  I’d been a competitive diver growing up, and I’d noticed how intensely our experiences of things like pain and anxiety are affected by things like expectations and framing- like, the sensations of anxiety are basically the same as the sensations of excitement.  And the same level of pain when you know exactly why it’s happening and that it will be over in 2 minutes is usually tolerable, whereas something much milder but mysterious in terms of why it’s happening and when it will end will feel unbearable.  So I guess I wanted to study THAT- whether the problem wasn’t the symptom, but our attempts to get rid of it.

How did your professional career develop? Where are you working today and what are your tasks? What does everyday work look like for you?

Minu: I did a PhD in clinical psychology, and my dissertation was on neurodevelopmental risk factors for schizophrenia- very geeky.  But since addiction is such a common issue for people living with schizophrenia, I ended up doing an externship at the Veterans Hospital in Baltimore to get some more experience in addiction in 2001.  That experience  made me realize that I was much more interested in clinical addictions work than schizophrenia research.  Along the way in graduate school, I’d also found out that my obsession with the idea of control and avoidance being the problem was shared by other, much smarter people, and it had a name:  Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.  So I started getting into that, and I did my internship at the VA and then got hired as a staff psychologist, and became the Program Coordinator of the Opioid Program in 2009. 

Until two years ago, I was running the methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) program at the Baltimore VA.  My everyday work was different every day, which I loved.  I did groups and saw patients, or fielded whatever unexpected crises landed in my lap, or focused on treatment programming and education on  harm reduction and overdose prevention.  I used to try to make the clinic feel like a home base, so we decorated for every holiday; I made a giant chalkboard each month; I brought in flowers.  We have Veterans who have been coming into the program since they returned from Vietnam, so it truly felt like a family.  For the last two years, I haven’t been allowed to see any patients or do anything meaningful at all. I’m assuming they’re hoping that I’ll get so demoralized I’ll just quit.  I’ve been making a lot of art and creating an enormous garden, but it feels like a hole has been blown through the middle of me.

What challenges does your job bring and how hard/easy is it for you to switch off when you are at home?

Minu: Working in opioid treatment means that you see a lot of death and a lot of pain.  And these treatment relationships tend to go on for a very long time- I have seen some of my patients every single day for 15 or more years.  These are people I love.  So when things happen to them, or if they die, it’s not just like hearing something sad about a client you saw a few times- it feels like a personal loss.  When the fentanyl deaths were starting to spike here, there were probably 40-50 veterans I knew fairly well who died in one year.  I felt traumatized- that’s more death than most people see in active combat.  It’s especially tough in the Veteran community, too, because these guys tend to be so tight-knit.  So losses of any kind really reverberate through the community, and it means that I was trying to grieve while providing therapy for my patients who were grieving the exact same loss.  Sometimes it’s difficult existing as a fly on the wall in that world, where you’re jammed right up against death and loss and inequality and trauma, and then having conversations with people in the rest of your life who have no idea about it.  When the opioid epidemic was ramping up but before people were really calling it an epidemic, I remember feeling like that little kid in the movie version of The Lorax, where he looks over the wall and realizes that everything outside of his little bubble is a wasteland. I was doing intakes every day that showed this tidal wave of addiction that seemed to just be increasing up and up and up, to the point that it seemed like alarm bells and sirens should be going off around the city, and then I’d leave work and drive home and it was like nothing was different.  It made me want to grab people off the street and shake them. 

On the other hand, I have never really felt like I needed or wanted to “switch off” when I’m not at work, because I feel like I’m one person wherever I am.  It wouldn’t make sense to switch off a part of myself or leave a part of myself at work.  If I was very upset about something that happened at work, it was because it had happened to someone I cared about.  That wouldn’t  stop when I left work- and being upset wouldn’t mean I was “taking work home,” it would just mean I was being a human being.  You wouldn’t say you were “taking home to work” if you were feeling sad about the death of a family member during your work day. 

How are people with mental illnesses/addiction treated in America? How easy or how difficult is it for those affected to get help? What works well and where do you see a clear need for improvement?

Minu: Like with everything else, it depends on who you are.  Being white and privileged means that your odd or difficult behavior will be seen through a forgiving lens, whereas coming from a stigmatized or less privileged group means that the same behavior may be judged pathological: “drug-seeking,” “crazy,” or dangerous.  A perfect example of this is opioid addiction.  After 50 years of treating opioid use as a strictly criminal justice issue, we have suddenly decided that opioid use disorder is a mental health issue, and addicted people would be better off with treatment than jail.  Don’t get me wrong, this is something that I 100% agree with.  It’s just frustrating that it was only when it was noticed that white people were overdosing as well that  attitudes started to change. Or lately I’ve been noticing all of this stuff targeting upper middle class white moms relating to wine.  Like “Bring Mommy her wine,”  “First, wine,”  etc.  I have to imagine that if it was a less classy seeming alcohol and a different group of women, this would seem like alcoholism and not like a cute instagram tag, but maybe I’m wrong. 

I think a big barrier to getting help is the stereotype of mental illness being some sort of beautiful struggle that always results from trauma.  In this pop culture storyline, mental health symptoms are meant to be likeable and quirky, and then the mentally ill person has some sort of epiphany where they realize that people love them after all and their trauma wasn’t their fault.  Sometimes they go into the hospital for a few weeks, or see a lifechanging therapist that gives them amazing insight, but whatever happens, they emerge magically cured, and then everything is alright forever.

And this is bullshit.  Of course trauma can cause all kinds of other problems, but many mental health issues can start up seemingly for no reason at all- they just happen, because of biology, learning, whatever.  And then people feel guilty because they haven’t “earned” the right to feel what they’re feeling.  And many people struggle with symptoms that are anything but likeable and quirky.  They can be confusing, and embarrassing, and disabling.  People often know exactly what would make them feel better (Exercise!  Eat better!  Drink less!  Change jobs!  Get more sleep!) but they keep right on doing things that make them feel worse.  They can make people act in ways that cause friends and family more likely to back away.  And for many people, this is a lifelong health issue- not always, but often.  So it has to be managed just like diabetes, and friends and family need to be educated about how to be most supportive and helpful.  There’s not usually a magical quick fix. 

People are often all in on the quick fixes- posting something on Instagram about suicide prevention, or getting furious when there’s a newspaper story about someone not getting a residential treatment bed for their heroin addiction.  But when it comes to the long-term and effective interventions- talking to a family member about getting rid of their guns, since guns are responsible for far more suicides than homicides; or supporting a methadone clinic or safe injection clinic in your neighborhood, which would be far more effective for opioid addiction than residential treatment, that usually gets less traction.

What hurdles do Veterans get in their way and what is most important to you when dealing with them?

Minu: Nowadays, most people in the US don’t have family members and friends in the military- less than 0.5% of the population is active duty. Only about 7% of the population has ever served in the military and the majority of those individuals are over 60. So many people get most of their information about Veterans from movies and stories and the news instead of actual Veterans.  As a culture, we’ve  fetishized soldiers and Veterans as either superheroes who are constantly putting themselves “in harm’s way” or as angry, broken, often suicidal “casualties of war.” I think this has interfered with our ability to see ACTUAL Veterans as individuals, especially when they are having experiences that don’t line up with those stereotypes.  When Veterans are re-integrating, this can be a major barrier; people ask extremely insensitive questions (“did you ever kill anyone?”) rather than show curiosity about their military experiences the way you would with any other person.  I have also observed that many people have lowered expectations for many Veterans who have suffered trauma- they give the unspoken message that PTSD and lifelong disability are an inevitable sentence.  It’s also hard for a lot of Veterans because even though many of them will come back from their service with tons of very specialized experience, that experience is often not formally recognized back in the US.  I generally hope that people I work with feel respected and experience a sense of “endless hope without expectations.”  Meaning, I think my job is to be endlessly hopeful for people, but to do so in a way that doesn’t take it personally when things don’t go as planned- no one has let ME down.  The only way this seems to work is to be genuinely interested in the person outside the immediate symptoms.  I have never been at all interested in whether people stop using drugs, for example.  It really isn’t my concern or problem.  I am extremely interested in the rest of their lives, however- whether they get their kids back, whether they start drawing again, whether they finish chemo, whether they feel good about themselves, etc.  And generally, using tends to get in the way of those things. There’s an idea that you should never have a goal that a dead person can do better than you.  Dead people don’t use heroin, don’t feel depressed, don’t do anything.  “I want to get an apartment so I can have my kids visit me.” “I want to start playing guitar again.”  Only living people can do things like that.  Now THAT is something worth fighting for, right?

In 2019, you found yourself in a nerve-wracking situation that left many stunned: can you briefly describe again what happened?

Minu: I had been the subject of long-standing harassment and retaliation as a result of my refusing to hide a waitlist for treatment at my VA hospital back in 2014.  In 2018 and 2019, I had brought a number of patient safety issues to light, and this resulted in my clinical privileges being suspended in April of 2019.  When I was asked to testify to Congress about Whistleblower Retaliation at the VA in June of 2019, the VA informed me I would be fired the day before I testified.  I testified anyway, and the Office of Special Counsel ended up stepping in and putting a stay on the termination.  They have been conducting an investigation of the retaliation for the past two years.  However, even though the OSC was able to stop me from being fired while the investigation has been going on, the VA has refused to let me come to work and do my job.  I haven’t been able to speak to my patients and I’ve been stuck at home doing meaningless tasks.

2019 turned out to be a nerve-wracking and tough year for Minu: what was it like for you to see your wife suffer so much on one hand, but to see her fight so hard for her patients on the other?

Brian: It‘s been over two years since she has been able to work and there is nothing that we can do about it. I am proud of her for standing up for her patients and doing the right thing, even when she knew that she could face retaliation for it. I feel so helpless, because there is nothing I can do to fix it. I have done my best to be supportive, but I feel so awful for her.

In what ways did the situation at the time affect you and what gave you the strength you needed to get through it? How has it all developed up to now?

Minu: It was probably the worst thing I have ever dealt with.  I was simultaneously losing one of the core parts of my identity and being cut off from hundreds of people I’m used to caring for.  I had patients trying to contact me, worried that something had happened, or needing help themselves, and I couldn’t respond.  It felt like I was abandoning my duties.  The piece of it that felt the most demoralizing was the realization that most people will watch something bad happening and do nothing- I can’t even count how many coworkers said privately to me how badly they felt, but then followed it up with “I wish there was something I could do, but…”  It’s funny, because it ended up being horrible foreshadowing to all of the national whistleblower retaliation incidents that happened later that year.  And they were all the same- situations that most people felt were wrong, but didn’t speak up about because they were afraid of the consequences.  I got through it because I was lucky to have an amazingly supportive husband and family, and we had enough resources to hire really great lawyers.  And as bad as it got, I never regretted what I had done.  I felt like it was important to stick up for this group of people- I didn’t think they would have received the same treatment if they were not majority Black, or not addicted, or wealthy.  I also felt incredibly strongly that it was important to resist the urge to overlook wrongdoing out of fear.  It’s morally corrupting and contagious to do this in any society, but particularly in healthcare.  When I’ve been upset about people staying quiet, I’ve been told “well, it’s complicated.”  It’s not complicated, though.  It can be hard, but it’s not complicated.  You need to try to do the ethical thing in every situation. And if you see something wrong happening, you need to speak up, even if it doesn’t affect you directly.  And if everyone does this, we won’t have situations where we all fear the consequences.  

What worried you the most in this tense situation?

Brian: It‘s still going on, but I worry the most that she will not be able to go back to her job, which she loves so much.

What do you love about your job?

Minu: A lot of my patients have come back from combat and are bored by everything- it’s why they rip and run and use and get into crazy things.  I always tell them- there’s nothing wrong with this trait- liking novelty and excitement- you just need to channel it a little.  I love my job because I guess I am one of those people at heart.  I was the kid who loved jumping off high things, and riding my bike down the hill standing on the seat, and shooting off fireworks.  I was just lucky enough to get into this instead of drugs and illegal stuff.  So I feel a kinship with people who are struggling to find a way to channel their strengths in the world.  Most of my patients are extremely skilled, but haven’t always figured out yet how to translate skills that kept them alive in one area of their lives (combat, using drugs, etc.) into something new and less potentially lethal.  So it’s fun to work with them on this- like a game.  I have always liked working with so-called “problem children.”  I guess “there but for the grace of God go I.”  I can relate to the experience of feeling like you’re going through life with no skin- and it’s hard, because there is nothing in the world more effective than an opioid for taking that feeling away.  So it gives me endless empathy for people in recovery from opioids- it’s an unimaginable loss.

When and how did you first meet Minu and what impression did she leave on you? When did you realize she was the love of your life?

Brian: We knew each other throughout High School, but we really connected when she took the cover photo for the Ashes Hiding Place record. She is smart, creative, and intense… I was taken by her immediately.

Although things felt serious right away, I really wasn‘t sure how we could stay together long term. It was a weird time, because I was dropping out of High School at the same time that she was getting in to Harvard University. Also, our families were so different. My home life was awful and chaotic, and her family was close, functional, and cultured. We ended up both moving to Boston, where I started Salad Days and she went to school. We grew closer and closer, and it became clear to me that I did not ever want a life without her in it.

You quit as a music producer and took a well-paying job instead: when did you first notice for yourself that your past was catching up with you more and more and that you were slowly but surely slipping into a depressive episode?

Brian: I was feeling burnt out from doing record after record, and I decided to take a break from music. I knew I was in a bad place, and I thought a drastic change would help. It ended up making things much worse. It became clear to me that I was running from something, but I wasn‘t sure what. I also found myself disconnected from a community of people that I needed desperately. It wasn‘t until I started writing music again that I was able to process any of the things that I was feeling.

What changes did you notice in Brian when he took a regular, well-paying job and took a break from producing?

Minu: For about maybe 6 months, he seemed ok. The studio had been super stressful at the end in all kinds of ways, so it probably wasn’t surprising. What worried me was that he wasn’t playing any music, though. I kept asking him whether he missed it, and he’d say not at all.  That seemed ridiculous to me.  The funny part is that our daughter, who was only about 7 then, also thought it was concerning.  She used to ask ME about it- “doesn’t Daddy miss the studio?”  Of course, even though Brian’s original desire had just been to have a job that wasn’t super stressful, he immediately ended up coming up with all of these ideas to improve things and before long was in charge of most of the operations at the company.  I think it was all of his unused creative energy, rerouted, but it meant that he’d recreated an incredibly stressful situation for himself.. So it was the worst case scenario, because he had tons of responsibility and was spending lots of time and energy on something he had almost no interest in. 

Were there any signs that he was slipping more and more psychologically, and was there anything that worried you?

Minu: Definitely.  He was more and more irritable, and less and less able to see that there might be any way out.  From the outside, I could see that- uh- these people are terrible, you hate what you’re doing, you need to LEAVE.  But what I wasn’t totally grasping at that point was that even though I had complete faith that Brian would land on his feet, since he has been good at literally everything he has done, he was listening to me from deep in a depression hole.  So I would say something like “dude, fuck this job!  It’s making you miserable!  I have total faith in you and we will figure this out” and he would experience that as not only unhelpful, but also evidence that I had terrible judgment since clearly no one would think he was good at anything, ever. 

To what extent did family life suffer as a result, and in what ways did Minu try to help and support you?

Brian: I tuned my life out entirely. I started drinking in an unhealthy way, and would do anything I could to block out my inner thoughts. I never shared it with anyone, but Minu could tell that things were getting worse and encouraged me to make changes.

On the one hand you are a psychologist, on the other hand you are his wife: what middle ground have you found to help and support Brian as best you can?

Minu: Well, people may love finding out that you’re a psychologist at a party, because then they can tell you weird things and ask for inappropriate advice, but no one wants a psychologist as a relative.  Ideally, you’d be able to recognize issues and use all of your therapist skills, but honestly, most of the time I’m not sure it does me much good, since most of us just act different with our own families.  Brian has heard me on the phone with patients, talking super calmly and patiently, and remarked later “I want THAT Minu!  She talks SO SLOWLY!”

I think that there have definitely been times that I’ve realized I’m being annoying, and more like a therapist than a wife- like nagging Brian about falling asleep with the TV on because it’s “bad sleep hygiene.” So I try not to do that, although I’m not always successful.  I mostly tried to keep asking him questions about how he was making sense of his situation at work, and how things did or didn’t line up with his values and sense of self, and then when he started talking about music even a little bit, being really, really encouraging.  Because I never for a second believed that walking away from music was going to work in the long run.  But it took starting to reconnect with music a few years ago for Brian to kind of wake up again. And then it was a matter of supporting him to be confident that he could walk away from that terrible job.

How did you feel when his drinking increased during that time and seeing him so desperate and hopeless?

Minu: That was hard to watch and scary, but also easier to deal with in a way because it was finally something tangible and measurable that I could point out to him and that he couldn’t dismiss.  When I had been trying to tell him that he seemed irritable, or sad, or numb, he would blow those observations off by attributing them to something completely situational- “today was really crappy” or “I’m just tired right now” etc.  But you can count up beer cans.  So, actually, even though Brian seemed way more depressed at that moment, the fact that we were both finally in agreement that something unhealthy was going on and that he was depressed made it feel more hopeful. And luckily it was something tangible he was able to notice and put the brakes on before it became hard to stop.. 

How would you describe Brian when he was in this deep depressive episode, and what symptoms and changes in nature broke your heart in particular?

Minu: I felt really sad that he was so checked out with our daughter.  He just seemed blank, and I knew that he would end up feeling terrible about that later.  And then she would get desperate to get a reaction from him, so she would ramp up, especially during dinner, and he’d be frustrated instead of responsive, and she would feel hurt and would blow up.  It felt so inevitable and I just felt so sad for both of them. 

What did Cassidy get during that time and how did you try to explain to her what was going on with him?

Minu: She was very confused when Brian stopped recording.  She had literally grown up in the studio- she called it the “tudio” because she couldn’t say the letter “s.”  She used to talk about “Daddy’s bands,” and her favorite thing in the world was going to the studio and “hanging out with the boys.”  Her entire image of Brian was of someone who made music.  So when that stopped she was completely floored- it was a real loss to her, not just of a physical space and people and activities she loved, but a way of seeing Brian that she took pride in.  She was really worried that he would be sad, too, and then of course it happened.  She was only young- 7 at first- but she clearly knew something was off.  I talked to her about it Initially, more about not taking things personally and blowing up when someone else was having a hard time, which honestly was a lesson that was useful anyway.  And then over time, we talked about things like how Brian and I might be sad or sick but we would still be the same people, and still be ok- it wasn’t her job to take care of us.  I thought a lot about a time when she was much younger- 5 or so- and we had briefly lost one of our dogs.  After we found her, I had said to Cassidy “that was so scary today!  Were you scared?” and she had said “yes…but not as much that Nala was lost.  I was scared because you looked so sad that I thought you might never stop being sad again.”  So I tried to convey that message- everyone has a hard time at some point, and no feeling is final. 

How much did this situation stress you out and how were you able to gain some distance?

Minu: It was hard to watch, because it was hard to see Brian struggle.  At the same time, I always had confidence that he would come out on the other side.  And the struggling seemed like a healthy response to me- his situation WAS crappy and depressing.  So depression seemed normal.  It seemed like an infected cut- covering it up would have made it worse. 

How easy or difficult was it for you to let Minu get close to you during this difficult and depressing time?

Brian: I still have a difficult time talking to Minu, or anyone really, about it. It‘s strange that it‘s easier to put it in a song and share it with the world, than it is to tell someone that you have shared your entire life with.

When did it get to the point where you suggested to Brian that he quit that job and go back to being a music producer?

Minu: Pretty early on, although I wasn’t sure he should definitely be a producer again.  I just thought he needed to be doing some sort of art. I remember arguing about the importance of being an artist (this was when I was still stupidly trying to argue Brian out of depression).  I have never done art for a living, but I still think of myself as an artist- I have always spent huge parts of my free time making things.  So I was hoping he would at least swing back in that direction- like maybe he could find something to do that was sort of stable and ALSO make art- I guess the issue for me wasn’t that he was working that job per se, it was that it was actively sucking the energy out of him to the point that he had no spark left to do anything else.  But it finally reached a point where he was just so miserable that it was clear that something radical needed to happen. 

How did she get you back into music and how much persuasion did it take? How did she convince you to quit your job in the end?

Brian: Minu knew that I wasn‘t happy. I was scared to leave my job and I was worried about our finances, but at the same time I was miserable. Minu pushed me to find something I could pour my heart into, and she wasn‘t worried about the sacrifices that we would need to make. It ended up being music, but I think she would have supported me doing anything that felt meaningful.

In what time frame did this change occur and how did you experience him when he finally quit that job?

Minu: I think it was really obvious  how much he missed music when they were writing stuff for the Battery release in the beginning of 2017. On the one hand, I could see how energized playing and writing was making him, but on the other hand, it was really clear that Battery wasn’t quite the right fit any more.  And then when they did those European shows that winter, it was even more pronounced- he was so happy being around music, and doing the shows, and seeing all of the people he’s known over the years.  And in some ways he probably could have just kept on working that job and done the occasional Battery show or tour without changing much about anything else.  But he’d been writing all of these new songs at home, they were kind of exploding out of him, and they just weren’t Battery songs.  And so I remember sitting on the plane coming home from Europe and talking about just going for it, stepping out into nothing.  And it seemed like as soon as he’d made the decision, it was like he was a different person.  He kept talking about how he couldn’t believe he’d stayed in such a horrible situation for so long.  But I think that’s often how it goes with miserable situations- it’s like boiling frogs.  Of course you’d never actually DO this, but apparently you could drop a frog into hot water, and they’d leap right back out again.  But if you put a frog into cold water, and then slowly heat it, they’ll eventually boil to death.  And we’re the same way- situations that get bad gradually are very hard to escape from.  You might look in from the outside and think “I’d never let it get that bad!” but it because it happens gradually there’s no obvious line you cross where you know it’s time to escape- you just keep accommodating and accommodating.

What do you appreciate and love about Brian?

Minu: I don’t know anyone else who is as good at seeing the possibility in things- whether it’s physical spaces, or songs, or people, or whatever.  Brian is totally unfettered by the details that derail most people’s ability to see through to the important parts of things.  He would have been an amazing architect, or a chef, or a builder, or a coach- he kind of IS all of those things, actually.  But he’s just really good at boiling things down to the their essential components and then making them better.  We’ve been together since high school, and there has never been a time since then that he wasn’t throwing himself into becoming incredibly expert at something.  It’s not just being smart and talented, although he’s obviously both of those things- he’s like a sponge for knowledge.  Like the second year we were in Boston, when he was 19, and he was finding a building to rent, and building a studio in it with a control room with a double window into the live room, and running wires everywhere, and floating a floor, and drywalling things- looking back, I have no idea how he had the guts to decide to go for that, let alone figure it all out. Or he’ll decide we can’t get a good carryout version of our favorite Vietnamese dish and learn to make it, taking months to tweak the recipe until it’s perfect.   

What do you appreciate and love about her? How do you complement each other?

Brian: She is the most accepting person that I have ever met. She can see the best in people and accept them for who they are.

We are opposites in so many ways. She is very comfortable with herself and doesn‘t care what people think about her at all. She makes quick decisions and doesn‘t second guess herself. I worry, and plan, and like to go over things a million times. We both need each other for balance.

Our daughter is a lovely blend of both.

What went through your mind when he first told you about Be Well and that its content would be about his struggles with depression and anxiety? Were there also doubts at the beginning?

Minu: We never had a big formal discussion about it.  It made sense to me that he would write about what he was experiencing.  I was actually a little surprised that so  much was made about that aspect of the record in a way- I feel like it’s about a lot of things, fatherhood, change, identity…but it’s sort of been pigeonholed as about “mental health.”  I guess I think the fact that it IS being looked at as a record about mental health says a lot about how stigmatized mental health is.  People can write whole records about using drugs, or breaking up with someone, and no one particularly notices. 

What was the very first song you heard and what feelings did it set free in you?  Which lyrics and/or songs touch you the most and why those in particular?

Minu: I’d been hearing bits and pieces of songs for some time and there had been notebooks with song lyrics lying around the place that I’d peeked at, so I’m not sure which song I heard first.  It wasn’t the first song I heard, but Frozen was obviously early on, and the lyrics made me feel really, really sad.  I knew Brian had been feeling that way, but it was hard to see it in black and white like that.  And they made me want to kind of argue with him, to make sure he didn’t really feel that way anymore and to convince him that it wasn’t true.  But I know that would have been about me feeling uncomfortable with those feelings, which really wouldn’t have felt supportive. 

To what extent is this album helpful for sufferers and also relatives?

Minu: It seems like people have related really strongly to how starkly Brian has expressed the experiences of struggling with depression, and the way it impacted all facets of his life.  And also things like parenthood, and making sense of the past and childhood and regret, and identity, and recovery.  Those are all universal themes, but the way the lyrics deal with them is definitely less neat and tidy that you usually see- there’s not the sense that everything is all worked out by the end of the song and tied up in a nice bow.  So I think that’s closer to the experience of both sufferers and relatives.  Personally, a tiny part of me has occasionally worried about whether people will listen to the songs and assume that his family wasn’t there for him.  But again, I think that’s probably also something that relatives can relate to- having moments where you feel like their depression is your fault, and feeling helpless because no matter how much you love someone, you can’t argue them out of depression or anxiety. 

How did the selection of images for the album come about? How was it decided which ones to take for the covers? What was the deciding factor?

Minu: Brian went through hundreds, maybe thousands of my pictures, looking for ones that gave him a certain feel that matched the record.  Sometimes he had a specific picture in mind, something he remembered from already seeing it.  But often he was just seeing things and picking them out. 

Did you expect so much positive feedback when the record came out?

Minu: I know not to have expectations any more- there have been so many times I thought records were amazing and then they didn’t get much of a splash.  So it wasn’t surprising in that I definitely thought it was deserved, but I also didn’t take it for granted. 

How did you experience the very first shows?

Minu: It was amazing! You never know how people are going to gel together until it happens, so it was so cool to see the whole band up there and feel their energy.  And it was awesome to see how the audience related to the music. 

Why do Mike, Peter, Shane, Aaron and Brian fit together so perfectly as a band?

Minu: They have really different personalities that complement each other very well.  What’s cool is that Mike and Brian have known each other for over 25 years and played and made music together all through that time- when we met him, we were all still in high school and Mike had full-on metal hair down to his butt. And they are both super strong personalities.  So you might think that it would be hard to add other people into that mix.  But it hasn’t been like that at all- each of the other guys add their own particular feel and voice to the band, and at least from the outside, there really doesn’t seem to be a lot of rub.  It’s the happiest and most drama-free bandmate situation Brian has ever been in.

What are you grateful to Minu for?

Brian: For seeing the best parts of me, even when I couldn‘t.

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