“I decided I needed to humanise it. I needed to give it a name, I needed to objectify it. So, I did… I called my mind Jeffery... I got hotel paper, and I wrote down everything I think Jeffery loves."
Last Friday morning, Niall 'Bressie' Breslin held a talk in DCU about mental health.
The singer, perhaps best known for being the former lead singer of ‘The Blizzards’, or his current run as one of the coaches for ‘The Voice of Ireland’ was organised by the DCU student health campaign, Stamp Out Stigma. It saw Bressie offer advice on those who are struggling with themselves, as well as reflecting on his own mental health struggles throughout his life.
“It was never my illness that I wasn’t able to cope with. It was disguising it. It was the constant excuses that I had to make because of it and the constant repression of my own identity,” the singer outlined, rather eloquently.
Bressie, who before entering the music industry played professional rugby with Leinster, explained at the start of the talk that this was something that he’s spent a fair deal of time learning about.
“We have to start prioritising that this becomes absolutely number one. From primary school, to secondary school, to third level because, guess what? Everything that you do in terms of your academic achievement and what you wanna do are worthless unless your head is able to cope with life. I learned that the hard way.”
The 35-year old painted an extremely vivid picture of how he suffered as a teenager:
“My only coping strategy was to completely avoid my friends... and as a 15-year-old, I was captain of my school football team, I was representing Leinster at (underage) Rugby, I was in a band. I was the anti-stereotype. And I’ll tell you why, not because I was social, not because I was ‘Good-time Charlie’, but because the only time when that pain in my chest went away was when I set foot on the pitch, when I trained, or when I held an instrument. And only at that particular point did it go away. So, I became addicted.”
Bressie went on to openly explain the extent of his demons, as panic attacks and sleepless nights became regular occurrences. He admits that at the time, it was something that when going into school, could easily go under the radar, but he feels that today teachers are more alert to it. “Our teachers are now recognising that this just might not just be a kid who’s a bit of a lazy git, that [it] could be a kid in absolute distress, because I was.”
Despite these troubles very much forming a massive part of his life, the star admitted that these problems are certainly responsible for making him the person he is today:
“This is fundamentally where I get my belief that people who struggle with a mental health illness have an edge over other people... once they’re able to find that resilience, bring it out, nurture it, promote it, they’ll realise what they’re capable of.”
Bressie today is a man who has learned how to do this. He uses everything he’s learned to better himself, as well as become a spokesperson for attempting to break down the stigma associated with mental health.
“We have a very unusual relationship and understanding with what self-harm is and it’s absolutely different for everybody, but for me self-harming had nothing to do with attention, I didn’t want attention, it’s the last thing I wanted. It was a release,” he told the crowd.
It wasn’t until he had his worst attack, to that point, when his anxiety led him into intentionally breaking his own arm in his bedroom, that he first spoke out about it, and even then it wasn’t the full story. “I didn’t tell her (his mum) the full picture, I said, ‘Mum, I’m a bit uneasy in myself at the moment.’ And, that was the difference.”
However he admitted that the fear and shame was still too strong at this stage to really explain the extent of what he was dealing with, so he, “did what most Irish men do, I put the head down and went: ‘I’m fine, be grand.’” But, it wasn’t.
From here, he tells the audience about the jump to third level-education, and how this only made things worse. Attempting to go to college in UCD was a step too far for his anxiety and led him to go to great lengths in order to attempt to deal with it.
Self-medication, which Bressie attempted to outline as something that under no circumstances should be done by someone trying to get through their problems, was a measure that he sadly took to shield it. “And, here’s the funny thing about mental health illness. You think you can outrun it, you think you can do something new to make it go away, but you can’t.”
Bressie’s problems forced him to take drastic decisions, closing important chapters in his life. Quitting rugby, he eventually moved back to Westmeath and started his band, ‘The Blizzards’. Again, despite finding success not only in Ireland, but across the UK, his inability to confront, or disclose his ever-worsening condition led to the eventual breakdown of the band.
“You cannot be in a relationship... if there isn’t 100% honesty. Honesty is the fundamental spine or backbone of any relationship, whether it’s a physical one, whether it’s a family one, whether it’s a friend,” he said.
In a self-imposed exile, he moved to London, where he was barely able to leave his house. From here he had what he describes as his one and only full-breakdown: “I was walking down the road, it was a really warm summer’s day. And, I can’t describe the fear that came over me. It just poisoned every part of my body.
“I ran straight across a two dual-carriageway road, I didn’t even look left and right... and I ran into a park and I slept under a tree. I remember looking, I could see London city in the distance.”
The distance from the world made him feel safe, and he slept there for the night.
Very shortly after this, Bressie took a leap of faith. He agreed to join ‘The Voice of Ireland’ as a coach, admitting that the excuse to go home to Ireland each weekend and see his mother was the only thing motivating him to do it.
From here he describes the overwhelming fear he had in the build up that he would suffer a panic attack on live television. After a lucky escape in just the third week of broadcast, the singer knew that he had to finally face the problem, and opened up.
“I decided I needed to humanise it. I needed to give it a name, I needed to objectify it. So, I did… I called my mind Jeffery... I got hotel paper, and I wrote down everything I think Jeffery loves. Exercise... good people... healthy food… and on another page I wrote down everything I know that Jeffery hates, and the top of that list was toxic people.”
From here, he made the decision to give every single therapeutic option a chance, in order to not only learn how to cope, but to garner a full understanding of what is going on with his mind. Bressie told the crowd that doing this allowed his mental fitness to reach a level he never thought imaginable.
“It takes time for these things to work,” he said. But as someone listening to his words, it seems to have really made an impact. He cited cognitive behavioural therapy as one of the most influential treatments he used. It should be noted that he did however attempt to underline the fact that mental illness is incredibly subjective and certain treatments work differently on everyone.
The hour long talk flew by with barely a sound uttered by those in the crowd until the end, where Bressie was met with a rapturous and respectful standing ovation for his time. With famous figures coming in to openly talk about these kinds of issues, I think it’s fair to say that we are coming a long way to finally stamping out the stigma in Ireland.
If you ever need to reach out and talk about mental health or feeling down, contact Samaritans at: http://www.samaritans.org/.
For more information about the Stamp Out Stigma health campaign, you can visit their Facebook here.