Liz O’Brien talks to Niall Breslin about his admiration for frontline staff, bereavement in lockdown, his new podcast, and why it's so important for us all just to slow down.
As Ireland continues to emerge from lockdown, Niall Breslin hopes people realise it's perfectly normal to feel anxious about it; just as he does.
“Being anxious right now is an incredibly normal, logical reaction to what is a very uncertain and at times traumatising situation," he says.
“We need to let people know that feeling overwhelmed is valid, and it's logical, and it's rational, and there's nothing wrong with you, and you're not broken — you are the very definition of resilience. You’ve just come through a pandemic for feck's sake, how many people can say they’ve done that?”
Breslin set foot in his Dublin studio last week for the first time in 14 weeks. Before that, he was at home with his parents in Mullingar where they were cocooning. It gave him a chance to reconnect with them at a time when his mum needed his support most — she recently lost her brother to coronavirus.
“It’s been so surreal, like; he lived in Glasgow so we couldn’t go over,” says Breslin.
What really hit me about the whole thing — my uncle had been sick for a while; he was struggling with dementia — but what was really difficult was, the poor nurse who had to ring us was like: ‘I'm the last person he's going to see; there's nobody here for him, only me’.
“She was only 19 years of age and you kind of think: ‘Jesus, how many of these young people have to do that?’. Like it was much more than just saving people's lives; a lot of them have to say goodbye to people.”
Like many families bereaved because of Covid-19, their goodbye wasn’t the personal send-off it should have been, and it’s something Breslin will need time to process.
“That'll start coming out a little bit now and we need to not let this feel like ‘it's all OK’, and ‘we're all going back (to normal) and everything's great’.
“No, actually; a lot of people are going to be really, really, really overwhelmed by all of this and we need to let them have a space to be that way.”
Breslin sat in the sun, by a lake as he watched his uncle Jonny be laid to rest, via YouTube.
Day in, day out, as he watched the death toll and rates of infection rise, he felt the nation’s loss of life was almost dehumanised.
And while he believes the Government did a “relatively good job during the pandemic” he says people, now more than ever, need active systems of support; not just ads on the radio telling them to talk.
The Blizzards’ frontman has been canvassing the Government for years to improve mental health services in Ireland.
It’s no secret that he's struggled with anxiety and depression; he still does, and manages it as best he can.
He sees a therapist for his mental health, just as he’ll see a physio for his dodgy hip. “I'm completely comfortable with going back to therapy. It's something I do constantly throughout my life.” One therapist, “a gentleman wearing a cravat”, once said to him: “Niall, we’re all fucked up, but some of us are better at it. I want to teach you to be better at it; we all have something going on up there’.” Breslin thought that was one of the most inspiring things a therapist has said to him. He likened it to Leonard Cohen's lyric: ‘There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.
There’s no perfect human. Every brain is built imperfectly — you're not weak if you're anxious, or stressed, or depressed; you're just very human and maybe you're very, very in touch with those things that make us human.
Mindfulness also helps Breslin; he actually has a Masters in mindfulness-based interventions. Keen to point out it’s not all about being in a perfectly serene, softly spoken environment where incense is burning and music is playing, but rather “it’s about being in the present moment”.
He’s been meditating in a room covered in dog hair in his parents' place, and that works for him!
“If you think about it, anxiety comes from thinking about what’s happening, what’s going to happen,” he says. “And all of your mood swings are generally driven by what did happen.
“The only place they don't exist is when you're literally in the present moment — where you're perfectly safe.” The clinical definition of mindfulness, as far as Breslin is concerned, doesn’t make sense — “paying attention to the present moment, nonjudgemental”.
“I say to people: ‘Hop into a cold shower there and when that water cuts the arse off, you tell me if you're thinking about your shopping tomorrow’ ... you're not, because you have no choice but to become present and actually deal with what's happening. That’s being present in the moment.” Mindfulness, among other topics, is the subject of the second season of his Where Is My Mind podcast.
It captures the spirit of the zeitgeist in the wake of Covid-19 as people re-examine their values and what matters most to them, as well as exploring how the very things that can help us live a happier, richer life are often under our noses, and how mindfulness can unlock their power to change our worlds forever.
“The second season was going to be more of a dive into what's happening to the minds and how we're reacting to certain things in society.” Before it was released, however, he called his producer and decided to rewrite the series in response to the pandemic.
“And I was like: ‘People need something else now, not fantastic positivity, no one needs that; what they needed was to understand all these amazing things that we're constantly seeking and these moments of enlightenment, are already here.
“People started to realise and say: ‘My God, isn't the lake beautiful?’ My mate said: ‘The birds are louder’. I was like: “No, dude, you're just listening to them now”.
When we were forced to slow down, we only then started to realise what we were truly missing. That, to me, is what I wanted the second season to be about, regardless of what happened, we cannot go back to the pace that we were moving as a society — from a neuroscience perspective, from a psychological perspective, from a sociological perspective, it is not sustainable.
“And we have to stop just rewarding 'doing' all the time in our culture.”
Broadcaster Ryan Tubridy, best-selling author Marian Keyes, and comedian Roisin Conaty are among the guests chatting to Breslin about what brings meaning to their lives and what enriches the human spirit — from nature, to laughter, to music, to love. And he couldn’t release the series without including a tune from the world’s first-ever “Lockdown Ukulele Rockdown” band. During lockdown, Breslin and his friends taught hundreds of people how to play the ukulele — they bought 350 instruments and sent them free of charge to cocooners nationwide. The band — which has featured on BBC and RTÉ — has recorded Edward Sharp’s track ‘Home,’ along with amateur and professional musicians, an over-70s choir, The Blizzards and other Irish artists.
The new season is on Spotify now and it has a lot to live up to — it's older brother, season one, is up for a Listener’s Choice Award and a Creativity Award, as part of the British Podcast Awards. If that's not enough Breslin for you, he also hosts the Wake Up, Wind Down wellness series, a twice-daily podcast, also on Spotify.