The fear factor

WHEN Niall Breslin, better known as Bressie, appeared on the judging panel of RTE’s The Voice last year, he became a star.

A former member of music band, the Blizzards, Bressie had played GAA for West Meath, and rugby for Leinster. His height (6ft 6”), rugged good looks and his gentle expertise appealed to viewers.

But Bressie’s life was not as it seemed. “I had general anxiety disorder,” he says. “I’d had breathing problems, and thought it was asthma. I’d started to faint and occasionally collapse. That’s what sent me to my GP for a diagnosis. One night, when Kathryn Thomas had asked us about a performance, I felt this vice-like grip and had to struggle for air. I waited for the ad break, rushed into my dressing room, and finally got my breath back. That was my first full-blown panic attack.”

Bressie realised his anxiety was not new. “At about 12 or 13, I found it hard to breathe at times. But I didn’t figure out what it was, and it went away. I don’t think anxiety disorder was known about back then. So I hid from it. Occasionally, anxiety would raise its head, but it’s usually sparked by silly things, not what you might expect. The things that cause most people issues, like going on live TV, or out on stage, don’t generally bother me at all.”

Why was The Voice a catalyst? “I hadn’t much structure in my life last year,” he says. “I was living in London on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and was flying to Dublin for Thursday, Friday and Saturday. I was living in a hotel. Also, I was trying to write my album. When you suffer from mental health issues, you have to hide yourself in a room. You put on a pair of headphones and get through it, but when you’re on TV, you have to work out how to focus.

“I had to break it down and try to understand it. I don’t suffer from depression, I suffer from anxiety. It’s slightly related, but it’s not the same thing. I didn’t want to go on medication. I looked at the basic science. Anxiety and depression cause a depletion of serotonin in the brain. It’s been proven that physical things, like running, swimming and cycling, cause the serotonin level to rise. I was an athlete before, so I started training for the triathlon. That has been great.”

Today, life is good for Bressie. “I’m enjoying The Voice. I know what I’m doing. My new album is at number one. That gives me a great sense of release. I’m living in Dublin, and I get up at six in the morning and go for my run. I just do it,” he says.

Why talk publicly about anxiety? “In Ireland, we bury our heads in the sand about issues we’re uncomfortable with. There are things we need to educate people about; things like drugs, which I despise, like alcohol, and depression and anxiety. I did it for teenagers. I was in my late 20s when I was diagnosed. Imagine being 13, having anxiety, and it being compounded with cyber-bullying, and other issues?”

What’s his message? “My anxiety was crippling. I had to deal with it, or the future was dangerous for me. My message is, ‘you can learn to deal with it. You can control it, and get rid of it’.”

Rugby journalist and RTÉ analyst Brent Pope has had anxiety attacks since he was a teenager. It started on the eve of exams. “Before ‘Leaving Certificate’ in New Zealand, I’d have a bath to try and relax and to get a good night’s sleep. But I’d be stuck in the bath, shaking uncontrollably, until I was blue, and the water went cold. My mind was telling me I’d fail the exam, and fail everything I tried in my life. I’d be terrified and unable to sleep,” he says.

Brent’s father was a worrier, and his brother has depression. “I think there’s a link,” he says. “I don’t think I have depression. I don’t struggle to get up, and I’m not unmotivated, but I don’t derive enjoyment out of situations that other people would. I fail to take compliments, and I had low self-esteem as a rugby player.”

Brent sang on Celebrity You’re a Star, learned the clarinet on TV, and played a solo in the Helix in front of an audience. “I was absolutely terrified,” he says. “It brought on a full-blown panic attack. But putting myself out there is part of my coping strategy. I push myself out of my comfort zone, so that other things become easier. I’m not going to let my anxiety win in that situation. I will beat it.”

Brent works with charities, spreading awareness of depression and anxiety.

“I want to say, ‘it’s ok not to be ok.’ In the past, I’ve hidden it away. In 1991, before I came to Ireland, I was at an all-time low. I needed help. I locked myself away for six months. In the rugby world, there was no-one to reach out to.

“Writing it in my book, If You Really Knew Me, and talking about it, was part of coming to an acceptance of it. I’ve had to stop running away from it. I’ve spent years resisting anxiety, but now I accept it. I identify it, then let it wash over me.”

* Sue Leonard is author of Keys to the Cage – How People Cope With Depression (New Island).

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