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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 21 August, 2019
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'Never mind play rugby, some days I couldn't even get out of my bed'

Niall Breslin, better known as ‘Bressie,’ chats to The42 about sport, mental health and life as a teenager in Israel.

Breslin pictured at the launch of the 2015 An Post Cycle Series.
Breslin pictured at the launch of the 2015 An Post Cycle Series.
Image: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE

NIALL BRESLIN’S LIFE has been nothing if not eventful.

Now 34 years of age, he has won a Leinster U21 Football Championship medal with Westmeath, represented Ireland at the U21 Rugby World Cup, played the sport as a professional for Leinster, formed a commercially successful rock band before pursuing a solo career, joined Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment as a songwriter and producer, starred as one of the judges in the hit TV show The Voice of Ireland and become a passionate mental health advocate all in the space of roughly 15 years.

Breslin mentions high achievers over the course of our interview and it’d be fair to say he is one himself.

Most recently, the star has become the An Post Cycle Series Ambassador. The series involves five events in total, which will be held across the country, between May and September, beginning with the An Post Yeats Tour of Sligo on Saturday 2 May.

The Dublin-born musician, who took part in the An Post Sligo route last year, describes how he has gotten “massively into” cycling and in particular, triathlons, of late.

“It’s a lot easier on the body,” he tells The42. “I loved it the minute I got into it. And we also live in probably one of the best countries in the world to be cycling.

“I kind of realised in triathlon, I’m too big to be a strong runner. But I felt I could become a good cyclist if I put a bit of work into it.”

And as one of the fastest-growing sports in Ireland, Breslin is far from the only one to have fallen in love with triathlon in recent times. But what attracted him to it in the first place?

“It’s a challenge. It’s removing yourself from a comfort zone. A lot of people want to do triathlon, but they’re frightened of water, they don’t want to do swimming. I had a huge phobia of water, so I felt that triathlon was a huge challenge mentally and physically. But once I did my first triathlon, I realised that this was a sport I could get into.

“When I get into sport, I really get into it. I know I’ll never reach a high level, but that’s not why I’m doing it.”

In fact, why Breslin’s doing it cannot be boiled down to one specific issue, but as a mental health advocate and Cycle Against Suicide ambassador, he naturally feels getting active can be hugely beneficial for a person’s mental health.

“For people like me, who’ve spoken openly about their mental health, and have a unique insight into it, what I would say is I’d never advocate it as a cure. I personally think for me it’s had huge benefits. But not just physical fitness — looking after yourself a bit more, eating well. I think you need to start making that connection between your immune system and your mental health.”

“If you’re eating crap, drinking crap, the chances are you won’t be too happy mentally either. So I’d view it as a form of medication — cycling especially.

“There’s something very special about fresh air and being on a bike and being present. When you’re on a tough cycle, sometimes everything else in the world becomes irrelevant, and that’s nice. You need to switch your mind off as it can be an absolute car crash of a place sometimes.”

Niall Breslin 7/11/2003 Source: INPHO

(Breslin, pictured in 2003, playing for Leinster against Llanelli)

Yet Breslin didn’t always associate sport with positive mental health. Having joined Leinster as a professional rugby player after leaving college, he quickly became disillusioned with life as a full-time athlete.

One of the issues at the time was Breslin’s unwillingness to openly speak about his depressive symptoms, with the harsh atmosphere of the dressing room environment only serving to encourage this silence.

“There was beyond a stigma,” he recalls. “We weren’t seen as humans. We were seen as people on a team that achieved a goal that the coaches wanted.

“I, as an athlete, was in a very dark place. I couldn’t train. I couldn’t function. Never mind play rugby, some days I couldn’t even get out of my bed.”

While acknowledging that rugby has “changed massively” for the better since those dark days, at the time, the thought of confiding in his coaches was never seriously considered by Breslin for fear of being perceived as weak and inferior mentally to his teammates.

“The irony of it is that I think people who deal with mental health issues have an edge over other people. I think they have a resilience that no other people have. Once they can figure out in their own head how to use it.

“In a triathlon or a marathon, when you hit that dark wall where you can barely move, you just think of those days where you can barely get out of bed. Nothing in the world comes close to how difficult that is. For me, that builds an internal resilience. So an awful lot of people who deal with mental health issues are very high achievers.

“People have seen at elite level that athletes probably are even more prone to issues than the normal person. There’s the added pressures called ‘athletic identity’ where life revolves around your sport and everything else doesn’t matter. So if you get injured, that can be very devastating.”

And injuries are something Breslin is all too familiar with, given that his short-lived career in rugby was blighted by them from day one, among other problems.

“I wasn’t functioning. I was intentionally injuring myself sometimes so I didn’t have to play or train. When I got injured, I wasn’t sleeping. There were all sorts of issues. It just wasn’t making me happy. It wasn’t worth it at that level, because I wasn’t being supported emotionally.

“Like everybody who has mental health problems tends to do, I just isolated myself more and more, talked less and less about it, and it slowly became worse and worse.

“I could have kept playing. I had a lot of injuries, but they weren’t career-threatening injuries. But they were f**king me up so much that I thought ‘why should I keep playing’. I had other things to do with my life — being a musician, going back to Gaelic football…”

Brian O'Driscoll Source: INPHO

(Brian O’Driscoll was one of Breslin’s teammates in the early 00s)

Consequently, after just three years and 14 appearances with Leinster, Breslin announced his decision to retire. While it was an inevitably difficult moment in the star’s life, he suggests it was not quite as heartbreaking for him as it is for others.

“Some rugby players are so steeped in rugby in schools, whereas I fell into it. A lot of people I knew, who played in schools — it was their life. It revolved around rugby. Their friends revolved around rugby. I was never like that, so getting out of it wasn’t the end of the world for me.

“My problem was that I wasn’t able to show people what I was capable of, and that was very frustrating. The minute I came into Leinster, I was injured.

“‘The likes of Brian O’Driscoll were looking at me thinking: what the f**k has this guy got a contract for’. I was injured all the time, so that was deeply frustrating, but I’ve no doubt that if I was injury-free, I could have achieved a lot more in rugby.”

And while Breslin emerged from the experience bruised but not beaten, he emphasises the need to treat current and future athletes with particular care.

“I think people need to open their eyes — especially as regards rugby, which is such a big sport in Ireland. I watched Second Captains on RTÉ Two the other night. It was about concussion and John Fogarty was saying ‘we need to start treating our players like humans and not battering rams’. Most teams now are hiring sports psychologists.

“There’s also a legal requirement now. IRUPA, all these guys have been set up with a specific task of dealing with player welfare. And player welfare is a hell of a lot more than physical. I only wish it was there when I was playing rugby.”

And while the loneliness of life as a professional athlete compounded Breslin’s mental health issues in his early 20s, the former Blizzards frontman can remember feeling panic-stricken as far back as his teens, when his father’s military deployment meant the family relocated to Israel for six months.

“Moving to Israel as a 13-year-old, having not really left Mullingar, was a culture shock that not many people have to experience. It wasn’t even the experience. It was that the conflict between the Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Forces had erupted again.

“I went from feeling like an invincible 13-year-old to understanding that life was very precious. It can be taken away from you at any point. So I think that’s when my anxiety problems started and I realised that there’s more to the world than Mullingar.”

Festival of Fires Source: Niall Carson

(After quitting rugby, Breslin went on to become a successful musician)

He feels musicians like himself tend to be more prone to depression, explaining:

“A lot of musicians I know would deal with anxiety problems, because they have an inability to switch their brain off. They have a creative brain that just wants to move and work all the time, which is a fantastic thing, but it can be difficult if you can’t learn to control it. The brain works that way. They have to learn ways of dealing with it and turning it off. Unfortunately, many musicians I know don’t have that.

“I figured out that when my immune system goes down — some people get a cold or the flu — I get really depressed. I’ve made that connection, so that’s why I train, and why I try to eat healthy and avoid alcohol as much as I can — it f**ks me up to be honest. Then again, I still enjoy it, I still go out for a few pints with my mates. I just don’t do it in excess. But if I want to sit down with my family and friends and have a few drinks, I do.”

And though he has enjoyed plenty of success in the music industry, it has been far from a seamless path, moving from sports stadiums to music arenas. People, he explains, were a bit suspicious of his motives initially.

“Everyone was like ‘what’s this gobshite at? He’s an athlete.’ That’s the funny thing about Ireland. We get so caught up with stereotypes that people tend to miss reality half the time. If you’re talking about stereotypes, I’m not the stereotypical guy I’d associate with depression. I’m not the guy in the corner who’s quiet and awkward and doesn’t talk to anybody. That’s the stereotype, whereas I don’t know anyone like that.

“Most of the people I know, who suffer from depression, are high achievers. You wouldn’t notice that these people sometimes pull their hair out at night, because of the frustration. In terms of stereotypes, I’ve never paid much attention to them. I think they’re lazy, I think they’re ignorant, I think they’re borne out of a lack of education.”

Yet despite these frustrations and his troubled past, Breslin seems to be in a good place nowadays. He has put his solo career on hiatus, while his work on The Voice of Ireland has opened up new avenues. He has recently opened up a new recording studio on Camden Street, which the singer plans to turn into a vocal school.

Moreover, gradually, he has learned how to treat his mental health issues and is full of advice for those suffering from similar problems.

“A panic attack has never killed anybody. At the time, every cell in your body thinks that you’re going to die. It’s the most horrific experience that you can go through. I’m not trying to belittle it in anyway — I’ve had them since I was 15 progressively. But I used to get so frustrated when they happened and I couldn’t figure out why they happened.

“I’d think I was just destined to have them all my life and then I started paying attention to what was bringing them on, where they were coming from and I started limiting myself from places that brought on my panic attacks. I started absolutely embracing things that helped.”

Source: The Voice of Ireland/YouTube

Breslin notes one particular method that made a difference.

“I’d feel [a panic attack] coming on, and people who get them will know that you can feel it all day. You can feel it’s coming. Even three or four hours before, you could feel it coming. So I used to say to myself: ‘Right you’ve got 20 seconds to happen, and if you don’t happen, then piss off.’

“When you get to 20 and it doesn’t happen, you go ‘oh wait a sec, I didn’t have a panic attack’. So you start trying to re-take control of the panic. Lack of sleep can bring it on, your diet can bring it on, drinking too much coffee or alcohol… All these things do play a part.

“Another amazing thing to do is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. You can just rationalise it and limit them happening. But with panic attacks, don’t just ignore them and expect them to go away. If you had a broken finger, or stomach problems, you wouldn’t ignore them. And you’d try to figure out how to get over them. It shouldn’t be any different for panic attacks — there are things you can do for them.”

He also suggests that feelings of helplessness stem from a lack of education surrounding mental health.

“People assume with depression that there’s nothing you can do, or that the only thing you can do is take drugs. That is deeply naive.

“I was on medication for many years. I didn’t always want to be on it. So I looked up other ways of supporting myself. So that’s the physical thing — the diet, the sleep. I used to be a crippling insomniac. I wouldn’t sleep for weeks. My hair would fall out and my skin would be ripped apart. I used to get frustrated and think — ‘this is life, this is how it’s got be be,’ but it’s not.

“The answers won’t come overnight, but there are answers. You just have to be open to them.”

Five events will be held across the country, monthly between May and September, starting with the An Post Yeats Tour of Sligo on Saturday 2nd May. Visit www.anpost.ie/cycling for more information on how to sign up.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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