Bressie finds his own true voice
His has been a brave, extraordinary journey. In an exclusive interview, as his autobiography is about to be released, Bressie talks about his self-harm, his addictions, his anxiety disorder and how he self-sabotaged every romantic relationship he ever had, with one exception - his current one with Irish supermodel Roz Purcell
It came out of nowhere: Niall Breslin's first panic attack. Alone, in silence, he thought he was going to die in his bedroom in Mullingar. He was 15. This wasn't the melodramatic existential crisis of a teenager. It was a very real, heart-pounding fear. Bressie - as the nation would eventually come to know, and love him as a coach on RTE's The Voice - was lying on his bed when something dark slithered from deep within his unconscious brain and cast a grim shadow over him and his life. The feeling has never fully left him.
Nothing in particular set it off, Bressie says over 19 years later. "I have no idea. I think I talked myself into it. But it was after a period of unease where I constantly questioned my health." In fact, he kept thinking he was seriously ill. From an early age, "for the first ten to twelve years of my life", Bressie, who was born on October 22, 1980, used to watch his father, an officer in the Irish Army, go on missions abroad. I ask him was that the seed of his anxiety - that his father mightn't return home again. He shakes his head emphatically. "No. No. The thing about what might be the seed of my anxiety is - I really wish I had a reason. Sometimes I wish I had a reason, because sometimes that makes it easier because you can put a finger on something. But I don't."
He grew up, he says, in "an incredible family." His childhood was very much "a stable background. There are times," he continues, "when I wished something bad happened so I could justify how I felt. If anything, my dad going away a lot. . ." he pauses. "You know, at the end of the day, some people reading this could be saying, 'I don't have a dad. Get over it.' I was seeing a very strong figure in my life emotional, vulnerable, saying goodbye to his kids," he says of his dad leaving with the Army. "How difficult it was for him? How difficult it must have been for my mother? There is no doubt there was an underlying..." Bressie says, breaking off again. He is in his recording studio in Portobello to talk about his extraordinarily frank autobiography: Me and My Mate Jeffrey. (Jeffrey was the name he gave to his condition.)
"My mother is the most important person in my life. She says I was always a worrier. As a kid, I would never stay in people's houses. Or if I did, I would ring my parents at three in the morning and say: 'I want to come home.' I was just like that."
Bressie says that any teenager, or anyone, who experiences a panic attack, especially for the first time, will feel that every cell in their body believes they are dying. "And that's what it felt like. I can't describe it. I couldn't breathe. I could not catch my breath. I felt like I was suffocating. I felt like I was drowning."
What does he feel brought that on? "The really strange about that is," Bressie says, "nothing. I was lying on my bed one day. It was a really warm day. I just remember going to take a breath and it just wasn't there. It wasn't like it built up in me. It wasn't there. It was in my bedroom in Mullingar. I used to like being in my bedroom. I would learn guitar. I would sit there listening to music. Then I started associating my bedroom with somewhere I didn't want to be. A bed. I didn't want to be in bed. Because every time I physically lay down flat I would get a panic attack. It was the strangest thing. What happened then was I stopped sleeping very well and then when you stop sleeping it just compounds itself and it gets worse."
I ask him about the quality of his sleep now. "I sleep very well now. I have worked for years and years on the issues that I had had. Don't get me wrong: I still go to bed at night and still spend 10 to 15 minutes controlling my breathing."
To understand the nature of Niall Breslin, one perhaps needs to travel back to his bedroom in Mullingar. Two months before he was to sit his Junior Cert, the 15-year-old self-harmed for the first time. "Completely calm", Bressie took the chair from beside his bed to anchor his arm, and he smashed his other forearm against the base of the bed - "with every once of strength I had in my body." He knew exactly what he was doing. "Self-harm is probably the most misunderstood thing in Ireland" he says. "If I read any person say, 'It's a cry for help', or 'Attention-seeking', I will lose the head. It is not those things for me. Everybody is different. It is totally subjective."
Bressie "needed to have some physical issue to show myself what was going on in my head. I needed almost to bring it out." It was like his self-harm - and his anxiety disorder - was a harrowing springboard into the emotional unknown. "The really frightening part was when I actually did my first serious, very intentional one with my arm, I felt euphoric," he continues. "I felt incredible. I felt for the first time in a long time that pressure on my chest went. That is frightening. And when a teenager experiences that with no real knowledge of what [he is doing] it is a very difficult place to be."
Had he read about self-harm first? "No. I used to find that when I was aggressive, I always got a little release. Anxiety for me at the time was like it was acid constantly building up in me."
By breaking his arm, Bressie says he wanted to "physicalise [sic] my frustration. I wanted to break my arm. It wasn't like I just wanted to bruise it. I wanted to break it. And I knew that if I broke it, that maybe I could go in and open up a little," he says meaning open up to a GP in a hospital. "I suppose anyone seeking help or talking about it or even saying it out loud," Bressie says now, "you have to build up to it. And I built up to it. I didn't really know what was going to happen if I did. But one of the things in my head was, 'I broke my arm for myself.'"
You don't like the phrase, 'Cry for help'. But were you seeking help? I say to him. "I was seeking some answers. I had no idea. I thought I was having these asthma attacks constantly. I got it checked out and the doctor said, 'You don't have asthma. You are fine.' It would have been great if it was asthma."
"So I was trying to find out what it was," he adds. "I think with anxiety, the more it happens to you the more your body reacts and the more anxiety you feel all the time. It is not like it slows down. It gets momentum. It can be stopped and treated and managed but an awful lot of teenagers in this country don't even try and that was what the book was about."
With the book, Bressie adds, he didn't want to put "bells and whistles on anxiety or depression." He didn't want to say: it will all be great, because it isn't. "It is tough as fuck," he says. "It is hard. It is really, really difficult. It is difficult living in a country, in a society, that in general stigmatises the shit out of it. It is difficult living with it full-stop . It is difficult not being able to sit in a pub with your friends without feeling that you're going to die."
When was the last time he felt like that?
"I haven't had a panic attack in three years. I basically designed what works for me over 15 years - what keeps my anxiety at bay. I know when it's coming. I know what to do when it is coming."
How does he know? "You feel it. There is some uneasiness. Your skin would crawl. You would feel almost itchy. It is almost like your brain is on fire. It builds up with me. What used to happen is, I would let it happen. I would talk myself into it then. Now I have all these coping strategies. You know something is going to happen and you want it to happen. And you don't know whether it is going to happen on the street or when you are with your friends. You just didn't know."
"That is one of the most difficult things with panic attacks," he explains, "you don't know when they are going to happen. And the one that brought on the worst of my life was the one thinking it was going to happen on live television," he says of The Voice.
"That's all that went through my head the entire first season of The Voice: will this happen on live television? And would the reaction be - 'Oh, fucking Bressie is nuts! Or he is on something.' You just don't know. I talked myself into that panic. That panic attack, I knew it was coming. I woke up that morning, [and he knew]" Bressie says of the night in March, 2012, that he had a panic attack "20 minutes" before The Voice. (He went on and did the show.) "That night, that was the turning point with my entire journey with my mental health," he says. "What would happen in the past, I would go to CBT or counselling. I would give it one go. Then I would get pissed off with it, I would go: 'I'm not doing this any more. It's shit.'"
After the attack before The Voice, Bressie decided to make six-month targets and work on it. "So I had to look through these avenues. And the only way I could start really looking and finding solutions and ways to help was when people started knowing about it, and people around me knew about it. Like - if I was in a pub and I disappeared without saying goodbye to my mates, they weren't going: 'What an ignorant prick.' I'd get a text: 'Hope you are okay.'"
The difference that makes, he says, is "the guilt disappears. The anxiety of letting people down disappears. People understand. I never use it as an excuse."
Years before this, in 2008, a defining point for Bressie was that he started talking about his anxiety problems to his friends, albeit tentatively. "I didn't tell them: 'I have panic attacks every day. I don't sleep. I am abusing pills.' I said: 'I have really bad anxiety problems. I get very low.' Then I mentioned I had panic attacks. I just found straight away that sense of ease come over me. One of the hardest parts was disguising it all the time. I don't fit into the lazy stereotype I have of someone with serious anxiety problems or someone who perhaps suffers with depression."
Bressie graduated with a BA in sociology and economics in 2002. Asked about certain things such as his job, the star laughs and says, "Not sure of my 'job'. I am doing The Voice again."
In March, 2013, Bressie decided to come out publicly about his anxiety attacks. It was a huge release not to have to hide it any more, not least due to his huge public profile. He had at last found his own true voice. "I didn't realise The Voice was going to be as big as it was. I didn't realise my whole life was going to change when I did The Voice. I had never done television before. I was in a relatively unknown Irish band," he says referring to The Blizzards, "but I would walk around the streets and no one had a fucking clue who you were. That was my life. I lived in London," says Bressie, who now lives in Dublin. "Then when The Voice happened, I realised: 'I don't think I am going to be able to do this unless I am a little bit more honest.'" As Bressie prepared to take that step, what fears were inside him?
"I thought I'd lose my job. These are all the irrational thoughts you get. The very definition of anxiety is irrational thoughts. I remember walking down George's Street to do the interview when I was going to say it and I thought: 'I'm going to lose my job. Or I will be absolutely mocked.'
"All that stuff went on in my head. At that point I had gone way past the point of caring. It was definitely going to help me, but I also felt there was an element of therapy in coming clean. I have never gone into detail until now of how severe at times it became. Any time I talked to friends or in public it was always relatively muted.
"Now I shout it from the roof tops," he says. "For a couple of reasons: it is unbelievably common, it is unbelievably normal and the reality is everybody is affected by it in this country.
" Some people are affected to the point that it controls their entire life. Imagine having cancer and being afraid to ask for help or being judged if you did. That's how serious this is. Especially with the recession, Jesus Christ, there is nothing like not being able to pay your mortgage or feed your kids - I don't have kids - but that is an absolute cauldron for anxiety problems. And it grows into depression."
Bressie adds with yet more characteristic candour that "for years, I self-medicated, badly. Sleeping pills and Xanax. Now I have a very good relationship with my GP and it is now one of the most important parts of my recovery. But when I was living in London, I was taking two or three sleeping pills a night. I was waking up feeling totally nauseous all the time. I was falling asleep, randomly, on the floor in the sitting-room.
"To even go into a studio in London, I was taking a Xanax. It was totally unsustainable. People always go on about other drugs, but these are the drugs that are causing the biggest problems in society - and I abused them and I abused them badly.
"I am very aware of the long-term effect of abusing those drugs. I don't know if it is going to affect me but I do know that I didn't tell my GP, who was monitoring me on anti-depressants at the time, until I actually came clean and said: 'I'm addicted to sleeping pills.' He said: 'We're going to get you off them but we are going to do it safely, and we are going to do it the right way.' I haven't taken them since."
Did his mother not notice his sleeping pills addiction affecting him?
"No. You wouldn't have noticed with me. The only thing you would have noticed was my skin. I never had bad skin. When I moved to London I started getting alopecia and my beard started falling out. Jesus, I looked horrific."
French writer Anais Nin described anxiety as "love's greatest killer. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic."
Pre Roz Purcell - with whom he has been in a strong relationship for nearly three years - Niall Breslin "destroyed every relationship I was ever in," because, he says, "you can't build a relationship without honesty. And I was never honest."
He worried because of his anxiety issues that he could never be in a happy relationship. So Bressie self-sabotaged because, by dint of his inner dialogue, he feared the relationship would fall apart anyway.
"Yeah, exactly," he concurs. "A few of them, the shorter ones when I was in college, I had these visions, especially in UCD," he laughs. "UCD is like a little town. I used to think to myself when I would go on a date with a girl: 'If she sees me having a panic attack, she is going to tell her friend who will tell her boyfriend who plays rugby and he will tell my coach.'"
And he would be sacked from the team?
"That's what I was thinking," he laughs. "I remember one girl. We obviously got on quite well and we saw each other for a couple of weeks. Then I just stopped contact. I literally just stopped. She walked into the UCD library one day and she fucked her phone at me and smashed the phone. I went bright red.
"I was going, 'I'm coming across like some sort of player, dickhead. It couldn't have been further from that. I just couldn't deal with it.'"
Did he tell her the real reason why he stopped contact?
"No. I have never seen her since. But then, I have been in longer-term relationships but I still didn't [commit]. I was a good communicator but there was always that one thing [he wasn't communicating]. It is that one thing at the back of your head. I was in a longer-term relationship with an incredible girl, the sweetest, most lovely girl, and I couldn't, I could never," he says, meaning truly commit.
"What really fucked me up was I kept [dragging her down] and I knew I was. There were days when I was just not a good person to be around. And knowing that, you throw guilt into the equation, it is a cocktail of absolute . . ."
In terms of his healthy relationship with Roz Purcell, Bressie says he told her the facts about himself right from the beginning.
"I told her. I spoke to Roz about this. I told her almost immediately. When we started, because the first maybe month or two of us it was just texting and chatting and stuff - the usual bullshit when you are in a relationship [in the beginning]. I was back in Ireland a lot. I decided I wanted to move back. I kind of fell back in love with Dublin again. So I told her. I just said it. I said: 'This is part of my life. I live with this. I live with this every day.'"
Were you frightened she would think you were nuts and walk out?
"I'd rather her know and do that."
I don't actually mean that literally but I mean in terms of your irrational fears.
"But that's what you would be thinking. 'See ya!' But she turned around and said, 'Loads of people deal with that.' All she said was, 'Once you're honest with me and always honest with me. And if you are feeling that way, you tell me.'"
How did that make him feel? "Jesus Christ, the relief. That ultimately built the relationship, that honesty."
I ask him was it like he was showing Roz a hunchback he had cleverly concealed under his shirt?
"It was. It was like, 'Look at this.' And in my own head, it was like, 'Not again.' To be honest with you, I have never let myself get too close to anyone because I always knew I was going to have to get to walk away at some stage anyway.
"And that was the worst part," he says.
"These are the things you think, and you don't want to drag other people through it. Also, Roz is younger than me and all that kind of stuff," he says, meaning the ten-year gap. "But, she also didn't go: 'Everything will be grand.' She went: 'Let's just see how it goes.' She showed a lot of maturity to what it was.'"
Do you still have fears in your head that you are not entitled to a happy relationship or life?
"Not any more, I don't. I have come so far. I have come to the point where I believe I have relative control over it, my mind."
Does he fear sometimes that something will always go wrong? "Yeah. You do have that. That is the fundamental core of general anxiety disorder, that you always believe the worst."
I ask him was it the actual anxiety attacks or negative inner voices as a result of the anxiety attacks that would cause him to self-sabotage his romantic relationships. And why has he stopped that self-sabotage with Roz?
"A combination of both," he says, answering the first part of the question. "The lack of true honesty sabotaged the relationship. "
"With Roz," he smiles, "I told her from the start."
There is no lack of honesty, or truth, in Bressie's book. Or in his heart.
'Niall Breslin: Me and My Mate Jeffrey' is published by Hachette Ireland, price £13.99. He will be doing a signing in Easons, O'Connell Street, Dublin, on September 5 at 12 noon.
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