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Wednesday 19 September 2018

'I was called to go on air for The Voice ... behind the door I was on the floor choking'

Bressie opens up to Chris Wasser on his anxiety battle, his relationship with Roz and how he hopes to help others

Mullingar musician Niall Breslin in the company of Herald reporter Chris Wasser
Mullingar musician Niall Breslin in the company of Herald reporter Chris Wasser

IT was early on in The Voice of Ireland's first-season live run when, shortly before showtime, Niall Breslin received his 15-minute cue.

A producer had tapped on his dressing-room door. But they had no idea what was happening to Bressie on the other side.

"They didn't realise that, behind the door, I was on the floor and I was choking, " he recalls Bressie.

"Anybody who has had a panic attack will tell you it takes three or four days to get over it.

"I had ten minutes."

Picking himself up, he then made his way to the stage. He asked host Kathryn Thomas to bypass him when it came to consulting the judges on air. She knew something was up, and duly obliged.

"That night was the night I said 'that's it, it's not happening again,'"he said. "So, I started setting these goals."

Two years on, and Bressie has yet to suffer another major anxiety attack.

Indeed, the Mullingar musician-turned-TV personality has overcome his mental health problems and is keen to help others to do the same with the release of a new charity album to support Irish entrepreneur Jim Breen's Cycle Against Suicide campaign.

 

Album

Produced by Bressie, the album, entitled Simple Things, was released this week and features a number of Irish artists, including Heathers, Danny O'Reilly and Ryan Sheridan – all of whom gave up their time to contribute new songs to the record.

The message is simple: "It's OK not to feel OK, and it's absolutely OK to ask for help.

"I think we're only scratching the surface with suicide and mental health in this country," says Bressie (33), "and we're really moving forward, which is great, we've become much more open-minded, and we still have a long way to go."

Bressie said that there are still major obstacles in the perceptions of mental health in Ireland.

But he said that he is in a positive place right now. He hit the headlines when it was revealed that he and Irish model Rozanna Purcell were officially an item.

But he's not interested in using his relationship as a promotional tool to help their careers.

"I think it would worry me if I felt we used it for our benefit," he says. "If we were that type of couple who wanted to be in the press all the time – there's plenty of those around, and that turns my stomach a little."

Is he happy?

"Yeah, absolutely," he answers. "As I've mentioned before, doing what we do and doing what I do, unless you're comfortable with someone, you're not going to bring them into it, that's the reality.

"Everybody's got a private life, and now everybody knows another massive part of my private life is that I've struggled with mental health issues since I was 15."

Indeed, it's been a long road for Bressie, who began suffering with anxiety and depression during his teens.

"I was going through a process where I kept having what I thought were asthma attacks," he recalls. "I wasn't able to breathe."

He became anti-social, even on the walk home from school, the aspiring athlete would take different routes in an effort to avoid classmates.

"I just avoided people, full-stop," he says. "That's the irrationality of it I suppose, you don't know what it is.

"And then, that kind of grew to a pinnacle where I broke my own arm on the side of a chair in my room, purely so I could get into hospital so I could ask a doctor what was wrong with me."

The doctor told him it was just puberty. He wasn't convinced – and rightly so.

Bressie explains how he never had suicidal tendencies as a teenager. He considers himself lucky to have had a supportive family around him, and he shudders to think what might have happened under different circumstances.

It's no surprise that Bressie attributes his passion for sport to his success in overcoming the debilitating anxiety attacks that once threatened to consume his whole life. As a teenager, it was what helped him through everyday activities.

"I was very competitive because it was the only thing that got me away from where my head was," he says. "I think, in a weird way, it was a massive strength for me to have a mental health issue as a teenager – it drove me on to do things that I may not have done."

As a young adult, he'd had a contract with the Leinster rugby squad, but a series of injuries and a change of heart, had prompted Bressie to turn his attentions towards a career in music.

First came The Blizzards. Following that, a well-received solo stint that eventually led to his current position as a coach on The Voice of Ireland. But swapping the gym for the stage eventually took its toll, and his anxiety returned.

"I'm talking about panic attacks, where my legs would go from under me. I couldn't breathe, I'd be dizzy – I wouldn't be able to see," he explained.

"It's not like a bit of stress. It's dread, it's horrific. And I used to wake up twice, three times a week, at two or three in the morning, and that'd be it, I'd feel it coming."

It was in 2012, after things had taken a turn for the worse backstage on The Voice, that Bressie made the decision to sign up for a series of triathlons.

"I bought a bike online and just committed to it, and said I was going to learn how to swim," he said.

For someone with a fear of water, this was a huge challenge. But it paid off. Earlier this year, Bressie took part in his first triathlon.

Out in the open water, surrounded by 600 swimmers, he felt a massive weight had been lifted.

"Halfway through the swim, I think, was the most tranquil I'd ever felt in my life," he adds. "In my head, I had actually overcome something and that was a massive turning point."

 

Medication

He tried medication and even meditation. But, in the end, sport was what worked for Bressie.

"It's not this dark, demonic, possessive thing that will never go away," he said. It will always be there, but you will learn to deal with it. I'm here to make it easier for people to talk."

For the time being, Bressie looks forward to working alongside newly-appointed coach Dolores O'Riordan on the next season of The Voice.

"She's awesome," he says of Dolores. "She's as mad as a brush, but I love her."

Bressie also looks forward to returning to more of a production and song-writing role in his own music career.

And he's adamant that the album, Simple Things, has already started to make a positive impact.

He said: "This week, I'm pretty sure that there are kids who are probably not taking their own lives because of the message we're putting out, and that's how powerful this could be ... "

Simple Things is out now. For more, visit www.cycleagainstsuicide.com

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