Wednesday 10 December 2014

Bressie faces Jeffrey

When you are up against it, you might wish for a better hand of cards.  If you're halfway normal, you might also look at some bloke who has it all and feel the slightest touch of envy.  Be careful what you wish for if you are feeling totally crap in yourself and pick Stephen Fry as the man to swap shoes with.  Fry is famous as a celebrity but also as one who has articulated his clinical depression as being about as accessible to help from his caring friends as a case of genital warts. Whether of not we should be ashamed of our genital warts [and given how weird the human 'parts' look already, what's a wart or two between friends?], we are culturally conditioned to keeping our feelings of depression, anxiety and compulsive behaviour very close to our chest.

On Saturday last, we were down in Waterford and I went for a long trudge in the slanting December sunshine along a few of the deserted beaches that alternate with rocky headlands along the Copper Coast.  I was looking for miscellaneous flotsam and buoys to brighten up the yard this Christmas.  While driving from one bay to the next I caught an arresting interview on RTE Radio 1 with Marian Finucane and Niall Breslin aka Bressie. I'd never heard of him but I've found out a little since.  Here is a chap who has a lot going for him: he's only 34, he's symmetrical, he's articulate, he's got a family, he's had success as a pop-singer (with The Blizzards and solo) which he grew into being a judge/coach/mentor on an Irish talent show.  He also played Gaelic football for his county and rugby football for his country before he turned 21.  And in parallel to his sporting career, he knocked off a degree from UCD! But in his teens and later he was subject to anxiety, crippling panic attacks, an irrational fear of water and other symptoms which would definitely exclude him from membership of the mental health club.  He was being interviewed because he's launching a new website called which offers to help people to better "mental fitness".  That's not a metaphor that's going to win followers among the couch-potato depressed, but I heard the bell with two of his stories.

One was a determination not to be beaten by his unwholesome mental formations, as the Buddhists call their self-destructive mental tics. He gave his anxiety a name - Jeffery - which had always had negative associations for him, and by thus personifying his nightmare he knew he could beat it. And beat it he did.  No external help worked as well as what he could find within himself.  When I was young, my anxiety took itself out on my finger-nails which I kept chewed to the bloody quick for many years.  All sorts of remedies, including a foul-tasting varnish, were tried to no avail. Then, when I was about 14, I stood myself up, faced it down and STOPPED. I'm not stronger or better or happier than you but for some of us this no-nonsense, brook-no-opposition, stern-nanny approach may work.

Bressie's other solution to his mental turmoil, which often assailed him in the night, was to sleep in his runners.  Rather than stare at the ceiling mulling over "a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom", he'd spring out of bed and run out of the door and run and run until his soul was a little quieter.  One night it was 38km before he out-ran the black dog. Now that would be beyond me.  But it makes sense in the context of the widely held belief that running or other strenuous exercise can impact on happiness and wellness through the psycho-neuro-immuno PNI nexus.  If you care to draw a Venn diagram, you'll find that there is a lot of overlap between the molecular bins "hormones" and "neurotransmitters".

What Bressie and other compassionate people want is to normalise mental illness, so that it can be talked about (with your parents, with your pals, with your doctor) in the same way as you'd report that you came off your bike and that's why you're limping. I feel sure that, if we could achieve this tiny crack in the doorway of openness, then we'd reduce the holocaust of suicide among the men (it's 5:1 men) of Ireland. Ukraine and France; I doubt if your mileage varies much in this dimension.

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