Interview (Part 2): Tony Griffin — on having a panic attack, mental health, masculinity & meditation
Building on Part 1, Tony speaks about other aspects of his life, such as having a panic attack in the Gaelic Grounds, challenging the taboos around mental health and masculinity, his meditation practice, and the freedom he felt in expressing his worldview in The Teenager’s Book Of Life.
Tony breaking away from David Kennedy in the Munster Semi-Final in 2005.
The Match On Sunday: You had a panic attack in the dressing rooms after training in the Gaelic Grounds shortly before the Munster championship in 2008. How did you address it at the time?
Tony: I didn't even know I was having a panic attack, I just thought my chest was caving in. At the time, I was in denial about the fact that I was struggling with something. The first step was admitting to myself that I didn’t feel well.
I went to counselling and came to realise that the panic attack was a symptom of something deeper. This prompted me to ask, "what else is going on with me?" It was a surprising journey that allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of myself, and I eventually came to see how different things connected to each other.
Sometimes you need someone to point the way, and counselling helped a lot, but I've realised that I’m my own guru—the answers are all inside me.
A lot of the work I do with men focuses on the relationship with their father. They say they feel less alone as a result of these conversations.
On a similar note, your autobiography Screaming at the Sky addressed the taboos around masculinity and mental health. Was this important to you?
Absolutely. There are societal expectations around masculinity, such as being strong and showing no weakness—I wanted to challenge these taboos. Historically, Irish men tended not to talk about what was on their mind, to keep things to themselves. But times have changed, and Irish men have evolved and started to talk.
A lot of the work I do with men focuses on the relationship with their father. They say they feel less alone as a result of these conversations. An important part of being resilient in life is simply knowing that you're not alone with your experience.
In a way Screaming at the Sky talked about mental health, but it also just talked about what it is to be human and to struggle. After all, everyone is just trying to make sense of their own life experience.
Tony bursts past Séamus Callanan in the Munster Final in 2009.
You’ve been instrumental in the Gaelic Players Association's work on mental health. Is there an acute need for mental health support for intercountry players?
Absolutely—the players need someone to talk to when they're struggling.
For example, you might have a guy who’s going through a divorce and is being prevented from seeing his child, he won't talk to the manager about it because he doesn't want to negatively affect his chance of making the team. That player needs an outlet and the mental health programme provides it.
In terms of the players who engage with the programme, you see a full spectrum: from the strong ones who seem like gladiators on the field, to those who come across as quite sensitive. Regardless of where they sit on this spectrum, at some point, challenges will visit their lives and they'll need help. Very few players will address their struggles within the environment of the team because they don’t want to look weak. But they need someone to talk to.
For me, it's a great privilege to work with these players when they're struggling.
Part of me still wants acceptance, it makes me feel safe. But I’ve learned that I can talk to that part of myself.
Do you pursue any positive mental health activities yourself?
I started meditating when I was 17. I was anxious about my life and the impending changes at the time, such as going to university.
Meditation taught me about moving energy. I meditate for 20 minutes before writing, usually with a mantra-meditation technique, but I also like listening to the guided meditations of Ram Dass. For me, it's about trying to open the portal so that ideas flow through.
In Screaming at the Sky, you spoke about getting over your need for external affirmation. Is this something that you still have to work on?
Part of me still wants acceptance, it makes me feel safe. But I’ve learned that I can talk to that part of myself and say, “I understand that you're looking out for me—you want me to be accepted—but we're safe.”
Reading Embracing Ourselves by Hal and Sidra Stone was one of the most formative experiences of my life. It explains the psychology of selves. For example, because my father valued hard work, I developed a set of primary selves that are hardworking. However, in developing our primary selves, we also disown a set of opposite selves. So, for the hardworking part of me, there's also a beach bum in me who just wants to relax. If we are to become whole, we have to integrate these two sets of selves. Our disowned selves add to our wholeness. Over time, I’ve come to embrace and accept these opposing parts of myself.
Tony retaining possession against Galway in 2009.
Your new book, The Teenager’s Book Of Life, talks about following your heart as opposed to your brain. You also mention this in Screaming at the Sky. How did you arrive at this distinction?
People sometimes roll their eyes when I say, “follow your heart,” but then I clarify what I mean by "heart." My work with Soar introduced me to the research on this point: I learned about the information that runs from the nerves in our heart to our brain, rather than the other way around. It's where most of our creativity comes from. When I was younger, I too didn’t draw a distinction between the head and the heart—that is, the intellect and intuition—but I now understand that this is an intelligence system that lies beyond our intellect.
We have worshipped at the altar of the intellect for centuries, but this has been at the expense of what we were really looking for: wisdom. It comes from a different system of intelligence.
Writing The Teenager’s Book Of Life was a coming-out experience for me in many ways.
Your writing and speaking has its own distinctive tone. How did you develop it?
Writing The Teenager’s Book Of Life was a coming-out experience for me in many ways. It was like saying, “here are my beliefs and views on the world, I arrived at them after years 30 years of studying the human condition."
I feel that I've arrived at a worldview that suits me, and this has given me a new-found confidence. I'm expressing this worldview and I'm unconcerned about how others perceive me in doing so. That said, I'm very curious so it’ll continue to evolve.
As the author of two books, do you have a favourite book?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
I was re-reading it a few days ago and realised that the journey to find the treasure in the church isn't about an external treasure, rather it's symbolic and internal. I've probably read it 15 times, but I only understood that the last time I read it!
You can go so many places inside that book.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For more on Tony and The Teenager's Book Of Life, see https://theteenagersbookoflife.com/