PHOTO: PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
Breifne Earley is not counting his chickens exactly, but, all going well, he will win the World Cycle Race toward the end of June in Greenwich, London. He started out from the same place on March 1 of last year with six others, all of who dropped out or were disqualified.
“I’m not an athlete, and I’m never going to be an athlete, but this will be a nice accolade,” he said.
By any measure, though, Earley, a native of the small village of Leitrim in County Leitrim, is already a winner. He successfully battled low-esteem and depression, which led him to the brink of suicide four and a half years ago, and now has an increasingly high profile as a campaigner on suicide prevention.
He is flying back to Ireland today, after completing the North American stages of the World Cycle Race, and begins the Cycle Against Suicide in Belfast, which goes north to Malin Head, then heads south to Mizen Head and turns back for the finish in Dublin. Along the way, Earley and other speakers will bring a message to young people: “It’s okay not to feel okay. And it’s more than okay to ask for help.”
“We’re encouraging people to talk about how they feel,” Earley said. And a more general message to all is: “Basically talk to people and listen to their response.”
Earley’s own personal crisis came to a head on the first weekend of October 2010. He had been struggling with depression for over two years. “My relationship with a very nice girl had broken up,” he said. “The only thing I ever talked about was my negative work environment. I was somebody that nobody wanted to be around. And I felt people would be better off without me.”
He contemplated ending his own life, but three things, he believes, combined to make him change course. The first was a text from an uncle who’d lost a child to leukemia, reminding him of the anniversary. “I remembered the devastation that that had caused,” he said. The second was an idea from a cousin from the other side of his family. He’d attended her wedding without a date the previous day and so she recommended he go to cookery classes. “It’s a great way to meet women,” she told him. And the third came to him alone in his Dublin apartment on the Sunday watching “The Bucket List,” starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. He vowed to write his own bucket list.
Earley, who is of medium height, weighed 277 pounds at the time. So top of his list was a plan to reduce to 210 pounds. He succeeded. “I’m 220 now, but the extra is muscle,” he said. The list also included: visit 10 countries, learn to swim, learn to cook and cycle 50 kilometers a week.
A singer, if a painfully shy one, in his childhood and youth, he undertook to participate in 10 public open-mic performances. Among the 10 sporting events he planned was a triathlon and a cycle around New Zealand. And he pledged to go on 50 dates and apply for 10 “dream jobs.”
He posted his plan on Facebook a week later, on Oct. 10 (10/10/2010), vowing to complete it by Nov. 11 the following year (11/11/2011).
“I was derided,” Earley said. It was if he’d suggested an absurd list of New Year’s resolutions in the wrong season.
After four or five weeks, he recalled, he began to feel positive effects. But he argued that every case is different. “I was lucky in that I didn’t need professional help,” said Earley, who has a computer science degree from Dublin City University.
And eventually people rallied, by, for instance, offering all sorts of free stuff, like swimming and cookery lessons. One hundred people were involved in helping him one way or another, he estimated.
As for the 50 dates – that was the item that inevitably got the most attention. He met people through online dating sites, agencies and friends’ recommendations. “The one rule was I wasn’t allowed to say no to anyone,” he said.
In six or seven instances, there was more than one date, and he is in contact still with a few of his new women friends.
He didn’t quite get his dream job, but he did find interesting work and was even head-hunted by a prominent media organization. He said he is now focused on a career in media.
Earley discovered that he wasn’t a natural at the triathlon or anything involving running, but he liked cycling. So the last part of his life “redesign,” the tour of New Zealand, was particularly enjoyable.
He cited New Zealand, Malaysia, India and parts of the United States as the highlights of his most recent travel adventure.
“I met people of all religions, colors and sexualities,” Earley said, reckoning an average of 25 people a day over 400 days. “That’s 10-12,000, and maybe I wouldn’t sit down with four of them for a pint.”
In New York, he was hosted by Irish Network USA and guided around the city by Gerry Flood, a friend of his father’s from Leitrim. The Bergen County resident is also deeply involved in charity work, as his American Special Children’s Pilgrimage Group travels to Lourdes annually.
“They link up there with groups from Ireland and the UK,” Earley said admiringly.
He added: “This year has been a great insight for me into how fundamentally good people are.”
For more information about Breifne Earley, visit www.pedaltheplanet.tv; www.facebook.com/pedaltheplanettv; He is also on Twitter @pedal_planet and Instagram @breifneearley.