Advertisement
Health

James O’Brien: ‘I’ve spent my whole life in fight-or-flight mode’

“I went to therapy very sceptically. The stiff upper lip mentality, the idea that talking about your feelings is questionable and effeminate – these things were drilled into me very effectively.”

Radio host James O’Brien has become known for his no-nonsense approach to dismantling intellectual opponents. But in a new interview, O’Brien revealed his verbal gymnastics were unable to help him when he faced a personal crisis – though this wasn’t through a lack of trying. 

“I went to therapy very sceptically. The stiff upper lip mentality, the idea that talking about your feelings is questionable and effeminate – these things were drilled into me very effectively,” the 49-year-old explained in a new interview with The Big Issue.

“But it had come to the point in this family crisis that if someone had told me a coffee enema would help me be a better husband and dad then I’d have tried that. 

“One of the people I love most in the world got really, really ill and I approached it like I’d approached everything else in life: with my source artillery of quick wit and verbal dexterity. 

“I was almost trying to argue the family better. And when you’re dealing with potentially life-changing trauma that approach is of bugger all use to anybody,” he told Jane Graham in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self, which sees famous faces look back on their upbringing and family life. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

O’Brien began his career working for the Daily Express, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a journalist. Talking about his upbringing, the broadcaster said he had spent his whole life in a “sort of fight-or-flight mode” after being badly beaten by teachers at prep school.

“Casual violence from teachers to pupils was commonplace. So at big school I’d always shoot first and ask questions later,” he said. 

“I thought attack was the best form of defence, sometimes physically but with me usually verbally. 

“But looking back now, after lots of therapy, I think I’ve spent most of my life trying to win a game I didn’t realise was optional. 

“I tried to convince myself that getting brutalised by teachers didn’t hurt me at all. I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that they were hurting me. 

“And I must have internalised that rationale on a pretty epic scale because I ended up arguing sincerely that things like corporal punishment were good for children, which obviously makes me a fucking idiot.” 

Read more from James O’Brien, where he opens up about therapy, family life and his lack of ambition in this week’s Big Issue, available now from your local vendor

How Not To Be Wrong by James O’Brien is out in paperback on May 13 (Ebury, £9.99)

Advertisement

Bigger Issues need bigger solutions

Big Issue Group is creating new solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunities for the 14.5 million people living in poverty to earn, learn and thrive. Big Issue Group brings together our media and investment initiatives as well as a diverse and pioneering range of new solutions, all of which aim to dismantle poverty by creating opportunity. Learn how you can change lives today.

Recommended for you

Read All
Four ways to stop thinking the worst will happen when you’re stressed
Mental health

Four ways to stop thinking the worst will happen when you’re stressed

What is polio and why is it back?
Polio

What is polio and why is it back?

Cost of living: Why you should check if you're eligible for free prescriptions
Cost of living crisis

Cost of living: Why you should check if you're eligible for free prescriptions

Alyssa Mancao and the rise of social media therapists
Health

Alyssa Mancao and the rise of social media therapists

Most Popular

Read All
Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff
1.

Exclusive: BT call centre sets up 'food bank' for its own staff

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'
2.

Prince William: 'Why I wanted to work with The Big Issue'

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'
3.

Rainn Wilson emailed Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to say Harry Mudd would 'fit right in'

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself
4.

The UK approach to replacing the Human Rights Act is just as worrying as the replacement itself

Keep up to date with The Big Issue. The leading voice on life, politics, culture and social activism direct to your inbox.