Bottoming: meet the minds behind the LGBTQ+ mental health podcast

Bottoming is the LGBTQ+ mental health podcast that has been garnering the attention of listeners from our community and beyond. Vada Magazine spoke with the two friends behind the podcast, Matthew Riley and Brendan Geoghegan, about how their own experiences prompted them to get behind a microphone and help others in the process.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we begin our video call by talking about our freshly cut hair. My interview with Matthew Riley and Brendan Geoghegan, coincides with the easing of lockdown restrictions in England, meaning that the lockdown locks have finally been trimmed and we all have something exciting to talk about. That is not to say, of course, that what we are about to discuss is not interesting. We soon turn our attention a few millimetres below the hairline, to a topic that the Riley and Geoghegan have personal experiences of, and are obviously passionate about.

The LGBTQ+ mental health podcast was started back in 2018, and experienced somewhat of a rebirth in 2020. The first season ran for five episodes, yet the pair decided to take a “short break” as it became clear to both of them that opening up about their own experiences of mental health on a microphone every week was taking its toll. Eighteen months later, and during the height of the pandemic, the two friends began talking about recording more episodes.

Now, the podcast is growing in popularity, and attracting guests from the likes of Rosie Jones, to Justin Myers, and Jamie Windust. And despite the fact that the podcast is about what happens when you hit rock bottom, Riley and Geoghegan’s natural chemistry brings a humorous twist to sometimes challenging conversation topics. Listening to these episodes will leave you with both tears in your eyes and a warm feeling of hope inside your chest.

“It was very much a collaboration and the idea stemmed from both Matthew and I struggling with our mental health in 2018,” recalls Geoghegan, who became friends with Riley through work. The pair would talk to each other about their own experiences of mental health. “But we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, and there was always a light-hearted elements to those conversations.”

Geoghegan had initially written scripts for a six-part TV show called Bottoming, in an attempt to make light of the dark moments he had experienced during his journey with mental health. “I basically wanted to eradicate the shame associated with those experiences,” he tells me. “I think initially the ideas I was coming up with were too doom and gloom, and Matthew just came in with this really gorgeous, light element and that turned the podcast into what it is today.”

At the same time, Riley was also turning his attention to his own mental health. Having started counselling that year, he and Geoghegan were preparing to undertake a fundraising walk for the Terrence Higgins Trust. In an attempt to raise as much money as possible, Riley wrote a blog about why he was doing the walk, “to do something physical to tie into my own journey with counselling”, which shared his reasons behind why he was going to counselling in the first place, and his experiences of the process.

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“I think both of us had similar experiences at the time, it allowed that safe space to have these conversations,” says Riley. “As Brendan was sending these scripts over to me, I was finding out different bits that I didn’t know if they were fiction or real life. We were sort of having these conversations through these scripts. Reflecting on it, there was stuff in there that we weren’t all that comfortable talking about in person, even though we’d been friends for years.”

When the two friends sat down to record the first episode, Riley had just returned from Poland with a “huge bottle” of Vodka in hand. A detail that Geoghegan says he had forgotten all about.

“We were just drinking whilst recording the first episode,” recalls Riley. “And we sort of made that safe space between us, in an attempt to block out the fact that this conversation would then being going beyond the physical walls where we were recording, in the form of a podcast.”

But the two had not anticipated the impact that recording a podcast about mental health would have on their own emotional wellbeing. During the first season of Bottoming, Riley was going to therapy once a week, in addition to recording and editing the podcast with Geoghegan. It began to take its toll on him and he feared that he would end up burning out and hating the podcast altogether.

“I really didn’t want to do that,” says Riley, who suggested the two take a break from recording as a means of taking care of their own mental health. “There were two points in the week that I was having to dive into those feelings. We would sit and record together and it would be a five to six hour process of working through all of these things. It became quite overwhelming and really quite heavy.”

“Both of us were on our own mental health journeys,” Riley continues. “I got to a point where I didn’t want to speak to anyone about my mental health, and I didn’t want to go and share it again on a microphone. There was quite a long period, when I didn’t want to listen back to episodes; the thought of it would give me shivers. I just didn’t even want to talk about myself like that ever again. I think the 18 month break gave us a lot of space. Then the pandemic happened, and it just opened up the conversation again.”

Geoghegan believes that the pandemic fostered conversations about mental health. Not only were those who were already living with mental health issues now at risk of deterioration, but people who had never faced challenges with their mental health in the past were now also struggling.

“People were having these new, unearthed feelings around anxiety and depression, because of isolation,” says Geoghegan. “Our feeling was that if loads more people are having these feelings and have never had them before, it would be good to have another touch point to bring back the conversation. Especially, because we are now feeling better and more grounded in ourselves to be able to talk about these things.”

Brendan Geoghegan and Matthew Riley (right) are attempting to open up the conversation around mental health. (Photo: Sam Taylor-Edwards)

Now that the podcast has returned, Riley and Geoghegan have been surprised by the feedback they have received from listeners.

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“Initially when we first started putting the episodes out, what was great to get back were just some of our friends and families listening and resonating with it, and sometimes sharing stories of their own experiences,” explains Geoghegan.

“That was really great, because it immediately opens up the conversations you’re having in your mind or with a close friend, to a bigger circle. Since we’ve come back in December, we’ve had some really fantastic responses from people. It could be that they related to a book we spoke about, or they’re going through a similar experiences to someone we interviewed, and they share that with us.”

Riley agrees that neither of them could have anticipated the response from people listening to the podcast. “One of the things that I found really interesting was when people who are straight have said they’ve connected to the podcast. We market it as an LGBTQ+ mental health podcast, and we spent a lot of time at the start working out what the phrasing would be. Because the mental health isn’t LGBTQ+, the mental health aspect is universal. But a lot of the topics are also amplified by being LGBTQ+. So when we’ve had people who are straight or class themselves as allies, saying that they thought it was really interesting, or they really connected with this story, that’s something we didn’t expect at all.”

I wonder if they have ever been nervous about sharing their experiences to such a wide audience. “One of the recent episodes I spoke about the suicidal ideation I had, and the most difficult things about those conversations is saying those things out loud for yourself,” Geoghegan tells me.

“Which is one of the great things about therapy, when you do get to the stage where you can talk about your experiences. For the podcast specifically, it was more about removing all the shame of these experiences. I was sort of having these feelings within my own mind, and not being able to talk about them, as though they were these dark secrets that nobody should ever find out about. Whereas they’re just part of the human experiences, that a lot of people feel. For me it’s more about eradicating the shame associated with mental health.”

Riley follows by saying that the support of his mother has been instrumental to him sharing his experiences on a microphone. “I think I’m really fortunate that me and my mum have a really good relationship. She’s one of my best mates, and was really in the loop with what was going on. I knew what she would have liked to have been informed about, in terms of what is being discussed on the podcast. That said, she’s also the type of person who says, I know what you need to do, and whatever you do I support that. As long as I had the support of her, anybody else didn’t really matter.”

That said, he admits that he does sometimes get embarrassed when an episode comes out. “Which is bizarre, because obviously we’re on a podcast that anyone can listen to. But the privacy of just us two doing it, in a space that isn’t live or being observed from the outside in that way, took that away from me. But there might be the odd episode that I’ll be nervous about going out.”

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During lockdown, Riley was living in London, whilst Geoghegan was in Derby; recording and editing the podcast provided them with regular opportunities to connect with each other. “With the pandemic, we’ve not been able to see each other. In fact, the last time we saw each other in person was when I moved out of London in October,” says Geoghegan. “It was really nice to have these purposeful touch points when we have to get on a video call, and almost forced us to connect,” he laughs. “It’s been the best experience.”

Riley adds that keeping the podcast and their friendship apart has also been important. “We have two different WhatsApp groups, so we try to keep things separate. With any sort of creative friendship, there’s bound to be disagreement, but that will all happen in the Bottoming WhatsApp group. I really believe that this whole experience has strengthened our friendship.”

There are lots of people that might be looking at starting their own creative projects beyond their day jobs, I venture, but struggle to balance the two. “I think one of the things I spoke about with Matthew last week, was we’re almost grateful to not have social engagements or a reason to go outside,” says Geoghegan who works full-time and studies Psychology on a part-time basis.

“Because if I were in London and there was no pandemic, we’d just be out with our mates. But because we don’t have that, you think you might as well occupy your time by doing some editing. The pandemic has almost helped us to do this podcast, which is strange.”

As the Communications Manager for the LGBTQ+ charity, Tonic Housing, Riley feels that Bottoming is almost a natural extension of his role. “I wrote a lot about LGBTQ+ and racism topics in my dissertation, and now I work in communications, so I’m quite connected to all those different points. When it comes to trying to find guests and putting together interviews, it just feels like second nature almost. I can do it on my lunch break or outside office hours. It does become almost a full-time commitment, because things can come up at any time, but I’m very grateful for the flexibility that my job gives me and allows me to be a part of this podcast.”

Looking to the future of Bottoming, the pair tell me that they are looking at moving away from themed episodes, to focus on profiling LGBTQ+ people. “One of the things we’ve learned when we’ve been speaking with different people, is that everyone has such a unique experience, and sometimes it is hard to say that they’re only related to one theme,” explains Geoghegan.

“For Pride month, we’re going to do weekly episodes with a different guest, and then tie each episode to a different charity or organisation, to try to showcase as many charitable organisations as possible,” adds Riley.

He is also keen to mention who his dream guest would be. “In terms of dream person to have on Bottoming, I’d have to say Robyn, because she has been so open about her mental health journey. I feel like she’s also essentially queer, through how she’s become engaged with our community. She’s my absolute top.”

Bottoming can be listened to in all the usual places, as well as on the podcast’s website. You can also follow the podcast on Twitter and Instagram. Photography by Sam Taylor-Edwards.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.