‘I keep hugging you and it’s not cool…’
Harry: ‘It’s fine. We can have a hug afterwards’
Bryony Gordon recalls the frank conversation in which Prince Harry opened up about mental health and the impact of loss in his life
Before he could open up to the idea of marriage, Prince Harry had a long journey to take from bereavement through denial to self-awareness. The
Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon secured the scoop of the year last April when he chose to tell her the truth about himself for the first time in public. Here she recalls the drama behind the headlines. Photographs by Andrew Crowley
It never occurred to me that Prince Harry might be more nervous than I was about our interview. Like a small child who doesn’t understand that the spider is just as scared of them as they are of it, I simply hadn’t entertained the notion that the fifth (now sixth) in line to the throne might be experiencing some pre-interview jitters too.
In many ways, I was the lucky one. I had the London Marathon training to take my mind off the fact that I was about to do the biggest interview of my career, and that had stopped me from thinking too much about all the ways I could balls it up. I could do this.
I had suggested we do the interview as a podcast, the idea being that this would make the Prince feel more relaxed than the prospect of a print interview in which his words could accidentally be taken out of context. I loved the easy intimacy of podcasts, the fact that someone’s voice could be there with you in your ear as you travelled to work on the Tube. Once we had the green light, I set about securing more people for the series. So far I had booked a nurse who had a breakdown, a 14-year-old boy with OCD, and the writer Matt Haig, who wrote about his depression so brilliantly in Reasons To Stay Alive. I wanted to run the gamut from A to Z, from prince to, if not pauper, then normal person on the street. I wanted this podcast to show that all of human life was affected by mental illness, that it didn’t matter who you were or what you did – it had the power to hit all of us at some point. And how better to do that than with a medium such as the podcast, where anyone could listen anywhere, safe in the knowledge that not a single person could judge them.
And so Mad World was born and Prince Harry was to be the first guest. On the morning of Wednesday, 22 March 2017, I wake up and select a beautiful summer dress I haven’t fitted into since before I started training. It has tiny flowers printed on it, and seems just the right side of regal – the kind of thing ‘one’ might wear to Royal Ascot if one was fond of talking about oneself in the third person. I’m going to interview Prince Harry!
Shortly after lunch, I head to Kensington Palace in my finery with four other Telegraph colleagues – two producers, a photographer and a sound recordist. We are escorted from security through to the palace proper, where we are taken into a smart living room decorated with old paintings. There are two huge sofas and an enormous coffee table sits in between the sofas, covered in coffee-table books. It’s then that I twig that this is probably not Prince Harry’s actual living room – nobody who lives in a living room actually has a coffee table covered in coffee-table books, in my experience; usually they are covered in half-drunk cups of tea and old takeaway leaflets. Or is that just me?
‘Erm, earth to Bryony?’ says the photographer. ‘That’s a lovely dress you are wearing. But I can see your black bra through it. Do you want me to try to Photoshop that out in the pictures?’
Before I have a chance to answer, Prince Harry walks into the room. His Royal Highness is wearing jeans and a grey cashmere jumper. He looks a little startled when he sees the amount of people in the room, but composes himself as he heads over for a hug. A hug! With Prince Harry! We exchange pleasantries. My colleagues smile like goons. Discreetly, Prince Harry asks if he could speak to me and Jason, his communications director, alone. Jason ushers everyone out of the room.
‘So I don’t mean to sound tricky,’ he smiles, ‘but I was wondering if it could just be us in the room while I do the interview? It’s just I’m a bit nervous about what I am going to say, and the less people there are the easier it will be.’
‘Of course!’ I say, relief sweeping over me. I pat his arm in what I hope is a reassuring manner. He suddenly looks a lot cheerier. And then it occurs to me: I am calming Prince Harry down. What on earth is he about to say?
What follows is an extract from our interview.
HRH: Yes you do! [laughs]
BG: I have so many questions. It is really, really normal to feel weird. In fact, it is probably weirder to always feel normal. I mean, do you have any experience with mental health issues?
HRH: Yeah. For me specifically, if you look back to the fact that I lost my mum at the age of 12, on a public platform, which it was, and then there’s everything else that happens with being in the spotlight and this sort of role and the pressures that come with it, and then going to Afghanistan and then working in the personnel recovery unit with other soldiers as well and taking on a lot of their issues… Anyone would look at that and go, ‘OK, there must be something wrong with you, you can’t be totally normal, there must be something wrong.’ And I sort of buried my head in the sand for many, many years.
Some people have written about it and suggested there might be something wrong with me, that it might be Afghanistan-related. I can safely say it’s not Afghanistan-related – I’m not one of those guys that has seen my best mate blown up next to me and had to apply a tourniquet to both his legs. Luckily, thank God, I wasn’t one of those people. But I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12 and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well. And it was only three years ago [that it came up], funnily enough from the support around, and my brother saying, ‘Look, you really need to deal with this. It is not normal to think that nothing has affected you.’
BG: Is that your way of dealing with it?
HRH: My way of dealing with it was, yeah… sticking my head in the sand and refusing to ever think about my mum because why would that help? It’s only going to make you sad, it’s not going to bring her back. So I was like, right, don’t ever let your emotions be part of anything. I was a typical 20-, 25-, 28-year-old running around going, ‘Life is great, life is fine,’ and then I started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden all this grief that I had never processed started to come to the forefront. And I realised there was actually a lot of stuff that I needed to deal with. And that combined with being stuck in certain situations… that fight or flight [feeling]. Being in situations when you’re at an engagement and not being able to do the flight bit, your body ends up kicking into the fight.
It was only two years, so I can count myself lucky, but it was 20 years of not thinking about it and then two years of total chaos. I just couldn’t put my finger on it, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought it was part of growing up or whatever. And then once you start talking about it to your mates, those mates were coming back to me, starting a conversation, and in that conversation they would slowly start to unravel their own issues because they knew they could; they knew that I could relate to it. And there is nothing better than being able to share your experiences and ask for advice from someone who’s actually been through it. Rather than a complete stranger or someone that doesn’t get it.
BG: I find when talking about mental health it’s not entirely altruistic. There’s also an element of hearing other people tell their stories that makes me realise that it’s completely normal to feel this way.
HRH: Yeah, totally normal. And as I touched on earlier, with the personnel recovery unit with the army, I was going there as a volunteer to show my support and hear all the stories from these individuals. There was one day when I sat down with three people. One girl who had tried to commit suicide and told me why and how. Another guy was suffering so badly from posttraumatic stress disorder that he was shaking and blinking and unable to actually make conversation with me. And another guy had tinnitus from a practice grenade being thrown into a tunnel when he was on exercise in Canada and that tinnitus means that he can’t… he has to go to bed with his missus with the speaker on playing rain and thunderstorms because otherwise it’s just ringing in his ears all night. And then in the afternoon I was at a Wellchild event, meeting terminally sick children and speaking to their parents. And I’m like, ‘Aargh…’
So you just park your own issues because of what you are confronted with, and all you want to do is help and listen, but then you walk away going, ‘Hang on a second, how the hell am I supposed to process this? I’ve literally just taken on everybody else’s…’
BG: You have got to deal with your own stuff.
‘Losing my mum at the age of 12 and shutting down all of my emotions has had quite a serious effect’
HRH: You do, I think. I have spoken to a couple of psychologists and I asked, ‘You guys, what is the rule?’ Because we are not cut out to take on everybody else’s emotions. But I got to a point at the age of 28 when I really started to care, I was really uneasy, I was trying to find a path in life and by the age of 30 I was like, wow, this is a much better way of life.
Dealing with all the grief, being able to have that conversation, sharing other people’s grief and knowing what they are going through. It’s OK, now I can actually have those conversations with people, and hopefully they can understand that I’ve got a little bit of experience to be able to share with them. You can then have that banter with them, you can make it lighthearted when necessary, but also you can be that person, holding their hand and being a comfort for them when they cry. It’s a fascinating process for me that I’ve been through, not just personally, but all of the people that I get to meet.
I’m so fortunate to get to meet these people who have literally turned their lives around and it’s all part of a conversation of being able to talk to a brother, a sister, a parent, a colleague or a complete stranger. As I’m sure you know, some of the best, or the easiest people to speak to is a shrink or whoever. Someone you’ve never met before, you sit down with and say, listen I don’t actually need your advice, can you just listen. And you just let it all rip. I’ve done that a couple of times. More than a couple of times actually.
BG: I think everyone should be made to do it on the NHS just for their wellbeing.
HRH: Wouldn’t it be great? Everyone has a stressful Monday to Friday so wouldn’t it be great if everyone has someone to speak to where you can offload all of your week’s grief. Are we allowed to swear on this or not?
BG: Yeah, you can swear.
HRH: OK. All of the day-to-day shit that everyone has to put up with because that’s, you know, the honest truth. If you can just dump that on a Friday, how much better would our weekends be? Because I can safely say that once I offload my stuff to somebody else, I feel so much better. And the thing about keeping it quiet is that it’s only going to make it worse not just for you but also for everybody else around you as well, because you become a problem, and through a lot of my 20s I was a problem.
HRH: I didn’t know how to deal with it. I probably dealt with it in the same way as you. I don’t know.
BG: I drank a lot. When I was ill I didn’t even know I was ill. I would just kind of bury it. It was that thing of trying to numb out all of the pain. And it works in the moment, but a day later it’s 10 times worse.
HRH: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. And my brother, you know, bless him, was a huge support to me. He kept saying, ‘This is not right. You need to talk about stuff, it’s OK.’ But the timing wasn’t right. BG: You need to feel it in yourself, right?
HRH: You need to feel it in yourself, you need to find the right person to talk to as well and that’s been one of my biggest frustrations over the past few years – how hard it is to find the right person, the right remedy, because there’s so much stuff out there. But I can’t encourage people enough to just have the conversation. Because you will be surprised firstly how much support you get and secondly how many people literally are longing for you to come out. You’ve got so much more in common with some people than you originally thought.
BG: Do you know how amazing it is what you have just said? And honestly I’m not just blowing smoke up your arse. I remember when I came to the launch of Heads Together last May. I wasn’t feeling very well at the time and I remember seeing the kids from [children’s mental health charity] Place2be. And they knew everything about depression and I thought, ‘God, here are three of the most high-profile people in the whole world talking about mental health,’ and I just want to say that was amazing. Because if when I was 12 a similar thing had happened, I wonder how different my life might have been. I really just want to thank you for that…
HRH: You know what? No one needs to thank us for that because it is a conversation that was bound to happen anyway. The three of us decided to come together because it is something that we really believe in.
And one of the best things – what my mother believed in – is the fact that if you are in a position of privilege and responsibility and if you can put your name to something that you genuinely believe in and other people believe in and if you get support and encouragement, then you can smash any stigma you want and you can encourage anybody to do anything. And I think and I hope that’s what Heads Together is proving.
This is not about us; this is about every single person out there who is suffering from daily stress, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, alcoholism, depression, whatever it may be. We are doing it for them.
BG: So you feel in a good place now?
HRH: Yeah, I do feel in a good place. It’s weird because yes, I’m a prince, I have a house and the security that I need. I have a car, I have a job that I absolutely love. Previous to that I had a second job that I absolutely loved as well that obviously came to an end for numerous reasons – but because of the process I have been through over the past two and a half years, I’ve now been able to take my work seriously, and my private life seriously as well and be able to put blood, sweat and tears into the things that really make a difference and the things that I think will make a difference to everybody else.
For me, the privilege comes with a huge amount of responsibility. If you can combine the two and try to make a difference and just be as genuine as possible and hope that everybody else sees that, then you get that tidal wave of support and then you can make a difference. Because you know what would really suck? Being in a position where you should be able to make a difference but people aren’t listening to you.
BG: So do you think you will have children now you are in that good place?
HRH: Yeah, I’m a godfather to quite a few of
‘Keeping it quiet is only going to make things worse, not just for you but for everyone else around you’
my friends’ kids, actually five or six.
BG: Are you a really awesome godfather?
HRH: I’d like to think so. The key to that is to grow up but also be in touch with your…
BG: Your childish side.
HRH: Yeah, your childish side. If that means going to someone’s house and sitting down and playing Playstation and kicking the ass of their son on Counter-strike or Halo or whatever it is then I will try and do that – though I’m actually so out of practice with that. But of course I would love to have kids.
You haven’t even looked at your sheet [of questions]!
BG: Because it’s just flown by, Harry.
How do you stay sane? What are the little things, the little tricks that you do? Do you exercise? Do you secretly Morris dance?
HRH: I don’t Morris dance. And in answer to your question, I have no idea how I or any of us stay sane. There is day-to-day pressure on all of us, and there’s day-to-day pressure on every single person, I get that, but I can genuinely say that I don’t know how I stay sane. I don’t have any secrets, though I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and lies and misconceptions are coming at you from every angle. But, you know, it comes with the role and one of the hardest things is not being able to have that voice or being able to stand up for yourself, you have to just let it wash over you. I hope that we as a family or we as an institution are able to try and remind people about certain core values and standards, and the fact you can put up with a huge amount of grief. You shouldn’t have to but you can.
And some people have techniques, and personally I go running or do a bit of boxing. During those two years I took up boxing because everyone was saying boxing is good for you and it’s a really good way of letting out aggression. And that really saved me because I was on the verge of punching someone, so being able to punch someone who had pads on was certainly easier.
But exercise is really the key. It doesn’t matter who you are. I know that with Lent people are always encouraged to give up things. I always think, why don’t you take up something instead? Whether it is going for a walk instead of taking the Tube, that kind of stuff – I think that makes a huge difference. And running the marathon . . . What is it? Twenty-six miles?
BG: It’s 26.2 miles. It’s the point two that’s the most significant.
HRH: Isn’t the point two down the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace?
BG: I… will… Yeah, I will be crawling by that point.
HRH: No you won’t, you are going to nail it and probably in under four hours as well. Guys, did you hear that? Under four hours for Bryony!
BG: Harry, thank you so much.
HRH: No, thank you for the chat.
BG: That’s been amazing. I feel like, I just… I want to clutch you to my bosom but I keep hugging you and it’s not cool.
HRH: It’s fine. We can have a hug afterwards.
‘I was on the verge of punching someone, so being able to punch someone who had pads on was easier’
Left Princes William and Harry at Thorpe Park with their late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales in 1993. Right Prince Harry shows his support for competitors running the London Marathon for Heads Together in 2017
Above Microphones on, Bryony and Prince Harry record their podcast at Kensington Palace in 2017
Left Bryony receives a hug from Prince Harry before the London Marathon in 2017. Right Chatting to the Duchess of Cambridge at the first Royal Foundation Forum in February