As an American, I tend to not pay too much attention to what members of the British Royal family are up to, but I just became a huge fan of Prince Harry. It turns out that he and I both have something in common, and that is two years of total chaos after traumatic events in our lives. For Prince Harry, it was the tragic loss of his mother, Princess Diana, 20 years ago when he was just 12 years old, and for myself, my cancer diagnosis six years ago at the age of 33.
It's been incredibly uplifting for all of us involved in the mental health movement to see Prince Harry opening up about mental health struggles. In an interview and podcast with The Telegraph, the Prince admitted that he had shut down emotionally for the past two decades after losing his mother, and only sought counseling for this recently with the support and encouragement of others in his life such as his brother, Prince William, after experiencing those two years of total chaos. As the Prince described, “I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle.” This sounds all too familiar.
I experienced two years of total chaos in my life as well, after cancer, and like Prince Harry, the time in which we grieve or finally express our anxiety about a situation or tragic event doesn't always coincide with the event. Sometimes, it occurs much later, like twenty years later in Prince Harry's case. My cancer diagnosis was in 2011, and from a mental standpoint and at a subconscious level, I had basically been in denial after that anything serious had really happened to me. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in 2012, the year after my cancer fight, that it hadn't seemed like that big of a deal, and might have even been easy? It wasn't, and at the time, I still didn't even know what had hit me. Consciously, I knew that what I had been through was serious and traumatic, but subconsciously, my mind still deeply in denial, wanted to see my cancer fight as a really bad case of the flu. But this was cancer, not the flu. I had become friends with more than a few other cancer fighters, and watching some of them die of their diseases along with a terrible cancer recurrence scare I experienced myself, is what suddenly made all of this real. It wasn't the flu anymore, and I'll never forget the time at the end of 2012 when all that I had experienced finally started processing.
I might have appeared orderly on the outside and like I had everything together, but that only goes to show how well we can conceal our pain. The truth is, I spent every single day in 2013 trying to stay one step ahead of PTSD meltdowns and anxiety attacks. I became depressed and withdrawn, and didn't want to be around anybody except for my family and a few extremely close and trusted friends. I was a complete wreck inside, and didn't know how to live my life or how to move forward, but fortunately, with the right friends and the right support, I found my way.
2014 was an off year. I thought I had resolved all of my inner issues and turmoil in the previous year, and went the entire year without a single posttraumatic stress episode or meltdown, only to have it return in 2015. I was so disheartened. I thought I had worked my way through everything, but I was still deeply afraid inside of my cancer returning, and didn't know how to stop being afraid. My mental health issues in 2015 were less about anxiety and posttraumatic stress, and more about depression. I felt like a failure and a huge liability to my family, and didn't know how to let go of that. In the meantime, a few friends and even family members had disappointed me immensely in years past, but I couldn't seem to let go of that either. Prince Harry described being on the verge of punching someone; I had a short list of people that I seriously wanted to throw out of windows. I didn't know how to stop hating them, but needed to let go of this because it was just dragging me down, but I didn't know how. I had to learn how to forgive myself, forgive others, and to transform myself spiritually.
You don't have to be the same person that you were yesterday, and today I'm not. I'm a much better and much more evolved person than I've ever been. Like Prince Harry, having worked through my issues, I'm in a much better place today. How did I do it? There's no single method, but running and writing proved to be my go to cures. Running outdoors specifically, with the wind on my face and scenery passing me by, gave all of the terrible anxiety that I had been feeling inside a place to go. At the same time, it was the solitary processing of my thoughts as I ran, away from the stress and distractions of work and family, that I finally began to unravel my issues and for the true healing to begin. Prince Harry took up boxing and just started having conversations with others about his issues. I started having conversations with myself through journaling, which evolved into a major essay about surviving a young adult cancer, and from there turned to non-profit writing and my own website.
As with Prince Harry's struggles, it's been through "having conversations" that's helped me to heal from my own demons, and in turn, the conversations that I have with others through my writing helps them to heal as well. The point is, there's no need for this "stiff upper lip culture" as the Princes have described. It's okay to talk about things like this. You don't have to keep it all inside, and nobody has ever resolved inner pain like this by completely ignoring it and never talking about it. We're all human beings. This is all normal to experience, especially when one has experienced traumatic events in their lives. In the case of posttraumatic stress, it's not even something that's wrong with us, but rather, what's right. It would be more abnormal to not have mental health related issues after traumatic experiences. Having them is perfectly normal. It's what makes us human.
Prince Harry, along with his brother, Prince William, and sister-in-law, the Duchess of Cambridge, have setup the Heads Together charity to promote better mental well-being. "Too often, people feel afraid to admit that they are struggling with their mental health. This fear of prejudice and judgement stops people from getting help and can destroy families and end lives. Heads Together wants to help people feel much more comfortable with their everyday mental well being and have the practical tools to support their friends and family."
With the blessing of Prince Harry, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I hope this will encourage more people and especially young men to start opening up about mental health struggles. Mental health struggles can tend to hit the testicular cancer community particularly hard, and this is a wonderful mission! Thank you Prince Harry!
Director, TCAF Ambassadors
Cross-posted at StevePake.com