silent struggle - Cheslie Kryst Visits "Extra"

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Anxiety. Insecurity. Depression. These and a myriad of other berating thought processes torment millions if not billions of people every single day. Especially in our Westernized civilization, we are consumed with the need to act perfect, celebrate perfection, and present a picture-perfect image, but the truth is, not a single one of us is perfect. There are so many people wrestling, not against an external enemy, but an anxious inner me without a clear escape route or a sustainable method of coping. If you’re one of them reading this, I hope you stick around until the end of this article, and I hope your perspective changes because of it.

The research for this piece included becoming acquainted with a beautiful, intelligent young woman by the name of Cheslie Kryst, who, sadly, is no longer here with us. Her book, By the Time You Read This, shares intimate details of her journey from awkward middle school girl being bullied before class to beauty pageant princess with an array of accompanying anxieties and mental tribulations. For brief moments while reading her story, you almost forget that her life encountered a tragic end.

Reading a book written by someone whom you know ended their own life shortly after completing their manuscript is a unique experience. It’s like starting a movie with a looming spoiler alert. There’s this plot twist that you know is coming, yet still don’t want to believe will actually occur. Even when Cheslie described joy-filled experiences and hopeful moments, knowing the end of her story caused me, as a reader, to look through a magnifying glass with one eyebrow slightly raised, desperately searching for the subliminal signs of someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. There had to be some clues hidden within her writings…right? Sometimes, the signs are so subtle, they seem invisible.

What struck me most was realizing Cheslie’s story could’ve very easily been mine. The very first time I recall dealing with depression (and knowing to diagnose it as such), I was 12 years old, just entering middle school as a skinny, awkward, nerdy, bright-but-shy girl who was too often bullied for being different from her peers. Determined to break out of my shell, I dove headfirst into playing sports in high school and worked hard to intentionally develop my musical gifts. My senior year was the first time I competed in a pageant. Modeling and pageantry taught me to place high emphasis on external qualifications of beauty, and also taught me to magnify the things about me that society had decided were substandard — among these, my melanated skin and complexion riddled with acne and subsequent scars.

SEE ALSO: Miss USA Noelia Voigt Resigns Amongst Mental Health Challenges

For years, I suffered with extreme anxiety, panic attacks, depressive episodes, suicidal thoughts, and actions, but for years, I hid it well from people closest to me. I call myself an extroverted introvert, often in the public spotlight because of what I believe is God‘s call on my life to stand before crowds of people, but I also deeply value times of retreating and recharging and meaningful one-on-one connection. I’ve come to realize that this is the balance I must maintain the tension of in order to properly protect my mental health.

When I finally reached a breaking point, I opened up to my two best friends and my vulnerability sparked a conversation I never could have dreamed would go the way it did. “That’s happened to me, too,” they replied, sharing instances when they’d had thoughts of taking their own lives or wondering if they mattered at all. We ended up encouraging each other out of the dark pit we didn’t realize we were all in together. At the time, none of us were trained professionals in counseling, but we found humble sanctity and a refuge in simply being honest and transparent. That was the first step toward healing for each of us.

My mom first learned of my ongoing struggle with depression 25 years after its onset when I was on stage sharing my testimony before ministering a song at a church service. I’m sure she suspected it or discerned signs based on my behavior, but she never had any substantial enough proof to confront me about it. We’re very close, but I was also really good at hiding in plain sight.

I’m convinced we need #metoo movement for mental health victims. More people should admit when they’ve struggled with maintaining their mental health and help to expose depression for the diabolically twisted abuser it is. While it’s beautiful that awareness is being raised about the ravaging effects of depression, it’s also necessary to shine a light on the overwhelming statistics we don’t talk about often enough.

SEE ALSO: Low-Cost Ways to Practice Self-Care & Maintain Your Mental Health

There is no way to know how many people actually battle depression and suicide each year, however, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 21 million adults, or 8.3% of all adults in the United States, had at least one episode of major depression in 2021. Episodes of major depression were more common among: females (10.3% compared to 6.2% in males) and people between the ages of 18 and 25 (18.6%). An even more chilling detail is the number of people who neglect to get the help they need in order to conquer their internal mental health struggles. It’s believed that at least 1 in every 5 Americans face these struggles daily. All these numbers would be much higher if every bout of depression was in public record.

Because of the stigma surrounding depression, mental illness, medication, and therapy, especially in the African-American and faith-based communities, many choose to suffer in silence with psychologically debilitating disorders, putting on a “brave face” in order to maintain surface level relationships with their unsuspecting peers, fans, followers, friends, and family. Many hope that it will just go away with time or settle for the brief breaks they enjoy while medicated by substances that lower their inhibitions and decrease the hormonal pressure building up in their brains. Mental illness is just that — an illness. And like any bodily disease, it won’t evaporate into thin air without intentional treatment, divine intervention, or a medical miracle.

In her book, Cheslie recounted the relationships that impacted her, including the rollercoaster of emotions that accompanied her love life and the on-again, off-again, somewhat toxic relationship with an ex-boyfriend. When it was finally over — for real — she was forced to address the lingering feelings of loneliness she often battled even when crowds of people were around her. Sure, there was a host of fickle fans, opinionated commenters, and nosy journalists constantly looking over her shoulder, but she wasn’t without community or people who truly cared about her. During the pandemic shutdown and surge of racial tensions in 2020, she shared that she coped by leaning into her Miss USA and Universe contestant community and intentionally invested in maintaining her pageant sisterhoods. It seemed she had a great relationship with her five siblings and considered her mom, April, to be not only her inspiration but also her best friend.

April was crowned Mrs. North Carolina 2002, and to her wide-eyed, 10-year-old daughter, she was the ultimate queen. Years later, she followed in her mom’s footsteps and allowed her to coach and instill helpful wisdom. When Cheslie was hospitalized for a suicide attempt in early 2021, April suddenly came face-to-face with the heartbreaking realization that her baby girl had fought agonizing depression almost every single day for years. After this incident, the two became even closer, sharing laughs, tears, exotic trips, beautiful memories, and talking on the phone almost every morning without fail. This precious time spent together only made it harder for April to wrap her mind around a thought that less than a year later, her daughter’s next attempt would succeed.

Prior to her reign as Miss USA, Cheslie was an already accomplished lawyer with her certification in dual states, doing meaningful work at a law firm she loved. She had competed in multiple pageants before and after law school, earning her stripes and sashes while learning the politics of the pageant world. She regularly volunteered with Dress for Success, an organization that helps outfit job-hunting women who cannot afford to go shopping for workplace attire, and she was very proud of her fashion blog with a similar vision.

It’s also important to note that Cheslie was a woman of faith. While I do not personally know the depth of her relationship with God, she did make it crystal clear that she believed in Him and in the peace and power He has to impart and impact lives here on earth. She believed in heaven, so much that she desired to go there early. I’m sure that last sentence would cause a crowd of Christians to cringe with uncertainty, wondering if she somehow managed to disqualify herself from entering the pearly gates. She fully trusted God’s plan for her life — even that becoming Miss USA was part of it — and she truly believed that if something wasn’t in God’s plan, nothing was going to make it so.

She made it to the top 10 in the Miss Universe pageant, but that wasn’t enough to keep her from feeling like a total failure when her name wasn’t called after the evening gown competition. “You didn’t deserve to win,” she would repeatedly think to herself after enduring a loss. She understood the value of learning and growing from her losses, but she still took them extremely hard.

SEE ALSO: 6 Identifying Signs of Anxiety

This woman appeared to have it all: poised elegance, fame and notoriety, career success, caring community. She was introverted but seemed to manage being the public eye remarkably well, intentionally scheduling times for herself to withdraw and recharge, and she never made it an excuse for not immersing herself in purpose. So what was it? What made her mental state so fragile? What made her feel the need to escape a life that many others only dream of? One clear indicator is a tiny twist of the truth that many of us fall prey to as well — she deserved her beautiful life. Life is not something we can deserve because it is freely given to us. Her humanity did not have to be earned, and the love she received was unmerited, so there was nothing she was required to give in order to keep it. Sadly, she felt the pressure to perform and worked hard to give her best effort to earn life and love, but still, she never felt quite good enough.

Cheslie said she started competing in pageants because she needed someone to think she was pretty. In school, she was bullied and made to feel extremely self-conscious, even as a star athlete. When she won Miss USA 2019, she struggled to cope with the multitude of eyes that were immediately thrust onto her. Parts of the adventure were, of course, fun and exhilarating, but other parts were taxing and draining, even for someone with no mental health issues. She was extremely strong, gorgeous, kind, brave, and smart, but she was still entirely human. Thoughts of inadequacy plagued her mind, and imposter syndrome invaded her body like a cancer, slowly and silently eating away at the confidence she had exuded onstage at the Miss USA pageant.

Second-guessing was second nature to her, as she was consistently found over-analyzing her performances and fighting the nagging need to be flawless. She felt both humbled and overwhelmed with the task of representing others in demographics similar to her — women, young adults, legal professionals, people of color, and more. Hatred spewing on the internet from social media trolls and biased reporters didn’t help.

Cheslie was extremely driven, describing many stories of intentionally blocking out distractions to study for the bar exam or prepare for onstage interview questions. She even stuck to rigorous diets at times, but made regular mention of her love for chocolate and other sweet treats, at times, turning to stress-eating comfort food.

The rise in social media engagement and influence from 2012-2017 (while she was in law school and making her inaugural entrance into the pageant world) played a pivotal part in her stunted relationship growth. Of course, to the masses or even to people in her immediate fields of work, she was friendly, but she learned to build barriers that prevented her from creating long-lasting connections with close friends or romantic partners, mainly as an effort to protect herself from the supposedly inevitable demise from rejection.

In her mind, Cheslie lacked sufficient safe spaces to be vulnerable — not that they weren’t available, because I’m certain her loving mother would have provided a listening ear. But, like many victims of mental crises, Cheslie convinced herself that she was protecting the people she loved from her ugly demons by keeping them a painful secret. Perhaps she even reasoned that her absence was for their own good. It wasn’t. Her absence caused a ripple effect of indescribable pain that still radiates toward readers like me to this day.

Mentally ill people desperately need to feel safe enough to unload their baggage without fear of being mistreated, misjudged, or misunderstood. Any lucid moments of voluntary transparency should be welcomed and celebrated. Contrary to popular belief, vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. It takes an enormous amount of inner fortitude to truly be vulnerable and express your thoughts and emotions outwardly. In Cheslie’s words, “What I thought was unworthiness was actually a demonstration of undeniable strength.” She acknowledged that she was strong, but still questioned if she was strong enough.

SEE ALSO: How To Build Emotional Awareness

What is enough, anyway? What is this immeasurable standard that cultural norms and societal expectations have placed in front of us, like a metaphorical carrot dangling from a string at a distance that always seems to be ever so slightly out of reach? Is it unobtainable? Are we fooling ourselves by reaching for it? I would dare say yes. But only because the pressure to perform is a monument built on the foundation of people-pleasing. We are all imperfect people bleeding, sweating, and crying for a crown, trying our hardest to impress other imperfect people. And let’s face it — the humans we’re aiming to make an impression on usually aren’t even the ones who came up with the standard. They’re just the chosen few implementing it at the moment.

You cannot live your life to please or appease other flawed human beings. Only our infinitely superior Creator can be the just judge and accurately assess what He made. He is perfect enough for all of us, so He doesn’t require you to be. Just be unapologetically you, and know that is enough.

In December 2021, Cheslie was a judge for the Miss Universe pageant in Israel and brought her mom along. They had a blast! The next month, they grieved the loss of a family friend who had given in to suicide. Although it sparked a transparent conversation, Cheslie didn’t want to burden her mom or anyone else she loved with the full, honest weight of her problems, so even though she had a safe place to run, she convinced herself that running away was her best option. She fought depression until finally giving in to it while seeking refuge from it on January 30th, 2022.

SEE ALSO: What My Anxiety Diagnosis Has Taught Me About Resilience, 6 Years Later

At the height of my own depression, I had endured so much hurt and hardship in my lifetime and had witnessed many close to me go through even more. I had been overlooked and undervalued and overwhelmed and underestimated far too many times, and it made me question everything. Why am I here? Do I belong here? What have I done to deserve this? Like Cheslie, I truly believed God had a plan for me and for every single person He sent to this earth, but one major detail of my faith that kept me alive was the realization that I was here for others. My life, skills, gifts, and talents were not my own, but were part of a divine investment my Creator made into me. He trusted me with them. He had faith in me even when I lacked faith in Him or myself. Even greater, they were part of a bigger picture He was trying to paint. If He sent me here, it’s because He wanted me here and was willing to equip me with everything I needed in order to survive and succeed. I became determined to give Him a return on His investment. I passionately pursued opportunities to use my gifts and talents to inspire and encourage others around me, and that path has now become my multi-business career and ministry.

I want to say the same to you. If you are here, it’s because the Creator of the universe wanted you here. And that truth is more than enough proof to say you belong. Don’t give up the fight. I know it seems unbearably difficult at times, but you’re still breathing, and that’s proof you’re still needed here.

Many caring but unsuspecting loved ones of those dealing with depression either neglect to look for the signs or don’t know what to do once they find them. We can all take notes from how Cheslie’s mom handled the sobering revelation that her baby girl was battling severe, high-functioning depression. These are a few bites of wisdom I gathered from her writings.

If you are in close relationship with someone wrestling with their mental health:

  • The signs may be subtle, so don’t brush them off. The drive to overachieve is often a sly cover-up technique. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or check on those who seem strong or self-sufficient. No one is self-sufficient, and no one should feel the need to walk alone.
  • Listen intently to their feelings without diminishing them. Provide a safe space for judgment-free vulnerability. Aim to understand how they see the world.
  • Take your cue from them when showering them with love, offering support, or giving encouragement and counsel. If they are shut down to help at a moment, let them know your intention is simply to love them to life and give them time and space to resurface.
  • Be grateful for their lives more than you lament over their illness.

Even if you did everything “right,” and still have experienced the tremendous loss Cheslie’s family is still grappling with the effects of, know that your grief is proof of love, so carry gratitude, not guilt. Don’t neglect your own mental health, because your life is worth God’s investment, too. I so admire how April and many others with similar stories have turned their tragedies into testimonies to help encourage others.

Somebody around you needs you to see them where they are and love them beyond it.

SEE ALSO: 9 Self-Love Affirmations To Remind Yourself You’re Worthy

No amount of accolades, successes, wealth, beauty, fortune, fame, or recognition can guarantee or buy your mental health, and none of these things are an altar on which it’s worth sacrificing. Know that whatever you have is enough to bring to someone who cares. Kindness and compassion have a way of multiplying what seems insignificant until it overflows with joy.

To quote Cheslie’s final instagram post, “May this day bring you rest and peace.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with thoughts of insignificance or self-harm, dial 9-8-8 for the suicide prevention hotline and start the healing process with a vulnerable conversation.

Melody Faith Dunlap is an entrepreneur, a passionate minister, a skilled administrator and a gifted vocalist who was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her husband Josh founded JMD Productions, a marketing and media consulting company that offers creative administrative solutions for individuals and business owners. She also has plans to soon release her first book and launch a podcast helping others overcome insecurity and related mental health challenges. Follow @thisismelodyfaith for more inspiring content. 

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