After making history as the first openly LGBTQ+ woman to compete at the Miss USA competition, I walked away with a new and certain confidence in who I am. Every piece of me that used to make me feel small had now become my superpower. It took me seven years to win the title of Miss Utah USA, and in that time, I broke every mold and stereotype of who I was “supposed” to be, to win. It wasn’t until I truly accepted myself, the best and the worst, that I finally took home the crown.
During my interviews, I talked openly about my past suicide attempts, my ability to develop attraction for both men and women, and my diagnosis with bipolar disorder. Pageantry gave me the arena to battle every insecurity I had ever faced about not being good enough, and the platform to share my truth with the world: I am perfect as I am, and I am why I am here.
In addition to the history I made at the pageant as the first openly LGBTQ+ competitor, I was also proud to see Asya Branch win Miss USA as the first Black woman to represent her state of Mississippi. Amongst all of the firsts, we were also the first pageant class to compete, safely, in a global pandemic. I truly felt like a champion. A champion for Utah, for the entire LGBTQ+ community, and most importantly for myself. And with that new confidence, I was ready to embark on a new quest. One that scared me even more than the possibility of rejection from a panel of judges — the journey to find true love.
I’m a hopeful romantic. I also may have watched too many Disney movies and reality T.V. dating shows growing up. I am in love with the possibility of finding true love. But in all of those stories, I’ve never seen someone like me find it. Women with a history of mental illness, and women who are queer, are never the characters that find happily ever after in modern media. We are lucky to be included, but when we are, the ending is usually less romance and more tragedy. I’ve wondered my whole life if maybe love just isn’t meant for someone like me.
It’s common for pageant girls to get recruited for reality television. We are used to the cameras and competition. Miss USA brings together the world’s most ambitious, driven, motivated women who are determined not only to take home the crown, but to change the world with their platforms and philanthropic efforts. And we aren’t afraid to do that in front of the entire world. After Miss USA, reality T.V. shows started reaching out, asking if I was ready to find love.
As a two-time survivor of suicide, I recognize the miracle it is to be alive. To see my life unfold in order to make history achieving one of my biggest dreams, competing at Miss USA exactly as I am, was more than I could have possibly imagined for myself at 25. These days I find myself open to receiving all of life’s miracles. Maybe finding love, and changing the world’s perception of mental illness in the process, could be the next miracle for me.
A common part of the casting process includes a psych evaluation. So here I was, two months after Miss USA, recounting my hospitalizations and bipolar diagnosis again, this time to a stranger on Zoom. I had made it pretty far into the casting process, only to be faced with another conversation about my past experiences with mental health.
The doctor listened carefully, as I recounted my history. I began struggling with my mental health at 15 years old, when my parents divorced. I was diagnosed with everything. ADHD, anxiety, depression, PTSD, “adjustment disorder,” eating disorder not specified, and finally bipolar disorder not specified. According to a 2021 study by Project Healthy Minds, 96% of millennials report experiencing at least some anxiety, with 48% citing they feel anxious frequently. Two in 3 who identify with the LGBTQ community rate their mental health as fair to poor. Clearly I’m not alone in my struggles with these mental health problems.
Doctors had a hard time putting me in a box, and somehow my diagnosis seemed to grow both vaguer and, simultaneously, more serious. It wasn’t until I had my first and only manic episode that I truly accepted something had to change. I had to stop seeing myself as a diagnosis, and instead see my diagnosis as the specific reason I needed to start taking care of myself.
My experience with mania led to me losing not only my mind, but also my job, and then my home. I had nowhere to go, not because help was out of reach, but because I had turned my back on any possibility for it. I was too ashamed of myself, of the drugs, the toxic relationships, all of the side effects of deteriorating self-worth. But in that moment I realized that no one could save me until I was ready to save myself. I had to become my own “why” for being alive. That was the moment that self-care, true care, became my full-time job.
I looked at the reality T.V. show doctor, as he quietly took notes. “Would this keep me from getting cast?”, I wondered. As much as I wanted to believe that a mental health professional would see me as a whole and complete human, not a list of various diagnoses, my own insecurities began to arise. Old stories about how I would never be quite good enough for the job, the love story, the happily ever after.
“Do you think you are healthy enough to be on this show?”, he asked. I thought quietly about all of the moments I had asked for help, the hours of therapy, the tears, the healing. I thought about how I had used all of my pain to become a Certified Crisis Counselor, and founded the I Am Why Project, a group self-care coaching program and retreat for people who wonder if they belong here. The way that my past had etched me with empathy, compassion, wisdom, and strength. I saw myself for who I have truly become. “Yes. The world deserves to know that people like me deserve to find love,” I answered.
And at that moment, it didn’t matter if the doctor or the casting team agreed. I had already decided for myself: Everyone is equally worthy and capable of creating true love. And on this World Bipolar Day, I want to destigmatize the diagnosis and show the world that you can not only survive, you can also thrive and deserve love. And that love will first and foremost, come from within.
As a special gift to you, download my free Self-Care Guide HERE, and follow @saltyrachel and @IAMWHYProject.