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Jessica Lynch

I Bravely Choose to Live: My ongoing struggle with depression. By Jessica Lynch, Miss New York State 2003
New York City Voices, October-December 2003

Jessica Lynch, Miss New York 2003 On September 20, 2003 I sat in front of a mirror applying make-up at the Miss America Pageant watching my life flash before my eyes. Surprisingly, I felt very calm and peaceful. Most of the contestants sat around chatting about their childhood dreams of becoming the next Miss America or how many millions of people would be watching us on television that night. I sat in my own reverie of a similar night in September, ten years earlier. I did not remember a little girl wanting to be Miss America. I remembered a little girl sitting on her bathroom floor wanting to die.

Growing up I was a fairly typical child, very social, very active, and into everything. I was popular at school and gifted academically. However, that all started to change. By the time I was in 5th grade I was contemplating ways to kill myself.

I now had few friends and spent most of my time lost in books and make-believe stories with my stuffed animals. I also became obsessed with getting thinner. By December of my eighth grade year I was at a dangerously low weight and my parents finally took me to see a psychologist and psychiatrist. My weight continued to plummet, my depression worsened and my parents were forced to hospitalize me in a child psychiatric hospital.

I hated every single moment there. What did I possibly have in common with the other teenage residents, there for acting-out problems, drugs, alcohol, and violence? When the doctors announced I was "cured" after a month, I believed them. Little did I know that my insurance had run out and my parents could not afford to keep me hospitalized.

The first week home I returned to my old anorexia habits and depression. My father sat me down and explained that I had used up all of the insurance and that if I did not get better they would be forced to put me in foster care. I was desperate not to leave the family I loved so much, so I forced myself to get better or, at least, seem better.

Years later, upon starting college at the University of Virginia, I decided to go off my medication. Within the first few weeks of classes, I started having major problems with concentration and completing my homework. I started to party excessively with friends, drank too much, and started skipping class. I went from having a 4.0 in high school to having a 2.0 in college. However, it was also at this time that I became involved in the Miss America system.

Miss America is the number one scholarship provider for women and it also encourages each woman to have a platform around which she devotes time and community service. I chose Self-Esteem and began telling people about my problems in middle school. However, I always referred to it as something that had happened in past. I spoke to people in schools, parent organizations and youth groups, telling them that if I could overcome it, they could. Inside I felt like a hypocrite because there was more than one occasion when my friends had to keep me from harming myself.

My parents were concerned for my safety, so I chose to get back on medication after my second year and saw an improvement. I also decided that I would graduate early and pursue my dreams of becoming an actress in New York City.

Since I was able to graduate college in three years I reasoned that I was well enough to stop my medication again when I got to New York. I was lucky enough to spend my first winter in Manhattan dancing in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My happiness was short-lived as the depression quickly returned, worse than ever. I got a job waiting tables but found that even simple memory tasks were almost impossible. I began sleeping excessively and skipping auditions. I was almost always late for work and I had trouble conversing for more than two minutes.

Eager for success at something I competed for the title of Miss New York and was first runner-up. Instead of feeling good about my placement, I was so devastated that I spent two weeks in bed, doing nothing but crying and sleeping. I quit my job waiting tables and found myself with no money and only my credit cards to pay for my bills and necessities. My parents begged me to come home and I finally did.

While home, my mother dragged me out of bed and forced me to see a psychiatrist for medication. Eventually I was able to return to New York but life was still a struggle even with medication and therapy.

Finally, one day I woke up and things were different. It was like I had come out of a fog and could see clearly. I actually got out of bed and returned phone calls. I also made contact with the Mental Health Association in New York State and said I wanted to help.

I competed once again but with the platform of Combating Teenage Depression and Suicide and won the title of Miss New York City first, then Miss New York State. And this time, instead of saying depression was something that had happened in the past, I say it is something I will continue to deal with for the rest of my life.

My year of service as Miss New York is dedicated to educating the public of all ages about mental illness: its causes, symptoms, and treatments. I am lobbying for reform in our health care laws that discriminate against people with mental illness. Most importantly, I am determined to fling open the closets of mental illness, to disclose how rampant it is and improve communication among sufferers so that they know they are not alone.

In truth, I thought with all I had been through, I was destined to be chosen Miss America. In fact I was not even chosen for the top 15. I was disappointed, but I realized I had gained something more important than any title could give me. I had won by coming clean about my illness and refusing to be ashamed of it. I had won by taking the necessary steps to seek treatment. But most importantly, I had won when I held onto that last shred of hope that night ten years ago when I had chosen to live. My mother has said to me that the toughest and bravest thing we have to do in life is to live. If there is one thought I can leave you with…it is to continue to be brave.

Jessica Lynch with her family

Jessica Lynch with her family on the night
she was crowned Miss New York State, 2003.