An Interview with Patty Nodine, LPC and LAC
Content Warning – The contents of this article discuss depression, anxiety, and suicide.
“I was sad, and I was disappointed — but I wasn’t surprised when I learned about the tragic death of Cheslie Kryst. I work with people who said they just couldn’t believe it, but that’s because they were thinking about Cheslie with a rational mind. People who suffer from depression and anxiety have ‘thought distortions,’ therefore their thoughts are more irrational. Now, from the outside you think, here’s this woman who was a successful attorney. She was Miss North Carolina, Miss USA, she’s living in New York, she has all this going for her. So why would she do something like that? But an irrational mind might say, ‘I’m a burden, I’m not good enough, what if I fail, what if I can’t manage all of this, what if I disappoint others?’ And when you start weighing in the opinion of others — especially if you are a TV personality, like Cheslie, and you’re thinking of all of your viewers — well, that’s a lot of pressure.
“To come from a place of understanding, you have to first understand that constantly striving to be perfect is not normal. I think that people who are perfectionists continually struggle with setting unrealistic expectations for themselves and are probably second-guessing themselves all the time. A person caught up in the struggle for perfectionism is looking for — and desperately needs — relief, but invariably they don’t see a way out. In some cases, they believe they are a burden, and rather than face the fear of failing, or disappointing others, or waking up each day dreading the day and putting on a mask, they feel the only release is by ending it all. They have lost all hope.
“I wasn’t surprised about Cheslie Kryst because I was thinking, when I looked at her picture, all of the pressure that comes with this type of woman, of all of her successes, especially facing turning 30. It is very hard to continue being successful all the time, every time, in everything you do. Just look at her beauty and her accomplishments. There was a lot of sacrifice that went into ‘being Cheslie Kryst,’ and I think the time and investment others made on her behalf only added to the pressure she put on herself.
“There are warning signs. But sometimes, as with Cheslie, they are hard to see. When you start to recognize that someone who is close to you is pulling away, then act on your instincts and find out why. It is especially difficult when that person works long hours, and people who are perfectionists tend to work a lot. So, you wonder, is this person truly busy? Is this person committed to obligations, or is this person isolating and sitting alone in their thoughts, are they struggling, or are they exhibiting what would be perceived as overly ambitious or motivated behaviors? These types of behaviors mask the isolation, which is a huge piece.”
The final “selfie” Cheslie Kryst took just hours before she committed suicide was posted with her last message, “May this day bring you rest and peace.”
Nodine observes, “When we look at people who are contemplating suicide, they start sending cryptic messages. If I read Cheslie’s message, not knowing she was moments away from committing suicide, I might not see that as a cryptic message. I would think, ‘That’s a nice message.’ Perfectionists often wear masks they hide behind to conceal their true emotions and thoughts.
“People struggling with their mental health may not only isolate themselves in their personal space, by seeking to be alone, but they may also isolate in relationships. They may find reason to disconnect from the people who they really care about, and intentionally cause conflict to push others away. I think one of the biggest challenges in recognizing when people are suffering from depression or anxiety is seeing past the mask that says ‘I’m just fine,’ when underneath the mask, they are far from it.
“Perfectionists are performers. If it were easy to spot these people, I believe there would be a lower suicide rate. We haven’t really figured out how we can identify people who are highly successful, motivated, and hyper-determined, as opposed to a person who is simply productive and ambitious and wants to succeed.
“I see that people who suffer with mental illness and substance use have difficulty dealing with the guilt and shame. As a professional, I encourage these people to seek therapy and practice self-care. Everyone is different, so to say there is one pathway to work through guilt and shame is not true.
“I think a part of perfectionism is that they have not been properly diagnosed with a mental health disorder. If you have feelings involved with hopelessness, desperation, or inadequacy and cannot seem to pull yourself out of a dark place, then please reach out to someone you trust or, if you don’t feel comfortable sharing with a loved one, reach out to your primary care physician. That step may save your life and provide relief. Unfortunately, we have a stereotyped image of someone struggling with their mental health. Television commercials ask: ‘Do you feel depressed? Do you feel hopeless? Do you have trouble getting out of bed? Are you isolating?’ But when we are looking at someone like Cheslie, who was constantly seeking perfection, she must have been dealing with severe anxiety — and severe anxiety, unmanaged, can turn into depression. So, you may not see that stereotypical image; you may see someone who is spot-on, who is a performer, who is trying to be as successful as she can be and internalizes to deal with the pressures that are associated with that.
“Social media can be a cause of depression. What we’re seeing is that people can swipe, they can scroll, and they see all of these beautiful pictures of beautiful people, so for the average person it’s difficult to understand that these are moments, often planned, so what they see isn’t real. This has been a common issue, especially with women who are dealing with aging and with weight and put constant pressure on themselves on how they think they should look. When you’re talking about beauty pageants, as with Cheslie, of course they’re going to shine in the spotlight; they were taught to smile big. They’re taught specific poses to make. They’re always being scored. They’re actually judged by how they look and what they say. When you’re judged and you have been trained in all those things, you have to be mindful when it’s OK to shut it down.
“We have our conscious mind, which tells us the things that we should do, and we have our subconscious mind, which stores all our thoughts and life experiences. Cheslie said she disconnected from work every evening and had very strong boundaries, because her conscious mind knew that’s what she was supposed to do. When we tap into our subconscious minds, we learn our worldview is shaped by our experiences. With Cheslie, her worldview was shaped by her race, her parent’s divorce, and her values. I’m sure for her there were lots of pressures for her to succeed. Again, this goes back to being Miss North Carolina, Miss USA, working in New York City as a TV personality. If she, in her law school mind and rational mind, understood that these were things she was meant to do, there are other things going on in the back of her mind that were probably telling her, ‘You’re not doing enough. What are you going to do when you hit 40 years old? What if you fail?’
“What happens is our subconscious mind guides and dictates our behavior. I can tell you that I want to be in a healthy relationship. But if all I’ve seen are unhealthy relationships, then I tend to gravitate to what I know. When we use the example of beauty, I can tell you that with age, beauty fades. But I can also tell you in my subconscious mind that what I was taught about beauty is that you should be thin, so your husband doesn’t leave you. You should look your best, so you get promoted. You should always look your best because people judge you by what they see. What you should be thinking is: ‘My partner loves me for who I am. My boss is promoting me because of my skill set.’ But there’s something underneath it all that drives that irrational behavior. For a perfectionist, however, there are no controls. It becomes overwhelming and a burden.
“What Cheslie did was unfortunate and preventable, and even in her final moments you can see that she was still affected by her perfectionism. Among the welter of emotions, there must have been such fear! Even in an irrational state, knowing you’re going to die, knowing you are seeking some form of relief. I think that is more anxiety than depression; it takes a certain level of energy and wherewithal to be able to take your life, whereas with major depressive disorder, you have a hard time just pulling yourself out of bed. To me, what stands out is there’s a difference between major depressive disorder and seeing the stereotype you see in the commercial versus anxiety and reaching perfection, which is like what Cheslie struggled with. She was a performer, and she didn’t want to be a burden on her mother. She didn’t want to disappoint her family, who was so proud of her.”
Patty Nodine, LPC, LAC, MAC, AADC, SAP, is the Director of Behavioral Health at ReGenesis Health Care in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and a professional counselor who owns and operates Pathfinder Counseling & Consultancy. She specializes in addiction medicine.