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Deanna Silva

Even beauty queens get the blues

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Severe post-partum depression after the birth of her twins gave Deanna Silva — Mrs. USOA Florida 2022 — a new pageant advocacy passion.

Deanna Silva was 15 when, walking through the mall with her mother, she noticed a sign – “Beauty pageant this weekend!” Despite her good looks, outgoing personality and popularity at school — she was a cheerleader, class president and captain of her softball team — she was at that awkward, insecure stage of life and decided to enter the pageant just for “an opportunity to feel pretty.” Right from the start, she was hooked.

“The transformation of going from everyday me to pageant me and having the attention in a good way….it was almost an addiction,” says Silva, who lives in Tampa, Florida with her husband and three children. “Having people say, ‘Oh you’re so beautiful, you’re so talented, you did such a great job!’ Those were the things that helped me understand I could be pretty, even though I wore glasses and braces and headgear and all of that in my teenage years.”

Silva quickly learned crowns and banners brought gifts more valuable and enduring than just the confirmation of her good looks. Preparing for and competing in pageants gave her poise, confidence and a facility with speaking and being interviewed. She also gained a platform and a bigger voice to advocate for or bring awareness to worthwhile causes.

At the time, she didn’t have a personally-driven agenda to embrace. Initially she used her visibility to promote cystic fibrosis awareness and research (she lost a cousin to the disease in 2017); later, she championed organ donation. Then came a six-year hiatus from pageant life, as she married, had her first son, Parker, and settled into a life balanced between being a wife, a mother and a full time medical technician.

One night, when Parker was about a year old and Silva was getting him ready for bed, she thought to herself, “I’d give anything to have my pre-pregnancy body back.” Aware that there were “Mrs.” pageants, she decided to enter one, not with any aspirations of winning, but simply because she thought it would provide motivation to get back in shape and feel good about body and diet again.

In 2013, she signed up to compete in the Mrs. Florida America pageant and was floored when she walked away with the title, then plunged into the whirlwind of competing at the national Mrs. America competition in Arizona, which she calls “one of the most incredible experiences in my pageant career.” Even then she was “still kind of all over the place with what I was advocating for,” partly because her own life seemed so perfect – “I was on top of the world” – she didn’t seem to have an agenda to embrace.

Less than three years later, she became pregnant again. Because her job involved giving ultrasound examinations, she gave one to herself when she was five weeks pregnant — and was stunned and overwhelmed to find out she was going to have twins, a boy and a girl. Just the idea of her family almost doubling in size sent her anxious mind into overdrive.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster from the very beginning,” she says of the discovery. “It all just right away started overwhelming my brain. You mix that with normal pregnancy hormones and emotion and exhaustion and stress and it started snowballing very early on.”

At about 20 weeks, she went in for another ultrasound, this one performed by a tech who was a good friend. Almost immediately after the probe touched her belly, she recognized that her son’s heart was not beating. As her friend encouraged her to change her position and reassured her that this was an anomaly that occasionally occurred, Silva became hysterical with panic. Was something wrong with him? Would he make it to full term? Would he be disabled? Moments later, her son’s heartbeat resumed, but her own sense of equilibrium did not.

“I was terrified,” she says. “It was definitely a traumatic experience.”

Though the rest of her pregnancy was normal, at 36 ½ weeks, as Silva was approaching the date for her scheduled C-section, she began experiencing headaches, swelling and a strange pain in her jaw when she laid down. Though her blood pressure was within normal limits, it was far higher than her typical reads and she had an increasing sense of malaise, feeling something was just not right. After her bloodwork came back from the laboratory, her doctor informed her she had pre-eclampsia, a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition to mother and baby, and that she would need to deliver within the following 24 hours.

The delivery went smoothly and two days later, with no intensive care necessary, the Silvas were a family of five at home. But while her daughter, Anabelle, entered the world robust and vigorous, her son Sawyer was nearly a pound and a half lighter and experienced a series of problems after birth, from breathing issues, to a respiratory virus to projectile vomiting and colic.

“He was the one I was already so paranoid about and I was watching him like a hawk,” Silva recalls. “From the very beginning it was a complete blur and we just went into survival mode. I experienced the normal rush of hormones and lack of sleep, which is hard enough with one, let along two newborns and a toddler. It was hell. And on top of it, I felt terrible for not being thrilled and grateful that I had two healthy children.”

Mothers of “multiples” are well known to be at higher risk for developing post-partum depression. But that wasn’t what came to her mind when Silver, still feeling out of control after several months, found herself wishing she had her “old life” back. She experienced an “almost rage” about her familial obligations, while at the same time she was riddled with guilt over her anger, irritability and lethargy when it came to spending time with her children.

“After a few months, when those ‘baby blues’ are supposed to go away, mine never really did,” Silva recalls. “And everybody just kept saying, ‘Well, of course you feel that way, you’re exhausted.’”

But it wasn’t just the exhaustion. She also lived in a constant state of anxiety, projecting every possible harm that might come to her children. Would they pull the ironing board down from the wall on top of their heads? Would they somehow get to the backyard pool even though it was fenced and gated? Forget taking them to the park where, when any child left her sight for a second, she became hysterical, certain they’d been abducted.

Even though her mother, who lived an hour away, often provided respite, Silva remained in “a really dark place.” She distinctly remembers sitting on the couch, staring at the clock, willing the minutes away until her husband would get home from work and she could dump the kids in his arms and retreat. She angrily resented his ability to have time away even as she recognized the magnitude of his own responsibilities.

One day, when she was driving to her mother’s – the kids in the back strapped in car seats, her son kicking the back of her seat and screaming the entire way – she found herself imagining driving the car head on into a tree. If she was going fast enough, she hypothesized, it wouldn’t hurt, and if she wasn’t killed, at least she’d have time away from the kids in the hospital. The thought of her children in the car kept her from following through, but when she continued to have thoughts that they would be better off without her, she realized this was something far more serious than exhaustion.

To that point, she had yet to consult a doctor or therapist, primarily because she feared being prescribed, and becoming dependent on, medication. But as the twins first birthday passed and she still felt just as tired, angry and suicidal, she at last made an appointment with her OB-GYN.

She remembers sitting in the waiting room filling out the paperwork: Are you withdrawing from things you used to enjoy? Check. Are you feeling sad or lonely? Check. Do you feel like you want to harm yourself? Check. When the doctor asked, “What’s going on?” Silva burst into tears, sobbing. “I’m miserable. I hate my life. I hate myself. I’m screwing up my kids. I don’t want to be here anymore. I think they’d be better off without me!”

“Honey, you’re exhausted!” he said patronizingly. “You have twins, of course you feel this way. You need a nice night out with your husband.”

Silva was so relieved to hear she wasn’t crazy and to avoid the possibility of having to take medication, she didn’t even react to his shockingly oblivious prescription.

“I was like, oh, good, I thought you were going to tell me there was something really wrong with me but you’re telling me this is normal, this is fine, I just need to reevaluate my life and take some time out,” she remembers. “And this again proves what’s wrong with our mental health system. The lack of education, the lack of awareness. Post-partum depression is the number one complication of pregnancy. How do we not talk about this?”

After a few more months of feeling suicidal, she took matters into her own hands. She started doing her own research and, convinced she had post partum depression and anxiety, she made an appointment with a local therapist. After a “word vomit” at her first appointment, the therapist looked at her with tenderness and said simply, “I am so sorry. You absolutely do have classic post partum.”

“I remember just losing it and thinking, oh my gosh, I’m not crazy,” Silva says. “Because I felt crazy. I felt like I was just being dramatic and I needed to suck it up and be a mom and work full time and come home and cook dinner and be happy and take my kids everywhere with the twins in matching outfits. So when she said that to me, I felt a million pounds come off my shoulders. Everything started to make sense.”

Therapy sessions gave Silva some coping skills to deal with her anxiety and she began to feel somewhat better. But a crucial turning point came when she found an organization called Post Partum Society International and discovered there was a chapter in nearby Sarasota. The first time she attended a peer support group therapy session, she felt the first inklings of hope.

“For the first time I felt the isolation was gone,” she says. “Sitting and listening to these women tell their stories, I realized I was not the only person in the world who felt this way. And for the first time, I left thinking, ‘I’m going to be OK. This is something I can receive treatment for. And I will come out of this.”

She also acknowledged, though still somewhat reluctantly, that medication was probably the right path for her. The first time she held the pills in her hand, she cried before swallowing them, thinking, ‘I’m going to be somebody dependent on medication and I don’t want to be that person.” But several weeks later, when she and her husband took the children to the park, she remembers a moment of elation.

“All of a sudden I was like, wait a minute, I’m not panicked,” she recalls. “I’m not losing my mind. Is this what it’s like to feel normal when you take your kids to the park? And it was in that moment that I thought, ‘Wow, this feels good. I’m not crazy. I feel like a mom.’ I thought for a long time I was a horrible mom. And I’m not!”

Eventually, Silva felt good enough not only to accept a full time job at the Veterans Administration, but to return to the pageant world. In 2018 she won the Mrs. Galaxy competition. Last November, she was crowned Mrs. United States of America Florida and several months later was one of 15 finalists in the USOA Mrs. national competition in Las Vegas.

Initially, she had some hesitancy about sharing her personal story within her pageant role. She started by writing a long blog post detailing her entire mental health journey and sharing it with her husband to make sure he was comfortable with her transparency. She was concerned not only about his reaction, but also about how her revelations would be received by others, especially on social media “where we only show our best selves.”

“But it became so important to me to be that light, that example,” she says. “To go out there and say: There was no way I was going to make it. There was no way I would be an advocate. There was no way I would be competing again. And yet, here I am.”

Once she started working at the VA, there was no question about the focus of her advocacy anymore. The stories she heard from her patients underscored the importance of bringing awareness, services and funding to meet the needs of veterans, one of the largest populations to experience mental health issues.

“I can’t fathom what it’s like to serve, I can’t relate to the trauma and PTSD a veteran has,” she says, “but I can understand what it’s like to feel the world would be better off without you. I can understand what it’s like to not want to get out of bed, to feel depression down to your bones. So now my advocacy has really turned toward mental health for veterans, because it’s such a gap in our healthcare system.”

Through her own group support experience and as part of Post Partum Florida’s “Sister Mom” pilot program, which matched new moms who were struggling with mentor moms, she recognized the critical importance of peer to peer support. Now, she says, “I want to do that for veterans. I want to be the voice that says, we need to do better.”

As the reigning Mrs. Florida and a state ambassador for Mission 22, a nonprofit dedicated to healing veterans with post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, Silva is looking forward to spending the next year using her title to advocate for more and better veteran treatment programs. But even after she hands over her crown, she has no plans to step back.

“I can advocate for this, whether I have a crown and banner or not, as someone who understands this experience, has walked in those shoes, who’s been in that darkness,” she says. “People relate to that so much better if you’ve been there, because with mental health, the struggle lies in the sense of isolation, the feeling that no one understands what you are going through.

“And especially as a ‘beauty queen,’ as Mrs. Florida. People can look at me and think, ‘Wait, this is somebody who has experienced a mental health crisis?’ And yeah, it happens. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It happens to so many and I’m one of them.”