This is The SPP Spotlight, a new feature on our blog that spotlights women who have become leaders in the community, made a positive impact on people’s lives, or is a great role model for women in some way. Our guest is Clista Rakow. Clista is a suicide attempt survivor who serves on the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. She is also the current Miss Thurston County.
SPP: Clista, thank you for being with us.
Clista: Thank you for having me!
You’re very welcome. It is such a pleasure to have you. You have such a powerful story, but I want to start from the beginning, which dates back a few years to a relationship you had in high school. How did you meet and what was your relationship like with him at first?
At first, typically the people that start becoming abusers seem to share their best face so you don’t they’re crazy. They want you to think that they’re a nice person. But then the manipulation starts and you don’t notice it, because you become so isolated that you don’t really have an eye for that and you turn the other cheek.
What did the manipulation look like?
It would first start out with me not being able to hang out with my friends, a lot of double-standards, being very controlling, making me believe that I was pretty much worthless and I was lucky to have him. Whereas, I shouldn’t been putting up with things that I did, being verbally abusive. It did get physically abusive pretty early on into the relationship and went on until the end of it. But you never really see that when it’s happening and you can always look back in retrospect and realize that there was those red flags you should’ve seen and you should’ve gotten out of there a long time ago, but you just couldn’t because you become so dependent and reliant. [The abuser] basically determines your self-worth and you can’t leave, because you don’t think there’s anyone else out there for you.
What led you to a point where you would want to make a suicide attempt?
I had just gotten out of high school and all my friends were leaving, they were going off to college. I had really no one and it was a really dark point in my life. It was just… I can’t even explain it entirely, that feeling of desperation and hopelessness. But it had just gotten so bad and at one point I had just snapped and I couldn’t take it anymore. That’s what led me to wanting to no longer live.
Were you still with your boyfriend at the time?
We were still together. And then… it was probably a couple months later [after I snapped], in November, we finally had reconnected and for about two weeks it seemed normal – or what should’ve been a decent relationship – but then we just fell back into our old habits of fighting, bickering, and being controlling and abusive. Sometimes those people just don’t change.
What made you want to make a change and what did you do?
I just had gone through a really tough time in my life. My dad had just suffered a heart attack in January of 2013 and that’s when things came to an end. I was sitting in my [college] geology class and it was a two-hour class, so we had a 10-minute break. I had been up all night worrying, freaking out, and was just so done. And there’s a difference between being ‘done’ as to where you want to take your life and being ‘done’ with all the crap you’d been putting up with. At that point I was just done with the crap. I needed to better myself and if I stayed with [my boyfriend] I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So, I blocked him on every platform of social media that I had. I blocked him on my cell phone. I blocked his family. And I’ve never had contact with him since. That was the best decision I ever made.
At some point during all of this you came across the Miss Thurston County Scholarship Program. When was that?
That was in 2012. And that was around the same time I was struggling with all of this.
What was your understanding of Miss Thurston County at that time?
So, I had a former friend who was the current title holder [at that time] that was handing off her crown and she told me about the program, basically. You get scholarship money that was going to help pay for school, but that you just basically go out into the community mentoring little girls. You become a positive role model, not just for little girls, but for our younger generation. You become a spokesperson for what this organization stands for. You serve your community that basically built you.
What made you want to apply to be a contestant?
At first, it was the scholarship money. As I read more into it, it seemed like there was a lot more in store for me, as far as character-building, confidence-building and even networking opportunities. So, it just seemed like it was something I couldn’t… I didn’t have anything to lose, so why not just do it? I was definitely right about that. It has helped me immensely and rounded me in ways I couldn’t even imagine.
How did your understanding of Miss Thurston County change as you went through the process leading up to the competition? You just expressed you had a fair understanding, because of your friend. Did it change at all?
It definitely did, because I kind of saw it as a thing you’d do on the side. But this literally becomes your full-time job. Even as a contestant, you’re investing a lot of time and energy into workshops, appearances , and stuff like that. What you face in the workshop is nothing compared to what it’s like actually being a title-holder. You spend a lot of time and energy. It’s all volunteer. You strive to be the best title-holder you can be. I didn’t think it would take this much dedication, but…
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that, because aside from being busy, you did win the pageant, obviously, and the scholarship… How has being Miss Thurston County affected your life, aside from keeping you busy?
It’s been kind of funny. I will be out in random places and people will be like, “Oh, it’s Miss Thurston County! I saw you face-painting!” And I’ll be like, “Ugh, don’t look at me, I just woke up.” [laughs] But it’s been really hard trying to balance working and school and doing appearances, just keeping up and trying to also have a normal life. Maybe I get to see my parents every once in a while, even though I live with them. The first couple months were really busy, because you’re also preparing for Miss Washington and we are a preliminary to the Miss America organization. So, you’re getting through, like, 20,000 pages of paperwork, you’re getting ready for Spring Forum, you’re trying to find your evening gown, you’re trying to nail down your talent, you’re trying to work out. So, after Miss Washington, it’s definitely gone down a lot more, as far as not really having [any pageants] to prepare for anymore. But also I’m just trying to maintain being a normal, functioning human being. But that’s pretty much it.
Pageants today are faced with a lot of criticism for fostering an image of beautiful women of a certain body type with little in the way of substance being paraded across the stage and judged by their appearance. How do you respond to this criticism?
Honestly, I kind of laugh at it, because unless you’ve been to a pageant other than the Miss America organization you’ll see so many different kinds of girls. You’re gonna see girls who you see everywhere like at the supermarket. You’d never know that she’s a contestant and she’s trying to go for Miss Washington. I don’t think that there’s really any stereotype that fits Miss America or any title holders, being state or county. We come from all different walks of life and we’re all different shapes and sizes. We want to be doctors, we want to be lawyers. Some of us want to be models or TV personalities. Everyone is different and it’s really dependent on what the judges are looking for that year. I think anyone stands a shot at being Miss America, as long as you’re 17-24 and you’re currently a female. You have nothing to lose, so I just don’t think there’s any form or mold these days. We’re a very progressive generation. I think we should keep going in that direction.
When people see your picture, might see this gorgeous blonde with a smile that matches her tiara. What would you like people to know about you that they might not get from that image?
I’m a very, very down-to-earth person. I’m not anything like I come off as. All my friends told me, “We thought totally you were intimidating and typical stuck-up, snotty girl”, but that’s not my personality at all. I’m the kind of girl who’d rather play Halo and eat a bag of Cheetos in one sitting, as opposed to going out shopping. I enjoy that stuff, too, but I’m a very down-to-earth and silly person and don’t take myself seriously, because there’s no fun in life when you’re just serious. But it’s also that I’ve had my share of struggles, too. I don’t play the victim or say, “Boo-hoo, poor me. I went through this.” I say, “Heck yeah, I kicked that in its rear-end and have overcome everything I’ve been through!”. My trials have made me stronger and that’s really the message I’ve been trying to get out there. You never know somebody’s story, so don’t judge a book by its cover. We all have our struggles and we’re all on this planet together, we just need to be chill.
Now, you also work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which actually gets you fairly politically involved, right? Tell us a little bit about that.
So, I do constituent work for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and, basically, what that is I go contact local state and federal policy-makers on bills regarding suicide prevention and awareness. Recently, back in March, I was able to give my testimony in front of the state senate Health Care Committee on a bill requiring six hours of continuing education for front-line health care providers on suicide assessment, management and treatment. We were actually the first state to require that. It is a law now and I was able to attend the bill-signing and meet governor Ensley, so that was really awesome. On top of that, you’re contacting all of these people through emails and phone calls. We helped pass a policy in California that puts a safety net under the Golden Gate Bridge. So, it’s not just in Washington that I work with, it’s literally all over the country. I never thought that I’d be doing this work. It’s really exciting that we’re having such an aggressive take on suicide prevention. We have tactics and they’re working. We’re really striving to see these numbers get lower and lower. We’re doing anything it takes, whether it’s getting out there on the political front-lines or getting in the schools and classrooms or just sharing [our] story and opening up the conversation so we can end the stigma to mental illness and suicide.
Clista, how old are you?
I’m 20 years-old and I’m going to be turning 21 in June.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My goodness… Hopefully, I will be in medical school. Hopefully… fingers crossed. [laughs] That’s still a scary thought to me. I kind of am one of those people who just like to go with the flow and whatever is thrown at me, I’ll take it. I’ve been really wanting to take an internship with the Lovers Association, which is similar to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They work with youth that struggle with addiction and suicide prevention and mental illness and stuff like that. So, that’s down in Florida. I didn’t apply this round, but I’m hoping sometime soon I can land a spot there and do some work. Whatever opportunities come my way are going to determine my life, but I think med school is pretty much my general direction.
What kind of medicine do you want to practice?
I’m thinking I would like to do dermatology. It’s a really funny story, I was bullied so much [because] I had the worst acne you could imagine; it was awful. I definitely credit my dermatologist for basically clearing up my face and boosting my self-confidence. I really want to do that for other people. As miserable as I was… but doing that kind of work and helping people also coincides with boosting your self-confidence and being a person who likes to get out there and not scared of their insecurities. But just getting my general MD and opening a family practice is also a goal, too.
Clista, who are some women who’ve inspired you over the years and continue to today?
I would definitely have to say first: my mom. She has been my rock. I often joke that – if you’re a pageant girl, you’ll know what butt glue is – but I often tell her she’s the butt-glue that holds me together. Basically, [it goes on] your swimsuit so it doesn’t move when you’re on stage. But she has helped me in so many ways and really raised me to not be scared to show who I am. That has its downsides and it has its upsides. But she’s just a really awesome woman. She’s basically my best friend. She’s always kept that conversation open that I can go to her with anything and talk to her about anything. I can’t even thank her enough; she’s been awesome. And Theresa Scanlon, Miss America 2011, actually came out after her year of service that she [struggled] a lot with suicide and depression issues. So, she is a huge inspiration, because it’s not easy being in the spotlight and talk about those kinds of things. As someone who’s Miss America, she’s tall, blonde, pretty – she won Miss America when she was 17 – you never think you can go through these things as a title holder. You read these awful comments online about you and having people say you’re too skinny or too fat or what is she doing or what is she wearing. You know, it’s stupid. There’s so much negativity that’s surrounding the title-holder, but you just have to pay no attention to it, because haters are going to hate and you have to let them be. That’s basically the message she’s gotten across to me. She’s a really inspirational person. She’s still doing amazing things after her year of service.
What messages would you like to convey to young women and little girls?
Don’t let anyone else determine your self-worth. Just know that beauty comes in all different shapes and forms and sizes. It’s really your self-confidence that makes you You. It doesn’t matter what anybody says about you, how many likes you get on your Instagram picture, or if someone likes your status on Facebook; it doesn’t matter. If you’re genuine and true to who you are, you don’t have to worry about anything else. Don’t worry about finding a boyfriend or a prom date. None of that matters, because you’re going to be 30 someday and you’re going to look back at that and say, “That was really silly of me.” I’m 20 and I’m like, “Really, 15 year-old Clista… get your stuff together!” [laughs] Just be you and be chill and let life roll on. If things start to go a little downhill, there’s always an uphill to that. Things get better, eventually.
Clista, I want to thank you so much for being with us today.
Thank you for having me.
Clista Rakow is the current Miss Thurston County. You can find her at www.missthurstoncounty.org where you can schedule appearances with her for events or community programs. You can also find her on Facebook by searching for Miss Thurston County and view updates of her activities and Instagram at @ClistamRakow. This is The SPP Spotlight. I’m Jeff Gibson.