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VOL. 42 | NO. 15 | Friday, April 13, 2018

Addiction more than a cause for reigning Miss Tennessee

Father’s suicide helps Knoxvillian aid others dealing with crisis

By Nancy Henderson

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Four years ago, Caty Davis was on summer break after her freshman year of college when two police officers showed up at the door to deliver the news that her dad had committed suicide.

“I hadn’t talked to my father in a few months and hadn’t heard from him,” Davis says. “I know that they had had financial struggles, he and his wife, and they lost their house, so I knew things were not looking well. But I’d seen so many times where my dad would hit rock bottom and come back up and go to recovery centers or whatever. He’d get better, and this time he didn’t.”

In late June, the 23-year-old beauty queen will step down from her year-long reign as Miss Tennessee and her relentless quest to share her family’s story of addiction with students across the state.

In the past year, she has raised $40,000 for substance abuse prevention organizations and traveled more than 80,000 miles speaking to 50,000 schoolchildren as the official spokesperson for Governor Bill Haslam’s Character Education program.

She also serves as Goodwill Ambassador for the state’s five Children’s Miracle Network hospitals, as well as a national ambassador for the non-profit Facing Addiction, Inc., and raises money for Count It! Lock It! Drop It!, sponsored by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, which educates parents about the dangers inside their medicine cabinets and helps them pay for prescription lockboxes.

“I was at the Tennessee State Capitol yesterday speaking with legislators, with [House] Speaker Beth Harwell, and discussing how we need to take inventory of our medications, lock up your prescriptions and dispose of them properly, get them out of your house when you’re not using that 30-day supply of hydrocodone after your surgery,” she explains. “A large portion of the people who are misusing prescription pills and opioids got their start from a family medicine cabinet.”

Outgoing, creative and curious, Davis grew up in a blended family of five kids in the small, unincorporated community of Kerns in northwest Knox County. An overachiever, she craved an academic challenge and dove into “any extracurricular [activities] I could get my hands on,” including cheerleading, singing and performing in high school musicals.

She was 4 when her parents divorced, too young to know much about her dad’s dependence on prescription pills and alcohol. At first, she and her biological sister would visit him twice a week, but that arrangement dwindled when he started using again.

Neither his job as a car salesman, his position as music and worship leader at the family’s church, nor his good looks and charismatic personality could ease his self-doubt and keep him from self-medicating, Davis says.

She later learned he wasn’t the only one.

Twelve family members, including cousins, uncles and aunts, were struggling with addiction. Her father had started drinking at the age of 14, the same year her paternal grandfather died in a car accident as the result of his own alcoholism.

“That was kind of normal in his family, because [my father] had seen brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents all do the same thing,” Davis adds.

“Everyone loved him, but he never saw himself like that. It just kind of developed into an addiction really, really early on.”

Two years before her dad hanged himself, her 23-year-old half-brother did the same thing.

To support the family after she and her husband divorced, Davis’s mom earned her real estate license; the flexible schedule allowed her to be home with Davis and her little sister. “I respect her so much because there were many, many times when my dad would stand us up, or was late, and she never talked bad about him, never put this image in my head that my dad was a bad man, because he wasn’t,” Davis recounts.

“He didn’t make great decisions, but I respect her for not speaking ill of him, ever, and loving him even though they weren’t married. She just gave up everything for us to see a different kind of life.”

Davis was a sophomore in high school when she announced to her mom that she wanted to compete in a beauty pageant. “She looked at me and said, ‘You want to do what?’ I mean, she was shocked,” Davis remembers.

“I wanted a place where I could sing on stage. My dad, when he was younger, was on Star Search with his band. I wanted to kind of do the same thing.”

In 2013, on her second attempt, the high school junior won Miss America’s Outstanding Teen for Knoxville. The program not only gave her a public outlet for her soulful voice, but scholarship money for college. “It just kind of became something I loved to do, just a hobby,” she says.

In her senior year, she won the title of Miss Northwest Tennessee, then went on to become Miss Knoxville, Miss Chattanooga and Miss Lexington. It took her four tries to land the Miss Tennessee crown, which she did last June at the Carl Perkins Civic Center in Jackson, one month after graduating magna cum laude from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a psychology degree and a minor in business administration.

Davis plans to become a clinical child psychologist, partly because her own therapy made such a difference. “I feel like I’m a counselor every time I walk into a school,” she says. “I’m vulnerable with the kids and I share my story and how even Miss Tennessee, a real-life princess, didn’t grow up with a fairy tale life.

“That is an eye-opening statement, I guess, for a lot of kids. They’re like, ‘Wow, my parents are getting divorced,’ or ‘My dad died in a car wreck.’ I can relate to these kids on many, many levels. I think a lot of people get into psychology because they want to understand their own traumas.”

Still, it wasn’t until her win as Miss Knoxville in 2014, a few months after her dad’s death, that she chose “Attacking Addiction: Prevention, Recovery and Restoring Families” as her pageant platform. Before that, she focused on education and literacy, she explains, because setting personal goals in these areas had helped her cope with her father’s illness and erratic behavior.

“Then after my dad passed away, I realized that I had a platform that I never really knew I had,” Davis says. “Addiction was something no one was talking about. … I didn’t realize my story was something that could be told and help someone else. I’m glad I didn’t win Miss Tennessee those first two years after, because I wasn’t ready to talk about it.”

Despite her big personality, it’s taken her several years to feel comfortable discussing her family’s ordeal in public. “It’s been a process for me, and just as healing for me to talk about it as it is for them,” she adds.

At elementary schools, Davis speaks mostly about character education, sprinkling in elements of her own blended family and her parents’ divorce, which many of the young students can relate to.

At middle and high schools, she aims to steer kids away from drug use by telling her story and showing them that, like her, they don’t have to get caught up in the cycle of addiction, even if they witness it at home. With the older age group, she says, “There are more individuals that come up to me after and say, ‘I had no idea anybody else was going through this’ or ‘We’ve almost lived the same life.’”

“One in three households are affected by addiction,” says Allison DeMarcus, co-executive director of the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant. “So, when Caty walks into a school, looking impeccable, wearing her crown and sash, and then shares that she has 12 family members who have been plagued by addiction and she has lost her grandfather, half-brother and father to this chronic brain disease, these students listen and take note. This is exactly what is happening in their homes, but more than likely, it is far worse.

“The courage Caty has exhibited this year in sharing her journey instead of glossing over the intense, darker side of her life and only sharing the good parts, has had a profound impact on the schoolchildren she has encountered this year,” DeMarcus adds. “Caty shares the imperfect picture of what has really happened in her life, and then shares how perfectly it has brought her to this point in her life. Then she encourages students that they, too, can make the decision that the cycle of addiction stops with them.”

Some days are harder than others, Davis admits.

“Sometimes I can turn it on auto-pilot and just go, but other times it is harder for me to share, depending on where I am and who the audience is. It’s always somebody’s first time meeting Miss Tennessee, so I never want to disappoint. I’m always open to answering their questions and talking about it.”

The past year’s schedule has been nothing short of grueling. More than once, she’s stayed up for more than 48 hours, driving from one presentation to another across Tennessee – more than 300 so far. “I average going home about once a week, just enough time to do some laundry, turn around, re-pack and head on to the next place,” she says. “But you know, it’s a message I have to share. It’s all worth it if one kid can change their life, or turn it around, or know that education is more important than the drugs. So, it’s really, really rewarding.”

Last September, Davis placed in the top 12 in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For the talent portion, she belted out the Whitney Houston classic, “I Have Nothing,” one of the larger-than-life “power ballads” she gravitates toward.

While studying at UTK, she co-founded VOLT, the first student-led, co-ed a cappella performance ensemble on campus, which she likens to the one in the movie, “Pitch Perfect.’’ Although she has graduated, she never misses a VOLT performance.

After her Miss Tennessee stint is completed, Davis plans to record a CD and maybe take up musical theater again. Friends and family members have been urging her to audition for “The Voice” or “American Idol,” something she says she’d consider. “Why not? You know, I’ve been on international TV in a swimsuit. I can do that,” she jokes.

Ongoing misconceptions about beauty pageants, and the women who participate in them, seem to irk Davis a bit, who points out that she pushed through the flu and pneumonia in January to deliver her scheduled speeches.

“I might be blonde but I’m not dumb,” adds Davis, who likes to listen to true crime podcasts in the car. “It’s not just that I travel around the state and look pretty. It’s a job. It’s not just a luxurious position full of spa treatments.”

What’s more, she says, the $36,000 in scholarship funds she received as a contestant over the years allowed her to graduate from college, where she made the dean’s list all eight semesters.

“The whole Miss America organization is about empowering women, helping them to see that they can achieve anything in their future, and it’s helping them get there, giving them the vehicle, whether that’s through scholarship money or a voice,” says Davis.

Even after she steps down as Miss Tennessee this summer, she plans to continue speaking to groups about addiction and substance abuse disorders. “It’s time to close this chapter out with pageantry,” she says, “and continue using my voice that I feel has become a little bit louder, thanks to the pageants I’ve been in.”