Miss Wisconsin on Honoring Her Brother's Legacy

By McCarton Ackerman 11/14/14

Raeanna Johnson talks to The Fix about how being Miss Wisconsin helps raise awareness of the ultimate price of addiction.

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Raeanna Johnson is the reigning Miss Wisconsin and a recent college graduate, but it’s her work in preserving her brother's legacy that she hopes to be remembered for. Her brother, Tyler, passed away after he took his own life in August 2005. It was later discovered that he had methamphetamines in his system at the time of his death. 

When Johnson began entering local contests, she chose substance abuse and addiction as her platform in order to promote opportunities for people struggling with drug addiction to seek help. Although it was her mother that started Tyler’s Legacy, Johnson has brought national awareness to the campaign through her Miss Wisconsin crown and hopes to continue advocating long after her reign is over.

Johnson spoke exclusively to The Fix about the platform that Miss Wisconsin has provided in helping to promote Tyler’s Legacy, her plans for future campaigns and the importance of support in overcoming the death of a loved one.

What was your relationship like with your brother growing up?

Tyler and I had a very typical sibling relationship. He was the big brother—a mastermind of teasing— and I was the annoying little sister. But as we grew up, we grew apart and barely talked. I didn’t really know what was going on in his life.

That’s what is so difficult to me about losing him. People would always say that we would come around and become close again when we got older and started getting married or having children. We’ll never have that opportunity now. That’s why this platform of Tyler's Legacy is so important to me because it’s a way of maintaining a relationship with my brother.

Even though you weren’t aware of his drug use, did you notice any changes in Tyler leading up to his death?

My mom always said that hindsight is 20/20, but everything seemed to happen very quickly. He graduated high school in May 2005 and ended his life in August 2005. We saw the physical changes after he graduated like his skin breaking out, weight loss, less attention to hygiene. He would have a lot of energy one day and be depressed the next, which are the crazy highs and lows associated with methamphetamine use. But we didn’t know the signs and symptoms and certainly didn’t know to be looking for them.

Even though he took his life, do you think his drug use contributed to his death in any way?

We have said before that we can blame his drug use for his decision to end his life. When he did that, he was no longer himself at that point. I don’t think he would have made that decision if he weren’t using, but we also don’t want to think he was that sad. 

Did your family ever blame themselves for what happened?

From what my mom has said, she has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder since his death. She was the one that found his body. I think it’s only natural that you’re going to go back and think about what you could have done differently, analyze conversations that you had or look more closely at some of his disciplinary problems in school.

What was really hard for me is that I was only 15 when he passed. I struggle with knowing that I was in my own little world and didn’t care enough to know what he was up to.

Did you seek out any help or support to get over Tyler’s death?

I was very reluctant in the beginning to seek out any kind of support. The shock of losing him took a long time to go away and it wasn’t until I began experiencing depression myself that I began to seek help. I ended up participating in a support group at my high school for people who lost their parents, but they offered to extend the group because they felt I needed the help.

My mom had started Tyler’s Legacy Inc., and would hold a monthly support group where she would bring in a speaker, but my own activism didn’t take place until two years after Tyler’s death when I entered my first Miss America competition. My speech teacher told me that I was already speaking at a college level, so I realized that I could share my story and help create awareness. The Miss America Organization really just gave me the confidence to do that and provided a huge platform that helped me do things with Tyler’s Legacy that were beyond my wildest dreams.

What are some of the things that you’ve gotten to do through that platform?

I got to speak at a conference for the Department of Transportation. When I competed for the Miss America crown, there was a lot of national press interested in sharing my story. My website has officially launched and we have a following for Tyler’s Legacy on Twitter and Facebook. Those little successes have just encouraged me to keep going.

This all started on such a small level. I just wanted to speak at DARE graduations and local schools, but the feedback was so positive from the very beginning. When I won Miss Holmen at age 17, I honestly had forgotten about the chance to compete for Miss Wisconsin or the scholarship money. I just wanted to share my story and help create awareness. 

What are your plans for the future?

There have been a lot of opportunities to go into schools statewide, but I would love to be a full-time motivational speaker and travel around the country. There’s so much work that can be done not only to erase the stigma of substance abuse, but also boost people’s comfort level in seeking help. Alcoholism runs in my family and I’ve seen the secrecy attached to that firsthand. Just being able to share my story has been immensely helpful to me in my grieving process and I’ve been able to learn so much from others.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to get over losing a family member or loved one?

The biggest is to seek out people who are supportive. I felt shame at first because there were people who looked at me with judgmental eyes and also placed blame on him. They told me that Tyler was in hell for ending his life. It’s so important to remember who they were before the substance abuse because Tyler wasn’t himself when he ended his life. In these situations, seeking out people who will help enable that and be supportive is ultimately a survival technique.

McCarton Ackerman has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2011. He recently wrote about Bad GrandpasTwo Bipolar Chicks and Reality TV stars busted for drugs.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.