Editor’s note: The following article contains a reference to suicide.
With a new year, a new administration, and (bless it) a COVID vaccine now on the horizon, it seems we can end this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year with something tangible to look forward to—I believe Barack Obama would call it “hope.” But for model Aweng Ade-Chuol and wife Alexus “Lexy” Ade-Chuol, the kissing cover stars of Elle UK’s January 2021 issue, the start of a new year brings a new beginning after an emotionally turbulent first year of marriage.
It was almost a year ago when the 22-year-old South Sudanese model married the equally gorgeous 24-year-old native New York nail artist and founder of Palmpered, sharing the details of their courtship, proposal, and pre-pandemic New York City wedding in Vogue this July. Their uber-stylish December 12, 2019 wedding photos, taken by Tatiana Katvova, went viral when they appeared in the magazine along with the enchanting story of the “wardrobe crisis” turned happy accident that resulted in Lexy wearing a Pyer Moss gown to their city hall ceremony (thanks to the last-minute help of publicist Nate Hinton), followed by matching tattoos and pizza. (Aweng’s oversized pantsuit was by Kwaidan Editions.)
“I was originally supposed to wear something completely different,” Lexy explained to Vogue. “That option fell through the night before. I was so distraught, but I knew if I had to, I’d marry Aweng in sweats.”
“It looked beautiful, like an angel,” Aweng would later tell Elle.
The wedding was a Lower East Side fairytale, but the very real terror of the pandemic and months of lockdown that followed triggered a mental health crisis for Aweng, a former resident of the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya whose father died in 2013 from a wound sustained while fighting in Sudan’s civil war. Aweng, her mother, and 11 younger siblings eventually migrated to Sydney, Australia, where she was discovered as an 18-year-old law student, finding instant success as a top model.
[A] life of constant travel, collaborating with the world’s most famous artists and making the most of every day came to a grinding halt at the beginning of this year. Stranded in New York with Lexy...the pandemic forced Aweng to stay in one place for the first time in her life. ‘The whole set up was tough,’ she says, laughing nervously. ‘I had a crisis of What do you mean, I have to stay [here] for eight months?’
The simple act of stopping threw Aweng’s world into chaos. ‘When you’re so used to things going [she clicks her hands frantically around her face, mimicking the speed of her life up until that point], any pace slower than that is confusing. So I had two months of being completely shut off.’
In late June, she made a devastating admission on social media, writing: “I attempted suicide two months ago today. And I just want to say, that I’m in a much better place. And no one had to know that—but it’s good to get it out of my chest. I feel well enough to. Especially today. I am thankful for life.”
Sharing further details with Elle, the couple revealed that Aweng spent three days in ICU followed by nearly another week in the hospital, during which her wife couldn’t visit due to COVID protocols. “I didn’t sleep for three days, I didn’t eat for three days, I was just waiting and praying a lot,” Lexy recalled. “It’s a very tough situation to find yourself in, but it’s really not in your control.”
So much has been out of our control this year, as we’ve weathered the combined traumas of a life-threatening virus with astronomical death rates; a resulting economic depression and widespread unemployment; as well ever-frustrating debates on race, democracy and human rights. According to a June survey taken by the CDC, our mental health is duly reflective of the trauma of our times:
Overall, 40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic† (26.3%), and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%).
Given the well-documented racial disparities in the effects of the coronavirus and the concurrent racial crisis in America, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Black respondents reported even more increased substance use and serious consideration of suicide than white and Asian respondents. As Aweng explained to Elle, the unexpected impact upon her own mental health is what compelled her to go public in spite of the possible stigma.
“I’ve always been outspoken, and mental health has always been something that I’ve spoken on,’ she said. ‘But I guess I didn’t experience the other side of it until this year, when lockdown impacted my life directly, actually [put my] life at risk. When that happened, it was a reality check. Before, it was like, mental health is important, but now, it is the most important thing. Where you’re at mentally is the most important foundation.”
Aweng’s revelation, of course, garnered a range of reactions including an overwhelming wave of empathy that revealed exactly how common depression and despair have become this year. “I need to maneuver around this thing I went through, so I don’t know how to help you,” said Aweng, “but here’s some suggestions: therapy and self-acceptance.’”
She is doing that for herself, but of course, didn’t experience the trauma alone. While Aweng tells Elle her wife “handled it like a superwoman,” she gives a rare glimpse into how partners and loved ones are affected by psychological events when she says: “We both needed to process what had happened.”
Despite facing a staggering combination of crisis in their first year of marriage, the two are forging ahead stronger in their bond, appearing in campaigns and photoshoots together as well as Elle’s intimate and in many ways groundbreaking cover. But as glamorous as it may look, their same-sex marriage hasn’t been universally well-received, especially by Aweng’s Sudanese community.
“I wish I could say, ‘Let me hold the torch for the LGBTQIA+ Sudanese community,” but it’s a lot for one person to handle,” she said. “I’m human at the end of the day, I’m very human, I’m learning myself.”
‘We got married and the whole world, literally the whole of my community, were wishing that I passed, in a way,” she further explained. “A few months later, I attempt [suicide]. It was really absurd, because subconsciously I felt I was maybe drained by the fact we’d got married. It’s still a discussion now, like, ‘How dare she marry a woman?’…It was saddening, because it was the happiest day of my life, and they couldn’t let me enjoy it.”
There admittedly hasn’t been much to enjoy this year, but as we look forward to more to root for in 2021, the ongoing love story of the Ade-Chuolsis on our list. “2020 stole the show,” said Aweng. “[B]ut now I’m taking it back.”
If you or anyone you know is struggling psychologically or experiencing suicidal ideation, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for free and confidential support and crisis resources 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.