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In the 20 years since The Bachelor first premiered, there have been hundreds of singles joining the show in search of love. But few have made a mark quite like Demi Burnett, the bubbly Texan who vied for Colton Underwood's heart in Season 23 before starring on Bachelor in Paradise 6 in 2019. It was during the latter, island-set series that Burnett revealed that she had been dating a woman, Kristian Haggerty, who wound up joining the series. Though they have since split, the two women made history as Bachelor Nation's first same-sex relationship featured on-air, and got engaged during the show's season finale.
While Burnett — who returned to Bachelor in Paradise last year — is proud of her sexuality and the barriers she's broken, she tells Yahoo Life that "coming out on national television" also took a toll on her mental health. "All of this shame was in the back of my mind during filming," the 27-year-old says of the "disgusted" response she predicted her family would have to her being bisexual.
"[I was] so paranoid about what my family's thinking," she remembers of the filming experience. "I'm thinking about my grandpa and my grandpa watching me make out with a girl and him thinking about shooting me for it. Like, I'm so stressed and so scared and so ashamed and guilty and just [having] so many feelings."
Drinking helped the now-sober Burnett "mask" those emotions, but her relationship suffered, she says, because the stress and shame she felt made her "constantly irritable" and uncomfortable with showing her partner affection. Once she left the show, her fears about being disowned by her family proved warranted.
"I come out and everyone's approaching me like, 'Oh my God, you're so brave. Like, how'd you do it? This is so amazing!'" she says, adding, "I wish that my family saw that. Like, I wish that the people who I was forced to love and loved me in a sh***y way, I wish that they thought that. I wish that they celebrated me. They still don't. ... The world is like 'Demi rocks. We love Demi.' And, like, my own family still doesn't."
In February Burnett announced on Instagram that she had undergone a psychiatric evaluation which determined that she is autistic. More specifically, she identifies as "100% PDA," or pathological demand avoidance, a profile of the autism spectrum disorder characterized by resistance to the demands and expectations of others. Burnett says she struggles when she perceives a lack of autonomy or control in a situation.
"Autonomy, for me, it's not [that] I want it; it's [that] my nervous system is activated if I don't have it," she explains. "I go into fight or flight if I don't have it. So it seems like I'm just that person who always has to win the argument, who just always has to say something, who just can't let it go or whatever. That's because my nervous system won't let me stop until I win — until I feel like we're balanced."
Learning about PDA has helped bring some clarity to her longtime mental health struggles, which date back to her adolescence. Being on The Bachelor put those struggles on the "back burner" and made her forget "how messed up I was and how bad I felt because I [was] so consumed with the current moment." She began self-medicating with alcohol, using booze to numb any feelings of anxiety or discomfort around others. But even after going sober she was still "begging for help," she says.
Growing increasingly anxious around social situations, Burnett spent the start of the year largely isolated from the world at large. Desperate for answers, she turned to Google, where she stumbled upon research about autism in women. For Burnett, the information she discovered reinforced something she'd long suspected.
"In college I had suspected that I was autistic and I told the people in my life — because I'd been always asking for mental health, always begging to go to therapy, begging to get help, and nobody would give me any help," she says. "And so I was like, 'I figured it out. I think I'm autistic.' And everyone was like, 'Oh my God, no, no, no, no.' And they made me feel ashamed and stupid for thinking that and for discovering this about myself — I should have been praised for figuring it out. And so it ended up shutting me down. I doubted myself, loathed myself and drank and drank and drank."
Her revelation, nearly a decade later, has been "life-changing" and "healing." Burnett has come to find a community of women who can relate to her feelings and experiences. She now feels less alone, and says that no longer wondering "what's wrong with me?" has helped her anxiety levels.
These days, Burnett is focused on self-love — something she describes as treating herself as kindly as she would someone else — and leaning into her most authentic self. The latter is especially hard-earned after her long stretch on reality TV, an industry in which a lack of mental health support and an unforgiving edit can create "a toxic relationship with yourself," she says.
"I would say that reality stars have it pretty rough, and anyone who's not a reality star will laugh at that, but it's because of what happens," Burnett stays. "You take people who are not in the industry, who have no idea what the industry's like, who have fantasized and glorified the industry in their minds. It's like Disneyland to me, baby. And you take me and you use that naiveness. You use that curiosity and that excitement and all of this to get good television outta me. ... And you're just going to show millions of people and never, ever, ever care about how any of that's gonna affect me."
While Burnett considers herself to have gotten "off easy" in terms of her own portrayal, she says reality TV producers will typically "throw us to the wolves" by misrepresenting situations or "manipulating" cast members.
"It's just unhealthy," she says. "And all the meanwhile you have the people telling you how grateful you should be and how no one feels bad for you because you got the chance to be on TV. 'You signed up for it.' And it's like, 'I did not sign up for all this deceit. And I didn't sign up for all of this betrayal.'"
—Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.
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