Personal Stories

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health, suicide or substance use crisis or emotional distress, reach out 24/7 to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) by dialing or texting 988 or using chat services at to connect to a trained crisis counselor. You can also get crisis text support via the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741.

Sierra's Story

Flashback to 7th grade. Everything was going great; I was doing well in school and having fun with my friends. My health was almost perfectly intact, only getting the occasional headache. I had no idea what was coming my way.

The trouble started in 8th grade. As soon as I started the year, I knew something was wrong with my body. I was exhausted all the time and losing weight. By December, I was only doing half-days at school because I was too tired to stay the whole day. I started getting headaches, a lot of them, that turned into painful migraines. I saw so many doctors, specialists of many different kinds, but no one could tell me what was wrong. By this point, people started looking at me funny and I could feel myself losing friends as people asked me what was wrong, to which I had no answer. 

It wasn’t until the end of 8th grade that I got a diagnosis: mono. No big deal, right? That’s what I thought. But the damage had been done. I distinctly remember having my first suicidal thought in the 8th grade: I was crumpled up on the bathroom floor, crying over a text message. The thought of dying threaded itself throughout my thoughts, but I soon dismissed it.

9th grade came with a surge of anxiety. I was anxious all the time, crying when I had to go to bed because I feared another day. It was crippling. I didn’t recognize these as panic attacks at the time. In school, I asked to go to the bathroom in every class just to get out of the room because I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Anxiety became my middle name, following me everywhere I went.

Eventually, I convinced my mom that my anxiety was a big enough issue to go to the doctor for. I saw my primary care doctor, not knowing how much I’d later regret it. He sent me on my way with a prescription for medication, and I loved it. It provided immediate relief from my anxiety every time I took it. It was a way to curb my panic attacks. I soon became dependent on it as a way out. I was taking it every day, self-medicating before I even knew what self-medication was.

9th grade came and went, but my anxiety stayed with me into the 10th grade. What came next, I was not prepared for. One word: depression. A word that carries so much heaviness and pain. It hurts to think back on this part of my story even five years later. I didn’t recognize my suffering was depression until the day I picked up a razor, seeing it as an escape. I cut my right arm, just a little bit. Within less than a day, I was back at it. I finally hit my breaking point. I wrote a letter to my parents explaining was wrong. I watched them read it with tears in my eyes. My mom rushed to the phone to call my doctor, who said I needed to go the emergency room. It was a trip that would not be my last.

In the emergency room, a doctor explained an outpatient program to me and asked me if I would like to be in it. It would involve leaving school for three weeks and spending eight hours a day in intensive therapy. My parents were hesitant, but I knew I needed help. I agreed to the program and I started that week. Three weeks passed and I came out of outpatient feeling more hopeful than I’d been in a very long time. I flourished, but like many great things, it did not last. Two months later, I sat on the phone in my school counselor’s office telling my dad I wanted to kill myself. I couldn’t believe I was at this place again. My dad couldn’t either- he drove me to the emergency room in a fury while I cried.

Looking back, I barely remember 11th grade. All the days are hazy. I kept with my bad habits of self-medicating and self-harming, injuring my stomach and littering my legs with scars. I barely slept, so I could be found exhausted all the time. My anxiety and depression were working in full force. Days of serious thoughts of suicide became a part of my world. It just seemed easier to me than going through all the pain, both physical and mental. However, I never made plans to commit suicide because I was afraid for the few people I had left in my life to be left behind: a couple friends, my boyfriend, my sister, my parents and my grandparents.

Senior year, finally. I was ready to be done with high school, just like everyone else. Things seemed to be looking up: I got into every college I applied to and had the choice of going to whichever school I pleased- maybe DePaul University in Chicago, Drake University in Des Moines, or the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. However, my poor health bound me close to home and I felt forced to give up my #1 choice school. I instead chose to attend a university close to my hometown, where I was close enough to home for comfort. 

The unthinkable then happened: my grandma passed away. My best friend in the world was gone. I knew this day would come, but not as unexpectedly as it had. My boyfriend drove to the hospital where I saw her for the last time, an image that will be forever burned into my memory. My depression spiked after that. For so long I just couldn’t believe she was gone, it seemed impossible to me. My grandpa slipped further into his dementia as I helplessly watched.

Before I knew it, I was a high school graduate. A huge accomplishment for me! It was not easy going through four years of honors and AP classes while chronically sick and mentally ill. To tell you the truth, I went through all four years of high school with a chronic headache; I can only remember being headache free for one day. Making it to my graduation date (alive) was a big deal, and I was proud.

For college, I had planned to live in the dorms, but within less than a week I lost it when I realized my mental health was not in the right place for me to thrive away from home. I moved back in and instead took a few classes at a community college and another online. I felt like a failure. I desperately wanted to be “normal.” I felt like I had become nothing but a walking, talking mental illness.

My parents enrolled me in a daytime outpatient program for seven weeks. I was eighteen at the time, so I got placed with the adults. I couldn’t really relate to anyone because I was the youngest person there. I tried to make the most of it, but many of the days dragged by while I felt like I was learning nothing. I’d been through this before- the endless talk therapy sessions, the seemingly pointless arts and crafts, and the one on one psychiatry visits. I wish my parents hadn’t put me in another program, but I did come out of it doing better.

Fast forward to now. I’m a to-be junior majoring in psychology who lives away from home with her boyfriend (and cat). I haven’t cut myself in two years and a month. I’ve gotten a handle on my self-medicating and now try to take pills only when I need them. Was it easy to get to this point? I’d be lying if I said yes. Mental illness is not easy. It is not tragically beautiful. It is not suddenly coming out of the darkness into the sun. It is not being rescued by the hands of another. Mental illness is work. It’s appointments, medications, therapy sessions and sobbing on 2:00 am phone calls. But that’s not all it is.

Mental illness is hope. It’s faith. It’s love. It’s strength. It’s understanding how the person next to you on the bus feels, and how the girl who’s always reading alone feels, and how the boy on the football field feels. It’s what makes us better people. It teaches you how to fight for yourself, pulling yourself from the rubble and rebuilding your world. It’s knowing that someday, all this pain will be useful. It’s realizing that you can do anything you set your mind to, no matter the circumstances. It’s standing on the edge of a cliff and deciding not to jump and instead to climb further up.

If you are struggling with mental illness, I’m so proud of you. No matter where you are in your journey, know that you are strong and able to overcome this. You are able to pick yourself back up and make this life your own again. You deserve happiness and you will find it. 

I have all the faith in the world in you.


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