FARGO For months, Katherine Kiernan didn’t feel right. The vivacious mother of three who also owns her own real estate company slowly began noticing how sad and anxious she often felt and the realization was taking its toll on her mental health.

So she reached out to her therapist who recommended Katherine visit a psychiatrist, who prescribed her a very common medication for treating Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Hoping to find relief, Katherine instead felt herself slipping further down a dark path until the situation reached a frightening zenith in August 2019.

* * *

Five years ago, Katherine experienced something no parent ever wants to encounter: one of her 2-year-old twin sons, Jack, became unexpectedly and gravely ill, and her family began a terrifying battle to help him survive his ordeal and recover. After nearly four weeks of scary tests and diagnosis, Jack was released from a Twin Cities hospital but the experience caused significant stress on Katherine’s relationship with Jack’s dad, and the couple ended up filing for divorce.

That’s when the stress and anxiety began increasing. Katherine and her ex-husband, Kelly, officially separated in 2017, and preparations for their trial began in earnest and with scary results.

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“When you’re going through a divorce ... when you get all these people involved, they’re throwing rocks and trying to paint you to be a terrible mom, a terrible person ... and it got to the point where I was believing what I was hearing,” Katherine says, explaining how the stress during that time made her crumble as she leaned heavily on her team at Aspire Realty to continue on without much involvement from her. “My team literally carried the business when I had really good days and really bad days.”

As the fog thickened and her depression worsened, she sought help and the hope that she would be able to focus again and feel happy again.

She recognized right away that the medication seemed to be making her depression worse, but her psychiatrist encouraged her to give it time to work. He even added a performance enhancing prescription. She soldiered on, hoping for relief.

“I remember very clearly the day I was talking to Beau, my fiance, on the phone and I said, ‘I don’t know what is happening, but I am just so sad,’” Katherine remembered, noting that she remarked to him that she didn’t even know what the purpose of waking up was.

Joy was lost to Katherine. She began canceling on friends, not showing up for events and avoiding the office. Worst of all, she stopped engaging with her three kids — daughter Eva and sons, Jack and Owen.

“I’ve wanted kids since I was 7 years old, and suddenly I didn’t want my kids around,” she says. “I didn’t have the energy to deal with anything.”

When her therapist noticed Katherine didn’t seem to be improving, she encouraged Katherine to get a second opinion from her primary physician, who started her on an antidepressant. But Katherine just couldn’t shake herself out of the darkness. So she was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication. The cocktail of medications in her system proved difficult to handle, as Katherine discovered the medications caused her to not sleep or eat for days and gave her a pounding headache only prescription painkillers would ease.

Mom and business owner Katherine Kiernan is using her story of struggle and survival to raise awareness about mental health and addiction. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography
Mom and business owner Katherine Kiernan is using her story of struggle and survival to raise awareness about mental health and addiction. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography

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On Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, Katherine’s world spiraled out of control.

She was at the lake with her children and her sister, trying to enjoy the day while taking her medications as prescribed. When that nagging headache reared its head, Katherine turned to a prescription pain medication like usual. That’s the last thing she remembers about that night.

The next morning, she awoke to discover she was missing patches of hair and bruises covered her body from head to toe. The cabin was a mess, and so was she.

Something broke, Katherine says. By the grace of God her children hadn’t witnessed whatever happened that night with her sister, but Katherine knew she needed help to heal. Otherwise, she wouldn’t survive.

“If my kids hadn’t been there that morning, and I had been left alone, I was done. I had everything with me to do it, I was ready to do it, I was checked out, I was done,” she says. “The fact that they were there that morning saved my life.”

When Beau came to the cabin, she fell to her knees and explained how desperately she needed to get help.

Days later, Katherine checked herself into a Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation in the Twin Cities area and began an intense, three-week in-patient program to break her addiction to prescription medications and get control of her life back.

It was the best decision she’s ever made.

“As women and moms, we hide because we are terrified ... that someone will take our kids,” she says. “That is our number one fear. That is what was plaguing all of us there. Nobody wanted to get help when they knew something was wrong because they thought it would get used against them later.”

Katherine credits the presence of her children — Eva, Jack and Owen — on the morning of her lowest point one year ago with saving her life. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography
Katherine credits the presence of her children — Eva, Jack and Owen — on the morning of her lowest point one year ago with saving her life. Photo courtesy of Ten Little Chickens Photography

Katherine returned to the Fargo-Moorhead area and continued the program remotely for two weeks before beginning an out-patient portion that lasted six weeks. Looking back, she wishes she’d have stayed longer, but she wanted to get back to her kids once her system was completely free of the medications she’d been taking, a toxic combination that could have killed her.

“When the doctor (at Hazelden) looked at the list of medications, he said, ‘You should be dead,’” Katherine says. “He said, ‘The fact that you didn’t have a significant cardiac event ... I don’t know how you made it here but you’re lucky to be here.’”

With a new lease on life and her addiction gone, she focused on maintaining her health and mental wellness while enjoying time with her family.

* * *

After returning to the area, Katherine began hearing things, crazy things. Whispers and rumors about where she’d been, what she’d been doing, what was happening with her mental state, and she didn’t like that the stories being told were first, inaccurate, but more importantly, taking her truth and dialogue away.

Instead, she took control of the situation and told the truth — her truth about what had happened and what she had been dealing with.

“This is my biggest, most hidden secret, and I am willing to share my demons to raise awareness and help others,” Katherine says.

In March, through a partnership with local marketing agency Tellwell, she launched Katherine’s Story, a website dedicated to offering help and resources to others who may be struggling with anxiety, depression and addiction. She laid bare her story — and struggles — and once she did, she was taken aback by the response.

“To have people around you who you would never in a million years imagine are struggling with something and they call you ... it just made me want to share this,” Katherine says.

Only after sharing her incredibly private struggle publicly did Katherine realize she was not alone.

“The number one reason that I was willing to share my pain and struggle with anyone — let alone the whole community — is because I am committed to being vulnerable enough to be a beacon to anybody who is out there who isn't getting the help they need because of the all-consuming fear I too had,” Katherine says.

She talks frankly about how she and so many people — women in particular — feel the need to maintain a “Facebook perfect” lifestyle even if it means struggling in silence.

“I want to take this to a much more public platform because there are so many resources right here,” she says. “There is no shame in what you struggle with … People around you have lived it but you have to be willing to reach out and as soon as you say you need help, you will have millions of hands reaching and grabbing you out of the black hole.”

Bridget Kruger, a marketing assistant at Aspire Realty who also works closely with Katherine on Katherine’s Story initiatives, says offering people a place to share their stories that isn’t Facebook was important.

“Putting it on social media is not for everyone,” Bridget says.

Katherine’s Story is an outlet for anyone wanting to share their stories and seek help, because Katherine herself knows how critical that step is.

“If I hadn’t gone through treatment, I wouldn’t have survived,” she says. “Be brave enough for even one second — that’s all it takes.”

As Katherine looks toward the one-year anniversary of that dark, dark moment and the scary path that led her to it, she sees hope and excitement for the future and what Katherine’s Story can become for other people struggling. She envisions fundraising to make sure any person who seeks help doesn’t have to worry about the financial aspect of treatment or having kids safely taken care of or bills getting paid. She’d also like to see Katherine’s Story became a collaboration between other agencies that can offer resources and assistance.

Dreaming about what Katherine’s Story can become brings a huge smile to Katherine’s face, but she’s been through enough to recognize that her journey requires daily strength and self-awareness. She’s embracing all the beautiful imperfections of life by being more vulnerable and learning how to forgive herself.

“I have to continue to grow so there’s accountability for me, too,” she says. “By the grace of God I’m sitting here today.”