A Shining Light
When Hannah Kaiser enters a room, her mega-watt smile and joyous laughter light up the space. She’s full of life. Her sense of humor draws others to her.
She’s creative, spontaneous and adventuresome. She dyes her hair all sorts of different colors and likes to wear vintage clothes. Following current trends isn’t her thing. She marches to the beat of her own drum.
Hannah likes all types of movies and music. She reads a broad genre of books, but one of her all-time favorites is the Harry Potter series.
Her Facebook cover image is of a young Hermione Granger, one of the series’ main characters. Hannah and her friends dress up in Harry Potter-themed clothing to attend the Harry Potter movies.
Hannah writes a quote from the character Albus Dumbledore, the Hogwarts headmaster, on a sticky note that she keeps:
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Middle School Revelation
Hannah grows more than six inches while at Harding Middle School in Cedar Rapids. Her body shape transforms. She becomes taller and more slender. She receives a lot of compliments on her appearance, and she likes hearing them.
The summer before entering eighth grade, Hannah is closely counting calories and exercising a lot. She begins to binge and purge food. She’s diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, and also anxiety and depression. Her condition is life-threatening. She spends several months in the in-patient child psychiatry unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals.
Hannah works very hard during her therapy to get better. She’s discharged from the hospital around Christmas time. A few months later, she’s readmitted because of suicidal thoughts induced by her medication. There’s no way to predict how the drugs and her body will work together.
Bold, Warm, Accepting
At Kennedy High School, Hannah takes advanced placement classes and plays the cello in the orchestra. She brings her friends together for dance parties, messy craft projects, or to jump in a car and take off with no particular destination or plan. Hanna’s in charge of the music during these adventures. Often, the friends end up at a Target store where they check out the games and try on onesie pajamas.
Classmates find Hannah not only embraces the uniqueness of herself, but in others, too. She befriends others who are “different” and don’t have many friends. From her struggle with mental health, she relates to how they feel estranged from the world. She has a kind and sympathetic ear for everyone’s story.
Hannah has ongoing appointments for cognitive therapy and medication adjustments. When she turns 18, she’s transferred from the adolescent psychiatric unit to the adult unit at the UI Hospitals to continue treatment of her disease.
As a legal adult, Hannah now has to give her parents permission to come to her doctor’s appointments and sign off on what information can be released to them. Occasionally, she agrees to let her parents come to her appointments. She feels like she’s been a burden to them over the last several years even though her parents assure her that’s not been the case. Hannah really wants to try to handle her disease on her own and try to lead a normal life.
Funny and Quirky Through it All
After high school, Hannah attends The University of Iowa where she’s enrolled in the nursing program. The curriculum is tough, and her grades aren’t as good as she wants them to be.
She’s also trying to manage her disease, which is progressing into bipolar tendencies with extreme mood swings. When she’s happy, she’s intensely happy. When she’s sad, she’s profoundly sad. The battle in her head doesn’t cease, but she continues to fight on.
Hannah finds it difficult to make new friends. Frequent changes in her medication cause her weight to fluctuate. The hurtful words and actions of others seem to outnumber the gestures of friendship or kindness.
That‘s difficult for a young woman who feels everything so intensely. But even when she’s not feeling well, her loving spirit continues to bring out the best qualities in her close friends and those around her. And her sense of humor is as funny and quirky as ever. Her Facebook and Twitter posts are perfect platforms for her wit:
TO DO LIST: Occasionally drop “no pun intended” into a conversation when there really is no pun, enjoy the confused look on everyones faces. My mom's house is filled with the most delicious and crazy amount of food I've seen in months (curse you college budget!) and I'm so overwhelmed that I can't eat anything...except maybe some of those double stuffed golden oreos...and that pepper jack cheese...oh, and a little of that hummus...and, nope, that's a stick of butter...
Hannah also shares glimpses of what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety, writing these Facebook posts:
Hey depression, thanks to you it took me 7 hours to clean my entire apartment when it use to take me 2, but I did actually clean my entire apartment soooooooo who's kinda sorta the real winner here? Finals + period + anxiety diarrhea - immune system abilities = me getting physically sick
A Heart for Kids
Hannah’s love for children inspires her to sign up with the Global Volunteers organization. She travels to Romania, spending three weeks volunteering at an orphanage. She bonds immediately with the handicapped children. A video recorded by the organization shows Hannah smiling, sitting cross-legged on the floor while a little girl in a pink dress brushes Hannah’s purple hair.
When she returns home from Romania, she changes her major to recreational play therapy so she can work with and help children.
In the summer of 2015, Hannah begins working with a new therapist. Her family’s goal is to help her get through the fall semester of classes and maintain her part-time job. In January, she plans to begin an intensive six-month, outpatient therapy class for borderline personality disorder at the UI Hospitals.
Tired of Fighting
On Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015, Hannah loses the battle to her disease. She dies from suicide. She is 22.
The grief of her death overwhelms her family and stepfamily. They not only lose a child, but the dreams of their loved one. Hannah wanted so much to get married one day and have a bunch of kids.
But the family also knows how much she struggled with life and her thoughts, says her mother, Joan DeHeus.
“She felt so unlovable from the mess she felt like on the inside,” Joan says. “I don’t condone suicide, but I truly understand why she did this. She was just mentally and physically tired from battling the disease and the world.”
Joan has a strong faith. But she can’t help being angry at God at times, crying out to Him, “Why my daughter?”
She turns to her Bible to meditate on scriptures that tell of the example of Christ’s life and God’s promises of redemption, grace, forgiveness and eternal life to help her out of the depths of her grief and sadness.
“We live in a broken world. But holding onto the promise of eternal life and the life we will continue to share gives me hope,” she says. “I’m also so thankful for my family and my friends at St. Mark’s (Lutheran Church) for praying for me and walking through this journey with me, because I couldn’t do it alone.”
Every Journey is Different
Millions of Americans deal with the affects of mental illness in their lives. Each one’s journey is different. Hannah had her own individual body makeup and chemistry. She had a family history of mental illness. That December day wasn’t the first time she had attempted suicide.
Mental health treatment has come a long way, but Joan says more funding is needed for brain research, education, treatment and prevention. And the stigma associated with mental health and suicide needs to end, she adds.
“Just like with cancer or diabetes, this is a human being with a disease – this one is in the brain,” Joan says.
Hannah acknowledged the stigma, too, in this Facebook post.
Yes depression is such a bitch and seems relentless. A lot of us have been close to that edge, and some have lost friends and loved ones. Let's look out for each other and stop sweeping mental illness under the rug.
Her Light Shines On
Hannah lives on through the memories of her smile, laughter and love that she readily shared with others – even while she was dealing with her mental illness. The light of her kindness and compassion to so many people continues to shine brightly. How she lived her life reminds us all not to judge, but to be loving and accepting of others for who they are.
Mental health resources and hotlines in The Corridor
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273-8255
- Foundation 2 Crisis Center
- Mercy Medical Center
- (319) 398-6476
- AbbeHealth, an affiliate of UnityPoint Health, Cedar Rapids
- (319) 398-3634
- The Crisis Center, Johnson County:
- (319) 351-0140 (24-hour crisis line)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, Johnson County
- (800) 273-8255
- Dept. of Psychiatry at UI Hospitals
- (800) 772-8442
Story by Annette Juergens Busbee, Photos by Sarah Bozaan and courtesy of Joan DeHeus