Sydney Hernandez dropped out in ninth grade.
By that time, she couldn’t go a day without having a panic attack. Her muscles tensed. Her chest tightened. She lost feeling in her extremities. She became light-headed.
It ruined the whole day.
She tried to take online home school, but depression took hold, and she slept day and night.
Sydney was always a shy kid, but her world fell apart after two life-changing events. A psychological abuser was removed from her life after her mother found out about the abuse. And her brother shipped off for the Army National Guard.
She felt alone and afraid of everything.
“I didn’t want to be around people,” she says. “I was suicidal, and I just wanted to close myself off from the world.”
When homeschooling failed, she tried enrolling in Duncanville High School. But being at one of the nation’s largest high schools wasn’t ideal for her, and that was short-lived.
She went to live with an adult cousin in Oak Cliff who happens to be a mental health professional.
“Everything I did, I would apologize for it,” Sydney says. “She told me, ‘Stop apologizing,’ and she was like, ‘You’re so defensive. Why are you so defensive?’ ”
Sydney started attending her cousin’s church, Turning Point, and she felt at home there.
“They didn’t know me as a depressed person. That was so liberating,” she says. “I wasn’t treated like this sad puppy. People started to respect me for me.”
Her cousin also suggested enrolling in Dallas Can Academy, a private high school that helps students who might otherwise drop out, to reach graduation.
“When she came to us as a freshman, she was very in her shell,” Dallas Can adviser Luis Salazar says. “She was very quiet and shy.”
Even though her mental health was on the upswing, Sydney says, she still doubted her own intelligence.
She was out of practice and had trouble with multiplication.
“Mr. Ruiz said, ‘You’re really smart. You just need to learn,’ ” she recalls. “He really believed in me. They just have teachers that spoke into my life.”
Now math and science are her strengths. She led her team to first place in the school-wide mathlete competition. And she scored highest in science and second highest in math on the STAAR test at her school.
Now a senior graduating in December, Sydney already has a Certified Nursing Assistant certification from Mountain View College through its partnership with Oak Cliff-based Dallas Can. She plans to earn an associates degree from Mountain View and then go on to study biomedical engineering, inspired by her love of math and science and for an older brother who has cerebral palsy.
The depression and anxiety didn’t just go away. But she says she willed herself to feel better.
“When I felt bad, I made myself go out and do something,” she says. “I know that doesn’t work for everyone, but I was like, ‘I’m done with this.’ ”
She quit caffeine after having become addicted to coffee as a child and drinking many cups a day for years. She now delights in chamomile tea with lemon. She works out. And she uses a weighted blanket to calm herself when she feels anxiety creeping up.
She hasn’t had a panic attack in a year