The former reality star reflects on nearly eight years on the show and says now she "can breathe a little"

Updated July 01, 2015 02:45 PM

Despite the fact that she “feels free” after announcing to PEOPLE on Monday that she is not returning for season 8 of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, star NeNe Leakes does have a few fond memories.

“It’s been bittersweet for me,” Leakes, 48, tells PEOPLE of her Housewives journey. “I’ve been there since the very beginning. When I started, my youngest son was in third grade, now he’s in the 11th!”

While she’s happy to be done with the drama, “I’ll miss some of the laughs that I’ve had on the show over the years,” says Leakes.

When it comes to her cast mates, including former friend Cynthia Bailey and longtime foe Kenya Moore, “I don’t know if there’s anyone in particular that I’ll miss,” she says.

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So after all of the screaming, fighting and wig-pulling, does she have any regrets?

“No,” says Leakes. “I honestly do not have any regrets. I never sacrificed who I was as a person. I never sacrificed NeNe. I feel like so many girls come on reality TV and they sacrifice and change so much. I never changed who I was for a story line or a paycheck or anything. I feel good about that.”

And Leakes, who, among other projects, is moving on to star in an upcoming prime-time network show, says the grueling show taught her a thing or two. “Every year we shot for six months every day except Sunday and Monday. I found strength in me I didn’t even know I had!”

Now, she says, “I can breathe a little.”

For more from NeNe on her life as a Housewife no more, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday