In the Artist Spotlight series of blog posts, The Layered Onion highlights an artist in the community. We’ll get a chance to learn more about them and their work.
In this post, we are featuring Katie Sanford, a writer who uses her experiences with mental and emotional wellness like schizoaffective disorder to break down stigma through speaking and writing, including in her blog, Not Like the Others. Katie is a staunch mental health advocate.
In her own words: “Hi, my name is Katie, and over the course of my life, I’ve struggled with mental illnesses like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, and schizoaffective disorder. My illnesses brought me fear, shame, and a profound feeling of isolation. Recovery wasn’t always easy, but, despite the obstacles, I’ve accomplished a great deal. I graduated from a highly ranked college, hold down jobs, have meaningful relationships, and now speak publicly about living with mental illness, primarily schizoaffective disorder. I created [a] blog to break down preconceived notions about mental illness, and to show you that, not only can you go on to have a fulfilling life after being diagnosed with a mental illness or brain disease, but also that everyone’s story is unique, and, even when you’re not like the others, you’re not alone. Whether you have a mental illness yourself or are looking to help or better support someone else, know that no matter what you’re going through, there is hope.”
Hope is everything and it is ok to not be like the others – you can be your best you and that is amazing and deserves to be celebrated.
Moving on to the Q+A portion…
What drew you to making advocacy your life’s work?
When I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 17, I felt like my life was over. I struggled with many things ranging from academics to shame and feeling like my dreams were no longer possible. Over time, I learned how to live with it and realized I could still achieve my dreams, and I wanted everyone to know, including people who didn’t live with schizophrenia spectrum disorders. I didn’t want anyone to have to claw their way through it the way I had, and I quickly discovered that sharing my story could change people’s minds, offer them hope, and help them better understand the disorder, whether they lived with it or not. I want to make the world a place where people like me are supported and understood and have a better shot at a positive outcome.
What do you find most rewarding about it?
It is so rewarding to hear people say I changed their view or gave them hope. It makes me feel like all of the struggles I went through to get my life back on track and the anxiety I face every time I share my story are all worth it.
Where are the main challenges you find yourself puzzling through?
I think one of the biggest challenges I face is visibility. I have to fight feelings of not being good enough and fears that I will get backlash or that people just won’t care every time I put something out there. I’ve been working on building my social media presence to share my blog, my videos, and my thoughts in general, but it’s hard to fight those feelings and also to find enough time. I don’t have the funding to do advocacy full time, so I’m working and trying to balance my job as a legal assistant, advocacy, sharing what I do, and still taking the time to care of myself, and it’s tough sometimes.
What is it like to be a speaker?
Being a speaker is nerve wracking sometimes, but I have found that my message and my story hit home even more when people hear it directly from me, and the response I get from that is really rewarding. Plus it provides the opportunity for a live Q&A, which I always like. Because of the pandemic, it’s mostly been over Zoom lately, but I’m hoping to be able to do more in person talks soon. I find it’s easier to connect with people when I’m speaking in person.
Are there major challenges you see as part of your work that stick with you?
Yes! One of the biggest challenges I face is making sure that people understand that what I talk about covers not only people with schizophrenia who operate at a high level, but also those who don’t. I am constantly bringing up the fact that we are all human, and it is the same disease, and that I could just as easily be one of the people who find themselves at rock bottom, and there is hope for those who do find themselves there because it is so important for people to understand that. I try to take great care to make sure that what I say and write is inclusive, but it can be difficult sometimes because what strikes a chord with those who function higher and the caregivers of those who are struggling immensely is not always the same.
How do you engage with your writing?
My writing often begins with a thought that becomes an idea and then I’m off! I am passionate about what I write, so, in situations where I have that spark of inspiration, it just pours out onto the keyboard. When I don’t have a specific idea or am trying to complete a piece I had previously started, it can get a bit more difficult and I will begin searching for inspiration in books, on social media, or online, which I don’t always find. But when I have that bright spot of inspiration, it’s like second nature and I become immersed in the thought or experience about which I am writing.
Any stories that you’d want to share with the community?
After my first time speaking for Crisis Intervention Training for Sheriff officers with NAMI Chicago, I had a few people wait to talk to me afterwards. One said that he had been avoiding this training course because he didn’t want to have to hear about how you have to handle people with mental illnesses with kid gloves. He said that hearing my story changed his whole mindset and he wanted to do whatever he could to help others. The other man told me that his sister had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and he and his family didn’t really get it because she seemed fine. He said that now he understood and he was going to go home and call his sister. Stories like this are why I do what I do and they are reminders of how powerful stories of lived experience truly can be.
Any websites or links you’d like to share or comment on?
For general info on mental illness, I always recommend NAMI.org. For those looking for support for themselves or another with schizophrenia, sczaction.org has a helpline among other resources. And for those who are students of any age living with an illness involving psychosis (or advocates, teachers, supporters, etc), I highly recommend checking out Students With Psychosis at www.sws.ngo. They have a ton of programming including support groups, creative meetings, speakers and more.
|Home – Schizophrenia & Psychosis Action Alliance
The Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance stands for hope and recovery through the promotion of education, support programs, & better public policysczaction.org