This utterly gripping, sharply written memoir pulls no punches. With cauterizing honesty and a blessed sense of perspective, Annita Perez Sawyer takes you into and through her dark experience to the shores of wisdom. -- Phillip Lopate, author, Being With Children
How to mend a psyche shattered by personal trauma? Annita Sawyer seeks answers to that question, first for her patients and then for herself. In prose without a hint of self-pity, yet rich in sensory details and professional insight, she draws a dark history into the light. The degree of healing she achieves is a testament to her imagination as well as her courage, for in her hands writing itself proves to be a powerful medicine. — Scott Russell Sanders, author of Divine Animal: A Novel.
Annita Sawyer writes candidly – and gracefully -- of her vulnerabilities and her persistence as she details her harrowing experience with a misdiagnosis, the hard-won life she forges in its wake, and her ultimate reconciliation with her buried past. Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is a brave, compassionate, memorable book. — Jane Brox, author, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artifical Light
Misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, institutionalized, overmedicated, subjected to dozens of primitive shock treatments: this is the hell Annita Sawyer came out of to build a career as a psychologist and to write this memoir. It’s a book that had to be written and has to be read – urgent, vulnerable, insightful, and moving. — Joan Wickersham, author, The News from Spain and The Suicide Index
A lot of memoirists set out to refresh childhood memories. Annita Perez Sawyer's quest is more urgent and more daunting: she aims to literally recover them, to find the ones erased by electroshock therapy and the trauma that preceded it. Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is a harrowing tour through the mental health system, an account of the reconstitution of self. And finally it is a smart woman's meditation on how much of one's past it is important to know, which will prompt the reader to ask: is forgetting ever good? — Ted Conover, author, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
Annita Sawyer's Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is an extraordinary achievement, a memoir of a Yale-trained psychologist's harrowing struggle with serious mental illness and recovery. Beautifully written and full of heartbreak, hope and wisdom, for anyone with a personal or family history of mental illness, this is a must read. — Thomas H. Styron, PhD, Associate Professor, Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine
This account of psychiatric misdiagnosis and mistreatment is remarkable for its narrative force, its palpable (and entirely justified) rage, and its fierce honesty. — Anne Fadiman, author, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
A fiercely honest and beautifully written book. A story of redemption, filled with indelible images: a teenaged girl stripped of her clothes, wrapped in wet sheets, and left in a hallway waiting for electric shock therapy – a 20 year old, afraid to go to a department store without her mother – a member of the first class of women to graduate from Yale. This story is about a psychiatric patient in a locked ward, who becomes a clinical psychologist helping others. Terrifying and uplifting, this is a compelling read. — Paul Austin, MD, author, Beautiful Eyes and Something for the Pain
In this memoir, her first book, Sawyer revisits a childhood and youth marked by serious mental illness. As a teenager and young adult she was repeatedly hospitalized after suicide attempts and received a series of electroshock treatments that failed to cure her illness, wiped out many of her childhood memories, and were the source of lasting trauma. The majority of the book is devoted to the author’s long and painful but ultimately successful recovery. After years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, she earned a doctoral degree, married, had children, and began a professional career. The author’s look back on her youth is especially absorbing from her perspective as a practicing psychologist who has treated people with mental illnesses similar to those she experienced. VERDICT Sawyer’s memoir doesn’t stray far from its primary theme. This book is tightly focused on the harrowing experiences of her youth and their lasting effects. Recommended for readers interested both in personal and professional accounts of mental illness, as well as those looking for a difficult but inspiring story of recovery.
Sawyer, A. (2015). Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir
Reviewed by: Michael Fiorini, New York University
Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir is the firsthand account of the author’s battle with long term psychiatric hospitalization. The book focuses on her experience of being diagnosed as schizophrenic, her many misdiagnoses by psychiatrists, and her process of overcoming electro shock therapy to become a psychotherapist herself. Repressed and lost memories, especially those later rediscovered when looking through her long medical records, are an integral part of the author’s story. Child sexual abuse and problematic family and relationship dynamics are similarly key to the resulting narrative. The book takes an in-depth look into electro shock therapy and the long term effects stemming from it. Professional readers will find Sawyer’s unique story of recovery, relapse, and self -acceptance highly relevant to their practice, both as a patient and psychologist herself. The intersection of her psychology training with the troubled past that she often felt must stay hidden brings to attention potentially problematic aspects of academic culture and discrimination against the mentally ill.
Split into three distinct parts, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is written so that different major phases of the author’s life are discussed separately. This is done so that readers can get a sense of the drastic changes she underwent during her treatment, training, and relapse process. The first part, Locked Up, discusses in intricate detail the author’s experiences being sent into a psych ward, and follows her recurring hospitalizations. Much of this part of the book looks at what it felt like to be treated and diagnosed differently by every psychologist and psychiatrist she saw, as well as what interacting with the in- patient community entailed. The second part, Moving Out, follows the author’s amnesia and recovery period following a series of electro- shock therapy sessions. It also follows her early relationship with her husband, completion of education, and professional involvement in psychology and sociology. The third and final part, Lost and Found, discusses the author’s rediscovery of her medical records, revisiting the person she was while in treatment having forgotten many of the details. It covers the origins of the suicidal feelings that drove her to her first hospitalization, and represents for readers her final, transformative struggle towards self-acceptance.
Professional readership will appreciate Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass if looking to read about an insider’s perspective on varied psychiatric treatment and hospitalization. It is also a particularly captivating retelling of spiritual and personal rebirth follow electro shock treatment. The author discusses her journey into practicing as a psychologist herself, how she juggled memories of prior hospitalizations, and how she was dealing with triggers resulting from negative treatment. There is, in general, greater detail given to the author’s changing interpersonal, romantic, and familial relationships than to her training in practice as a psychologist. This speaks more to the subject matter of the initial narrative, particularly that of a patient trying to reconcile uncontrollable emotional affect and psychological disorganization.
It should be noted that the timeline of the story is also sometimes hard to follow as there are frequent flashbacks and intermittent “patient notes” written by doctors about the author while she was hospitalized incorporated. This emphasizes that the author never fully felt like she could escape the experiences she had and the identity she adopted while on the psych ward. The book blends the traditional psychologist memoir with a patient perspective in a way that stays true and illustrative of both, to the benefit of interested professionals.
Annita Perez-Sawyer has worked as a clinical psychologist for over thirty years, and has received numerous awards for her work as an essayist detailing her life with mental illness. She continues to work as a speaker to mental health clinicians about her experiences with misdiagnosis and consequent mistreatment.
Somatic Psychotherapy Today | Fall 2015 | Volume 5 Number 4 | page 116 - 117