Annita Perez Sawyer’s new memoir tells a harrowing tale of near-tragedy.
Growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., in the 1950s, Sawyer was a high-achieving student but painfully shy, and she became self-destructive, with suicidal tendencies. Mistakenly diagnosing schizophrenia, doctors hospitalized her in 1960 and treated her with 89 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy over three years. These not only worsened her condition but resulted in extensive memory loss.
But when Sawyer was transferred to New York Psychiatric Hospital, a different doctor eventually determined that her mental illness was a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, and provided successful therapy. When she was released in 1966, she was determined to become a psychologist herself.
And she did. Though her life was full — besides maintaining a psychotherapy practice, she married and raised children— she felt she did not fully understand her own illness. As part of her ongoing therapy, she obtained records of her treatment and concluded that her PTSD was a response to sexual abuse she had suffered as a child.
Today she is an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Yale, and until the publication of this book — titled “Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass” — almost none of her colleagues were aware of her past. Now she hopes they will learn from her story. “I look at myself and say, ‘I could have been dead, but somebody believed in me and didn’t just go along with the popular diagnosis and picture,’” she said in an interview with a Yale magazine. “And here I am. I want to inspire other clinicians to think, ‘Okay, I could be that person who pays attention, who doesn’t just take the easy way out.’ ”