In 2001, psychologist Annita Perez Sawyer searched through her own hospital records from the 1960s — and found something haunting.
Now, in her memoir, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, Sawyer explores the overuse of shock treatment, the problems of misdiagnosis, and the ways our healthcare system can fail patients, as well as help them blossom.
Sawyer opens with a brief glimpse of her current state as an accomplished, Yale-educated psychotherapist before jumping back to her earliest memories of hospitalization in the 1960s, when she was just a teenager. At the time, she was institutionalized and treated for what was then deemed schizophrenia.
Sawyer — present-day Sawyer — learns from her old files that as a teen she suffered through 89 electroshock treatments. The number is staggering. And in trying to process it, she works to piece together her real history. What really happened when she was first institutionalized?
As a psychologist, Sawyer realizes that the doctors who treated her fifty years earlier had mistakenly diagnosed her with schizophrenia. What she actually had was dissociation — a result of years of recurring sexual trauma within her own family.
After she takes us back with her through hospitalization, suicide attempts, and the excessive shock treatments, Sawyer writes of her transfer to a new hospital under the care of a compassionate psychiatrist, one who helps her climb up out of the morass of her misunderstood teenage years and toward a more productive life.
While not particularly poetic, and not as raw and full of imagery as some of the more popular books of this genre, Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass is an engaging, haunting story. Despite the memory loss she suffered after her years of trauma and subsequent shock treatments, Sawyer manages to bring her fragmented memories together in a cohesive, informative tale. It took a couple of chapters for me to feel connected to the book, but once I did, I was hooked. The story provides a terrifying look at what it was like to be a misdiagnosed teenage girl in 1960s New York.
The book is thought-provoking, both about what occurred during the 1960s and what still occurs today. How many others suffered from excessive shock treatments due to misdiagnosis? How many other young women suffered symptoms similar to Sawyer as a result of abuse in the home? Sawyer invites us to question not only our healthcare system, but also our own relationship dynamics and how they affect our personal wellbeing.
At times I felt that Sawyer was keeping her readers at arm’s length, but I assume that stems from privacy concerns. Since the book is under her real name, I’m guessing she wanted to be careful: to leave out details that might expose too much about her close friends and family members.
This would be a great selection for readers curious about mental healthcare in the 1960s, or those who are interested in a story of personal triumph over near death. (There are, however, some disturbing events described in the book. I’m not normally a fan of the phrase “trigger warning,” but in this case I’d suggest caution for those readers who have suffered PTSD due to sexual trauma or hospitalization for mental illness.)
Many of the events in Sawyer’s memoir happened half a century ago, but hers is still a cautionary tale for today. In our currently overburdened healthcare system, many patients are reduced to names, numbers, and diagnoses. Sawyer shows the profound difference a human connection made in her own treatment and recovery. And she shows that when patients are treated as people who deserve to have their emotional needs met, therapists, patients, families, and society as a whole all benefit.
Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir
Santa Fe Writers Project, June 2015
Paperback, 310 pages