‘Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass’: A psychologist overcomes her tough teen years


The teenage years are usually a set of pretty rough years. Growing pains, acne, trying to fit in, and figuring out who you are and what you want to do in your life, are difficult enough. But add to that a broken family, anger issues, or the struggle with depression or other mental illnesses, and the teen and pre-teen years become overwhelming. Many teenagers are plagued with self-confidence issues, depression and eating disorders, and turn to alternative unhealthy measures to hide their sadness and troubles.

Having a mental illness is often looked down upon. However, mental illnesses are not prejudiced, and they can affect any person of any age and from any background just like cancer or diabetes. Annita Perez Sawyer, Ph.D., is a Yale graduate, a respected psychotherapist and a mother of two who suffered years of mental and physical torment in a psychiatric institution as a teenager. “Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass: A Psychologist’s Memoir” is an award-winning true story written by Sawyer that describes her mental illness as a teenager and how she overcame her dark past.

An inspiration to teens

In 1960, as a suicidal teenager, Sawyer was institutionalized, misdiagnosed and suffered through 89 electroshock treatments, before being transferred and labeled as “unimproved.” The damage done during this treacherous journey has haunted her life. Discharged in 1966, after finally receiving proper psychiatric care, Sawyer kept her past a secret and moved on to graduate from Yale University, raise two children and become a respected psychotherapist. That is, until 2001, when she reviewed her hospital records and began to remember a broken childhood and the even more broken mental health system of the 1950s and 1960s.

Becoming diagnosed with a mental illness in childhood or as a teenager might be viewed as a hindrance by some, however it is not. It is part of the journey throughout life and, with the proper treatment and education, people can live with a mental illness and still be happy, successful and pursue any dream or vision they have.

Sawyer’s book is a story that can help teenagers who are going through a tough time, as well as their family members and therapists. As she revisits scenes from her childhood, Sawyer sheds light on both past and present careless psychiatric diagnoses and treatments. Hers is a story of perseverance, acceptance, healing and hope that expands the reader’s understanding about an often misunderstood illness.

A woman of substance

Readers describe this book as a dynamic, utterly gripping and sharply written memoir. One reader wrote: “Key events in Annita’s life, from a suicidal teen in mental institutions to an accomplished woman of quality, substance and refinement are distilled with a clarity of images representing her prose. I applaud Annita for her bravery and courage to relate her personal experiences and her recollections of her childhood enmeshed so cogently.”

Sawyer has had a psychology practice for more than 30 years, and she is a member of the clinical faculty at Yale University. Her essays have won prizes and been included among the “Notables” in the Best American Essays series. She lives in North Branford, Connecticut.

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