Annita Perez Sawyer: Author, Psychologist & Faculty Member at Yale Medical School

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My NativeAdVert:

Annita Perez Sawyer is the author of the memoir Smoking Cigarettes, Eating Glass, winner of the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Program Nonfiction Grand Prize. A psychologist in practice for over thirty years, she is a member of the clinical faculty at Yale Medical School. Her work has appeared in both professional and literary journals, where her essays have won prizes and twice been included among the Notables in the Best American Essays series.

Annita spent most of her adolescence in psychiatric hospitals. First admitted in 1960, at seventeen, she endured 89 electroshock treatments, based on a faulty diagnosis, before she was transferred “unimproved.” Eventually, she was assigned to a skilled psychiatrist and gradually recovered. Although shock treatment had erased almost all of her early memory, and stigma compelled her to hide her past, five years after being discharged from the hospital, Annita graduated Summa Cum Laude in Yale’s first undergraduate class to include women. She earned a PhD from Yale in 1981. 

Decades later, after having established a successful psychology practice, but still frustrated by her lack of early memories, Annita sent for her hospital records. Reading them prompted recall of of those lost early years—all the sensations from her disconnected past poured out as terrifying flashbacks. Re-traumatized, she sank into despair, in a process she had helped her own patients manage, but could not control in herself. Again, with skilled help, she recovered. She knew she had to share what she’d learned, so she became a writer. Faculty and students from outstanding writers' conferences, generous artists at prestigious residencies, talented friends around the country, and members of a dedicated local writers' group became her literary mentors.

Annita speaks to clinical audiences around the country. Seeking to diminish the stigma of mental illness, she presents her story as both a cautionary tale and inspiration. In talks, essays,  stories, and a blog in Psychology Today she considers lifetime consequences of childhood trauma, harmful effects of fads in psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, the enduring impact of stigma and shame, and the power of human connection to heal.

My Goal of the Day: To be myself; to act with integrity.

My Thought of the Day: People actually care what I think; they want to hear what I have to say. Imagine that!

My Action of the Day: Although my schedule doesn’t always allow it, I try to walk for at least a half hour every day. It gives me a chance to stride and feel tall, to reflect on my life and ideas and hopes and dreams.

My Deed of the Day: Because of my book, and sometimes my talk or my papers, graduate students or young clinicians contact me. They need to share struggles with demons from a psychiatric past that they are required to keep secret in their present situation. I feel honored to be trusted and eager to offer comfort—just knowing someone else understands can make the unbearable tolerable. So we converse by email.

My Tip of the Day: Never underestimate the power of a kind word or a smile to touch another soul. Never forget how we as humans hunger for basic respect.

 My Pic of the Day: (any additional pic that expresses something special)

This was my first book launch. It took place at the Harvard Faculty Club, hosted by my best friend from high school

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A Day in My Life:

What do you love most about Your City?

I love many things about Northampton. I love the architecture, the history, and especially the people—they’re all ages, all types— real individuals who appear friendly and content to be themselves. I love that most side streets are narrow and cars really do stop for people in the zebra striped crosswalks. This keeps the pace manageable and reflects the thoughtful, welcoming atmosphere.

Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?

Every morning I start with a large mug of Lapsang Suchong tea and pumpernickel toast topped with roasted red pepper hummus and cottage cheese. We sit in a bright room and watch birds out a large picture window. It’s been close to fifty years, and we’re in our third home, but I haven’t tired of this routine. 

What are you doing at:

6:00 AM – I’m begging our geriatric calico cat to please let me sleep a little longer. Sometimes I succeed. More often, she’ll start pacing back and forth across my chest or sit on my pillow—half on my head, half on my pillow— and I’ll give in. I love the morning light, so I don’t really mind.

10:00 AM - I’m in my office, perhaps finishing one psychotherapy appointment, perhaps about to begin another. I love the integrity of my work, focusing as best I can on every detail—paying attention to each individual, every word, every gesture—theirs and mine—listening, working to be open and as clear as I can be about who is me and who is the person I am meeting with. Wonders happen there.

12:00 PM - Favorite Lunch spot/meal?

For lunch I usually enjoy Greek yogurt topped with walnuts, Fiber 1cereal, and a drizzle of maple syrup. I learned about this from an older friend many years ago, and I’ve savored it ever since. A restaurant? I really like the salads and sandwiches at The Roost on Bridge Street in Northampton.

7:00 PM -  On Tuesdays I’m settling into my seat in the rehearsal space of the Pioneer Valley Orchestra chorus. Before I moved, I was at New Haven Chorale rehearsals at 7:00 on Mondays, and on Wednesdays I would be at my writers group or my clinical study group. I’m still seeking a writers group in Northampton. On other nights, I’m sitting down to dinner with my husband, Will.

11:00 PM - I’m wishing I’d brushed my teeth sooner and was already in bed. Or, I’ve made it into bed, I’ve turned off the light, and I’m finishing the New York Times mini-crossword puzzle on my iPhone—the last act to clear my mind, before I settle down to sleep. If I’m still awake after that, I’ll recite one of my favorite poems until I drift off.

What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?

I always look forward to my mug of Lapsang Suchong tea and the time of quiet reflection that goes with the beginning of my day. I often enjoy a small glass of wine with dinner, although it’s not essential. For some reason I can tolerate only a little wine—or any type of alcohol—before I develop strange reactions in my arms and chest. I’ve never understood why. It’s definitely something I want to avoid.

Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?

I’m embarrassed to say I know little about Instagram and hardly enough about Apps in general to have a favorite. I do use WAZE for navigating when I drive, and I love it.  A few years ago, when my brother was visiting, he insisted that I have it and installed it on my phone. He was right!

What should everyone try at least once?  Dance your heart out on the grassy lawn of a local farm or a small town common while a lively band plays nearby.

Where do you enjoy getting lost?

I love exploring my new town, wandering down streets I haven’t traveled before. But I trust that I’ll find my way back to familiar territory before too much time passes. (And I have WAZE on my phone!) Years ago I got lost in dense woods when I was at the MacDowell Colony in winter — I forgot that I was farther north than usual, so darkness fell before I expected. I wasn’t lost long, but it turned from intriguing to scary. I didn’t enjoy it!