Interview with Debra Whittam, author of ‘Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief
About the Author
Debra Whittam is a licensed, practicing mental health therapist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specializes in addiction, anxiety and depression, grief and loss. Whittam is passionate about her work in all areas of her specialties, especially addiction. Working in a detox unit for over three years before beginning her own private practice, Whittam realized, while counseling patients in the life and death arena of the detox unit, how much the loss of a beloved through death or a relationship impacted those struggling with addiction.
In this memoir, Whittam skillfully infuses her memories, stories and professional insights to remind us that the most important relationship we will ever have is with ourselves. She splits her time between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York and Paris, France. Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief is her first book.
For More Information
About the Book:
Title: Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief
Author: Debra Whittam
Publisher: Turning Point International
Genre: Memoir/Women’s Psychology/Applied Psychology
Am I Going To Be Okay? is an American story with a universal message. Ms. Whittam traces her history in the form of stories about her all too human, and sometimes unhinged family; she throws a rope to the little girl living there, and in adulthood, is able to pull her out to safety, bit by bit.
Her history is peopled with folks from a different time, a time before therapy was acceptable, 12 steps unimaginable and harsh words, backhands and even harsher silences can be spun to appear almost normal. She writes of a mother who would not or could not initiate love nor give it without condition, and a father, damn near heroic at times, abusive at others, a survivor with his head down and his sleeves rolled up.
Ms. Whittam approaches her past with the clear-eyed tough but sensitive objectivity necessary to untangle the shame from the source. She speaks of the people that affected her life so deeply with an understanding of their time and place in American culture; a family not far removed from immigrant roots when men carried their own water, emoted misplaced anger, and with fresh socks and food found on the trail, were confident, unflinching and at that same time tragical- ly failing to the little ones they ignored.
Like many of us, details notwithstanding, Whittam responded by numbing, running and gunning. Alcohol gave her hope, soothed a crushed soul for a time and wrecked her on a train, until finally she had the courage to accept it wasn’t working for her anymore. It was time to stop drinking and take inventory and accountability. It was time to accept, forgive and move forward. She healed where she was broken.
It is in the telling of this story that Whittam teaches us the difference between just surviving and surviving well, the importance of shared introspection and a careful eye on the wake we leave behind in our actions. Her story is a guide to surviving abuse and addiction. It is also about witnessing and dealing with the shrinking faculties of aging parents in the unavoidable circle of life. Finally, she offers a realistic sense of hope, forgiveness and a life we can shake hands with.
For More Information
- Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief is available at Amazon.
- Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
- Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Debra! Can you tell us where you are from?
I am originally from a very small village outside of the city of Schenectady, New York called Delanson. It is located in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains and had about 100 families when I was growing up there. I now live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Q: How did you come up with your title?
My title, “Am I Going To Be Okay?” was what my mother continually asked me from as soon as I could possibly answer her until the day she passed away. It is somewhat funny but was extremely annoying throughout my life and the life of each of my four other siblings and my father. Her never ending fears of everything kept us with a regular focus on my mother’s wellbeing or at least the state of her anxiety and panic levels.
Q: They say you can judge a book by its cover. Can you tell us a little about your cover and who designed it?
I love my cover art! My editor Judi Moreo and I discussed in great detail how important my cover art was going to be as the memoir/self help book needed to stand out with such a title as Am I Going To Be Okay. Judi found a great photo of a young girl struggling with an umbrella in a storm and I had wanted the farmhouse where my grandparents lived and I visited often to be on the cover as well. Judi’s art teacher is the wonderful artist Jeff Tift. He is well known in the west for landscape and wildlife paintings of that area. He said he would do it and come up with a sketch from other photos I could send to him along with the girl with the red umbrella. We both loved what he sent as a sketch. He painted one of the most beautiful cover art drawings I’ve ever seen. It wraps around from the front to the back of the book. He depicted that area of upstate New York beautifully, as if he had visited it often. I have submitted my cover art for recognition in several book awards.
Q: Can you tell us something about your book that would make me run out and buy it?
My book, Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief, is a self help book written by a life. One of my friends told me that and I love that tag. It is actually a memoir of my life with my mother, entire family really, but mostly my mother and the impact of all the untreated mental illness, untreated addiction and unacknowledged grief that flows through everyone’s family tree. How the adults acting like little monsters give the very young and vulnerable children the messages that either there is something wrong with them or they have done something wrong. There are not other choices. We carry those ideas of ourselves into our lives as adults basing our worth and value on those very messages.
Q: Are there any messages in this book that you want the reader to know about?
The main message and intention of my book is for all of my readers and the world, actually, to begin talking about the very things that no one wants to talk about. The universal generational triad of familial denial and silence of the obvious untreated mental illness, addiction and losses of beloveds in grief that surrounds the family is indeed what is the very aspect that erodes and hollows out each individual in that dysfunctional, sick system. It is carried down from generation to generation with no one brave enough to say what is really going on. It is dangerous and deadly.
Q: What was your most favorite chapter to write and why?
My first chapter, The Driving Lesson, was the first, easiest and most fun chapter to write. It is about how I helped our grumpy, German neighbor Gladys to teach my mother how to drive a stick shift. It is hilarious and sets the scene for the rest of the book to follow.
Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?
After my mother’s death, it seemed like the book wanted to be written as if a force within me. The message of “Let’s Talk About It!” is essential, I believe, and the story of heartache, violence, fear and eventual courage and survival is something that needs to be out there. I think my book will help my readers to focus less on my story as they read my book and begin to think about their own. It is a good encouraging read to have others begin to do what is necessary to heal their own lives and make the changes needed to not pass down from generation to generation what is clearly not working as far as behaviors and how we treat family members.
Q: Now, some fun questions – What deep dark secret would you like to share with us?
Once you read my book you’ll see I share most all of them like becoming sober and into recovery in March of 2004, entering a psych ward for a week in December of 2007. After three years of recovery and sobriety I break down?! Yes, change is grueling and difficult work. I wouldn’t have published this book, or become the woman I am without doing that work first.
Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
I would like to travel to Tibet and explore the world of meditation and prayer that originated there. I love Paris and go there at least once a year to write and get lost in the city. But Tibet draws me to it by the love I have for my own practice of meditation and prayer. What an alternative for to calm the inner turmoil other than drugs, alcohol, eating/not eating, spending, sexing and gambling!
Q: Are you a morning person or a night person?
I am definitely a morning person. I write first thing in the morning before my mind get jumbled up with people and things going on out there in the world. I meditate early in the morning and I already have ideas swirling in my head wanting to come out onto the page!
Q: Are there any members in your family who also like to write?
Not really. My mom told me she use to write when she was very young. Her mother abandoned my mother and her four siblings during the severe years of the depression. Mom was raised in a foster home with other girls where reading and writing kept mom safe in a world of her own.
Q: As a child, were you a dreamer?
Oh my yes! I was also a wanderer. I was climbing out of the crib at the age of one and a half! If I wasn’t sitting on a neighbors kitchen table, I was reading or writing as a very young child developing a well imagined life up in my head where I could go when things became more and more scary and dangerous.
Q: Last but not least, the magic genie has granted you one wish. What would that be?
I would wish for a long healthy life with a clear mind filled with memories of all I have done and the people I have met and loved.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview! Do you have any final words?
I would want to tell everyone reading this blog to start talking about the things that are the secrets swirling their friends and families. Let’s Talk About It!