Thursday, May 19, 2016

Am I Going To Be Okay?: Interview with Debra Whittam

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.
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About the Book:

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.

Thanks for this interview, Debra.  Can we begin by having you tell us about yourself from a writer’s standpoint?

Sure, from a writer’s standpoint I’m a novice, a newbie.  I’m still trying to get use to the idea that anything I’ve written has been published!  It’s as though the part of me that went to writing workshops and wrote for three years, edited with Judi Moreo for four months, and now has a well received published book is not sitting in the same skin I am.  I’ve loved writing since I could hold a pencil and scribble on paper.  Now as an author, being called a writer and put into that honorable grouping of creative artists hasn’t sunk in yet.

When not writing, what do you like to do for relaxation and/or fun?

I love to travel.  I’ve always had a bag packed just in case there was someplace to go!  My passport burns a hole wherever I’ve tossed it eager to be used for another adventure.

Congratulations on your new book! Can you give us the very first page of your book so that we can get a glimpse inside?
The Driving Lesson
“Am I going to be okay?” It was the summer before I started kindergarten. I had just turned five that June and was sitting in the back seat of our neighbor’s 1961 Buick listening as Gladys tried to teach Mom how to drive. Mom was crying and struggling with the stick shift attempting to drive down a long, lonely stretch of road aptly named thousand Acre Road. We were about a mile from our house just outside of our village of Delanson, New York, but it seemed as though we were in the middle of nowhere. “Am I going to be okay?” It was the first time I remember hearing those words. It would not be the last.
Mom was 4’ 11”, weighed 105 lbs. and was petrified of being in that driver’s seat. She needed to sit on two large phone books to see over the steering wheel and to reach the pedals even though the long, bench type front seat was pulled as far forward as possible. Gladys, who was a large German woman, was pressed up against the dashboard and now was more ornery than normal. Mom was begging Gladys to stop the driving lessons. She didn’t want to do it anymore.
Would you say it’s been a rocky road for you in regards to getting your book written and published or pretty much smooth sailing?  Can you tell us about your journey?

My road to being published has been miraculous.  I had been writing my book off and on for three years when a friend of mine met me for lunch in June of last year.  She asked me how my book was coming.  I was surprised she remembered I was writing a book.  “Of course I remember!” Kathy Jo said, “How far along are you?”  I told her I thought it read like a bad third grade book report and it was stashed away somewhere in my condo.  “Absolutely not.”  Said Kathy Jo.  She said she was going to email an editor friend of hers, cc me on it and give me this person’s phone number.  “The rest is up to you,” she said.  The editor was Judi Moreo and I did call her.  She was extremely professional sounding and told me she was too busy to take on anything else at that point.  She was calling me back because she cared for Kathy Jo so much.  She said I could email her my first chapter and she’d get to it within a week or so.  Judi emailed me within the hour stating she wanted me to send the entire manuscript as I had it so far.  She loved it.
That’s how it started.  Judi loves new authors and giving them the chance as she gave me mine.

If you had to summarize your book in one sentence, what would that be?

My book is a memoir/self-help book written by a life.

What makes your book stand out from the rest?

“Am I Going To Be Okay?” is the question every human being asks themselves on a daily basis in one way or another.  From birth until our death, especially on the deathbed, we ask that question, begging for an answer from someone.  This book brings to light what I call the Dark Triad of untreated mental illness, untreated addiction and unacknowledged grief that flows through everyone’s family tree.  The Triad is the universal, generational web we find ourselves in of the denial and silence handed down as a coping tool for all of those issues that no one talks about.  Blaming becomes the rule and it is deadly.  As a self-help book this is a stand out on the HOW of being okay.  As a memoir this is a story that encourages others to think of their own story.  As a book on it’s own, it demands we all begin to talk about the things no one ever talks about.  For me what is underneath everything is the grief over lost loved ones that NO ONE talks about.

If your book was put in the holiday section of the store, what holiday would that be and why?

This book is great for this month of May as it will be Mother’s Day this Sunday, it is Mental Health Awareness Month and finally Memorial Day concludes this month in whatever way we remember those we have loved and lost.

Would you consider turning your book into a series or has that already been done?

Absolutely! As one reads this book movie scenes come to mind.  Many readers have told me that this would make a fantastic movie or Broadway play.  I would agree.  I plan on going to Oxford University this summer to attend a screenwriters/play writer’s workshop to begin that very process.

What’s next for you?

I will be publishing a journal/notebook to accompany Am I Going To Be Okay? encouraging my readers to write some of their own story from the prompts I provide.

Thank you for this opportunity to share about my journey with Am I Going To Be Okay?

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