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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It’s a pleasure to have you here today, Debra. Can you tell us what your new book is about?
Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief is a memoir told by a life. Meaning that it’s about my life with my mother, whole family really, but my mom and I form my birth until her death, interwoven with all of the untreated mental illness, untreated In my book I share what it was like from my perception to watch the adults acting like little monsters thinking that there either was something wrong with me or I had done something wrong. Those were the choices. Those messages picked up early in life travel with us into adulthood impacting the people we chose and the life choices we make.
Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
My book goes back into the lives of my grandparents when they were young, what they went through as very little children and how it impacted them. These universal and generational issues of chronic anxiety, depression and unacknowledged grief settled into their lives and instilled in them how to be in relationship with each other and eventually their children. My relationship with my mother is the main story so I guess she and I share the main character parts. She continually asked who ever would listen, “Am I going to be okay?” She was orphaned at a very early age, suffered through several foster families eventually ending up in the last one until she married at the age of 22. None od the foster homes would keep her because she had rheumatic fever which sent her on a perpetual search of safety with only herself on her mind.
Your book is set in (the city of Schenectady and eventually the small village of Delanson, New York). Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
My book flows back and forth through three generations showing how the Triad of mental illness, addiction and grief flows through then all. With the immigration of my mother’s father, Gabriel, into Schenectady, New York from Rome, Italy, the story finds him marrying Josephine when she was only 17 and he 32 years old. At that time General Electric was hiring hundreds of immigrants as well as anyone who needed a job. My father’s parents worked there too. Each set of grandparents struggled through the depression terribly where their children suffered the most. My mother’s mother abandoned her five children when my mother was about 4 years old. At that time in the late 30s and 40s the value of children was much different than it is today. Then Gabriel put all of the children ranging in age from seven to six months into an orphanage, but he kept the cows. Children’s lives were worth less than the animals.
Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
On page 69 I describe our lives as they revolved around our small town of Delanson’s Catholic Church Our Lady of Fatima. Masses were still said in Latin and Mom and I would go to the church on Saturday’s to clean the altar with the rest of the women from the Rosary Altar Society. My mother, who was normally in a state of anxiety and panic if not at home on the sofa, was somehow transformed when she was in the church into a state of peace, calm and serenity. She was safe there, wrapped in the arms o the Virgin Mary her one connection to the maternal.
What has been the most pivotal point of your writing life?
The most pivotal point of my writing life was when my friend Kathy Jo thought my manuscript was far better than I did and made me call her editor, Judi Moreo. I was petrified thinking my book sounded like a terrible third grade book report. Even though Judi was very busy with no extra time, when I called her she said for me to send my first chapter and she’d try to read it in the next few weeks. She called me the next day telling me she loved it and for me to send the rest of the manuscript. She wanted to be my editor. I still am in shock that it happened that quickly.
What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors?
This is a non-fiction book but I would have any writer follow the book “The Artist’s Way” for inspiration to keep on writing and never never give up.