Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addcition and Grief: 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:

Title: Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief
Author: Debra Whittam
Publisher: Turning Point International
Pages: 253
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: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

"Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief” is a narrative, creative non-fiction account of my life with my mother, entire family actually, however mostly Mom and I, from my birth until her death.  Interwoven within the pages reveals the impact of all of the untreated mental illness, untreated addiction and unacknowledged grief that flows through my family tree  as a direct result of no one EVER talking about any of it.  Silence and denial have been the guidelines that my family, and most families follow, which I have found to be the most damaging of all.  This book follows several generations of my extended family with my intention of showing how we can dissolve blame through sharing the truth of things about how our parents and grandparents survived the situations they went through as little children.

I heard the words, “Am I going to be okay?” from my mother often over the years ever since I could understand what they really meant.  Her name was Judy Neadle and she was filled with the intense anxiety of a very little, lost child.  Her anxieties lead me, from a very early age, to want to take care of her.  My book came from my perception and experiences from the viewpoint of a very young child through the four weeks I spent with my siblings and parents before Mom’s death.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

Well, the two questions I get most often from my readers and those who are interested in learning about the book before they read it are, “How long did it take to write the book?” and  “Are you concerned about what members of your family will think since you wrote such a personal account?”  I find it odd these are the two most often asked questions since they have nothing to do with me actually, and have everything to do with the one asking the question.  I imagine they are wondering about the difficulty of the entire endeavor of writing a book like this.  So the pat answer to the first question is, ‘About three years’.  The second question, however, speaks to the difficulty in writing a book from my experience, memories and perceptions of others.  At my first writing workshop through Carol Henderson at Wildacres Retreat Center in Little Switzerland, NC, our first writing session on the very first day centered on those of us with the intention of writing memoir.  Here was the sage advice, “Write as though everyone you write about has already died.”  If we didn’t write from that perspective it was best not to do it at all.  

I kept those words in the back of my mind throughout the entire writing process.  It was difficult but exciting to bring up memories of the stories my parents shared through the years of their lives growing up.  My mother talked about her childhood daily, if anyone would listen.  She had a horrific memory, at the age of three, of walking down the sidewalk from her family’s apartment to her grandmother’s house hand in hand with her mother.  Mom remembered vividly that her mother let go of her hand, dropped her off at her grandmother’s house and never returned.  Accuracy is based on perception.

So, one of the difficulties of writing this book was the basic reliance on ‘eye and ear witness’ accounts of those sharing family legacy.  My answer to the second question is, “Yes, I considered everyone.  And I wrote it anyway.”  

This book had to be written from my heart.  One of my close friends, who was a ‘pilot reader’ before ‘Am I Going To Be Okay’ was published, told me that the book reads as a self help book written by a life.   I knew I had to write this book soon after my mother’s funeral as I drove back from upstate New York, near Schenectady, back to where I lived north of Pittsburgh, PA.  The idea of giving tips to others from my own experience of writing and now publishing my own book is, do it anyway.  Don’t give up if a message of self-doubt has a constant loop in your head.  If your book’s content is important to you, the writer, then it will be important to someone else who reads it.  “Never, never, never give up.”  As stated by Churchill.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?

My wonderful editor and publisher is Judi Moreo from Turning Point International in Henderson, NV.  The story is that a good friend of mine, Kathy Jo, had asked me to have lunch with her back on June 8, 2015.  Seems like a random day, but it became a day that changed my life.  I normally would say yes to lunch with Kathy Jo then cancel the night before or early that morning.  Not sure why that’s so.  Kathy Jo is upbeat, lovely and so encouraging I’m sure if I wasn’t in that type of mood closer to our get togethers I would cancel!  I had thought of canceling that morning but I went to meet her anyway.  This alludes to missed opportunities that probably flow through my past but, we met and one of her first questions was about my book that I had been working on since the last time we met a year and a half earlier.  “Well, I’m not working on that any more.”  I stated.  “It seems more like a bad third grade book report to me now.”  

I had stopped and put the stale, frustrating, hand written manuscript on the shelf and had hoped to forget it.  Kathy Jo stated, “No.”  What did she mean no?  “Debbie, I remember you telling me about your book and how you hoped to help others through your story. I have an idea.”  She gave me the name and phone number of her editor.  “I will cc you on an email to Judi today and give you her phone number.  The rest is up to you.”

I couldn’t adjust from thinking it was a bad third grade writing assignment to actually calling a professional editor.  After the lunch date I had doubts (much self doubt) that I would follow through with a call to Judi, but I did.  

I left a message on her voice mail, very glad that I had not actually talked to her.  She called me back that very night.  Yikes.

Judi has a very professional, firm but kind voice and stated she was very busy with many projects she was editing and publishing, speaking engagements in her near future and normally would never consider calling anyone back at this time, except for the fact that she loved and admired Kathy Jo.  Judi asked me what my book was about.  I remember stammering out a vague idea of a type of memoir.  

She stopped me in mid sentence.  “Since the market is flooded with memoir you had better have something very original to give the readers that they have not read before."  I did, I told her.  I shared with her my professional and private experiences of how adults acting like ‘little monsters’ impact the small children who surround them on a daily basis.  I talked about how we as youngsters have no idea of what is going on other than to think one of two things:

#1.  Either something is wrong with us or #2.  We have done something wrong.  The idea that mental illness, addiction and grief all play a part in everyone’s life is my theory, which I have not read before in anyone’s memoir or any book at all.  

Judi stated, “Okay, well send me your first chapter.”  I was so excited.  It was a short phone call, I survived it, and I did send ‘The Driving Lesson’, my first chapter, to Judi that evening.  She told me she hoped to get to it sometime within the next few days.  Within an hour she called me back and said, “I love it.  Send me your entire manuscript.”  WOW!!!  I have not, still, been able to comprehend all that has transpired.  She reported to me the next day that she stayed up way too late that night unable to put it down.  It was a ‘shitty first draft’ as Anne LaMott states in her book, “Bird by Bird” but Judi saw the potential of my story and that it had to get published.

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

The most surprising thing about getting my book published is how easy it was to deal with Judi and her publishing company.  The difficult part was editing process.  I thought a few changes and we would be done.

That was being totally naive on my part.  It took over three months of first manuscripts, revisions to the manuscripts, changes to the revisions, changes to the changes, (!) and finally the Final Manuscript.  On Final Manuscript #12 we were ready to go to print.  My hatred of attention to detail flourished throughout the process and Judi deftly encouraged me to continue without telling me we were nowhere near the end.  She would state that we were, ‘close’.

Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?

I have several books bouncing around in my head.  Since my book has been published most of my readers ask for more.  “I want to read more of what happened after the where I ended the book.

I will write a sequel to Am I Going To Be Okay and possibly another about a question I have had going on in my head for a very long time about the quality of love relationships in today’s society.  I have sent this query out to many clients and friends with wonderful and insightful responses. So I will let you know!  

Q: What’s your favorite place to hang out online?

My favorite place to hang out online is Shakespeare &Co.’s website.  The actual bookstore is located in Paris, France directly to the right side of Notre Dame across the River Seine.  I love to go there when I’m in Paris, heading up to the lovely, old second floor library with a window looking out on to Notre Dame and the bustling about that goes on there.  I have written some of my book in Paris so when I go online to read their book reviews, what readers will be presenting and about the next books they are chasing to stock, it brings up my love of travel and writing with hopes to return.  Shakespeare & Co. has agreed to stock my book as well!  This calls for another trip to visit them very soon!!  Other than perusing sites like Goodreads and Amazon for new releases and reviews, I play Bingo and Solitaire on my laptop.  

Q: What’s your nightly ritual before retiring for the night?

Before retiring for bed in the evening, I read.  I also take time to meditate in the morning, as a ritual, and to pray and meditate in the evening before I go to sleep.  It relaxes me to the point of falling to sleep and I find my best writing is done in the very early morning before my mind is filled with daily details.  So prayer and meditation restores me and relaxes me all in the same.

Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?

I have a very strong and, hopefully powerful message to everyone who has struggled with anxiety (most every human being).  It’s one of the common bonds of the human condition.  When we get down to the truth of things as they pertain to how we have learned to cope with our anxieties, our fears, our ways of coping often times will go to the unhealthy.  These coping mechanisms (drugs,alcohol, eating/not eating/ spending/ sexing and gambling) exacerbate as a direct result of the loss of a beloved through death or a relationship brings grief beyond compare.  My hope is that people can begin to TALK ABOUT IT.  This is what I find most common among my clients and family members.  Silence and denial enables most of us to hope everything will be okay by doing nothing.  

What I find most relevant about my book at this volatile time we are in is the message of how chronic untreated anxiety from early childhood on leads to every mental illness diagnosis imaginable.  

Rarely does someone seek help and when they do, some diagnosis is given without anyone looking back at how long the person has held on to their trauma, perhaps, or fears of being alone, fears of everything and not told a sole.  Am I Going To Be Okay? is the question we ask ourselves from the moment we are born, in one form or another, until the day we die.  How can we begin to talk about these things that have held such stigma and fear when there has never before been conversation about it.  We go back to the inner message we got as children that either there is something wrong with us or we’ve done something wrong.

Mental illness is characterized to be the reason each school shooting or movie theatre violence has come about.  Yet to lump anyone into a category that includes all of us who struggle with anxiety and depression is in it’s self ‘insane’.  

The most diagnosed mental illness in the US is Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder.  Most of us have gone through each of these issues to some degree or another rarely talking about it.

Some people are unable to hang on to these issues for long periods of time before a crisis occurs seemingly over nothing.  LET’S TALK ABOUT IT!

At my website,,  I have chat rooms, blogs, daily meditation areas called Practicing Being Okay where individuals can go and share their own stories of these main areas of struggle in our lives and finally start sharing about it.

I am very hopeful that many individuals will read my book and continue to realize they are not alone.  There are many of us with the same fears and issues and there is a solution.
Q: Thank you again for this interview!  Do you have any final words?

You’re welcome and thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this amazing way to get my book and message out to people.  I hope I can do this again with my future endeavors!

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