Sunday, February 14, 2016

Paris-Pittsburgh People: Author Debbie Whittam

Author Debbie Whittam
''Am I Going To Be Okay?''

That's a question behind the tears of a child who turns to a parent for encouragement or reassurance.

For Debbie Whittam, those roles were reversed. Debbie had to constantly reassure her mother that she would be all right. But there was never any reassurance for Debbie, until she happened upon alcohol in high school. Now there was something that made her feel better!

It took decades, but Debbie managed to overcome addiction and transform her life, a story she tells in the forthcoming memoir, ''Am I Going To Be Okay? Weathering the Storms of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief.'' Born in Delanson, New York, Debbie moved to Pittsburgh where she married and raised two children. I met Debbie through nonprofit association WICE in Paris where she recently spoke about her book.

I couldn't put it down. I was gripped because it is the story of many of us to a small or large degree. Debbie grew up in the 60s and 70s in small town New York under a dysfunctional, panic-driven mother and vicious father. No one talked about feelings, good or bad. Her parents and grandparents had suffered through traumatic childhoods and marriages. When would it end?

Debbie doesn't blame, however, just explains, and brings us to the other side. Interwoven in the memoir is the grown-up narrator, now a counselor in Pittsburgh. She tells us that everyone has anxieties, which if repressed instead of addressed can lead to mental illness. In college, she was able to obtain counseling, which helped some. Later, anti-depressants helped some, but not as much as if she had stopped drinking. 

That would end only decades later. At 46, she finally quit. Her reason: she felt she was going crazy. Debbie started attending 12-step meetings seriously—where she found the support that she needed for so long. After a year of sobriety, she went back to school for her master's degree in counseling psychology, and continued on the very bumpy road to recovery.

Much more than a memoir, this self-help book helps others through the power of story-telling. Critical of the mental health establishment that advises practitioners to set boundaries and not become personal, Debbie says it's all about personal relationships.     

''When I shared my journey through alcoholism and recovery with my patients, they felt they could trust me. The big question they ask is 'How?' Their faces would actually change as they realized that the person who is the therapist is saying, 'Me, too, and this is how.' ''

Debra Whittam is a licensed, practicing mental health therapist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who specializes in addiction, anxiety and depression, grief and loss. Her book becomes available on on March 24, 2016. Debbie attended Paris Writers Workshop in 2014.

Rose Marie Burke, an editor and journalist, writes a blog about her personal insights into life in Paris. After 20 years in the City of Light, she still calls her native Pittsburgh "home."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

''The Pagoda of Paris:'' A Rare Visit City Guide Paris
Paris is a city that loves black, white and gray—as if they were actual colors. Its men and woman, and its buildings all seem to wear the same uniform.

So when you come across a wall of color, you stop and take notice, especially if it's the red Pagoda of Paris. I work near this usually shuttered mansion, and dreamed of a peak inside. Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a private tour, part of my campaign to see the Paris on my doorstep at home and work.

The building used to be a typical, gray 19th-century apartment building until the Chinese businessman Ching Tsai Loo transformed it in 1925. He filled the place with antique and contemporary treasures from China. The world was just discovering China, and Mr. Loo had money and connections.

What Mr. Loo got away with couldn't happen today. In today's Paris, he wouldn't have been able to obtain a building permit! In today's China, he wouldn't have been able to take treasures of out of the country to show and sell.

Word has it that Mr. Loo isn't liked in China for exporting the country's heritage, but he argued that the country at the time was doing little to protect it. And that he was placing Chinese art in good hands.

After the Chinese revolution in 1949, Mr. Loo lost his connections and lived out the rest of his life, until 1957, at the Pagoda. The building fell into disrepair, and was purchased by Jacqueline von Hammerstein-Loxten in 2010, who renovated the interior, and rents it out for private events and shows. Mr. Loo's legacy continues.

If you happen to be in Paris in June, don't miss an opportunity to see inside yourself. The Pagoda will be open for an exhibition tied to Asia Week Paris that aims to assemble the world's foremost buyers and collectioners of Asian art. 

Note : La Pagoda, in the 8th arrondissement, is actually one of two pagodas in Paris. The other one, ''La Pagode,'' was built in 1896 and eventually became a cinema. Loss-making for many years and in need of repair, it finally closed its doors just last year.