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 Amazon.com on March 24, 2016. Debbie attended Paris Writers Workshop in 2014.

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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."