I have been in love with writing since I first treasured the smell of paper and the flow of ink. Mom would read to me and I would ‘pretend to write’ on anything I could get my hands on. ‘Pretend to write’. That phrase haunts me still when I am asked to create a guest post or write an article for public consumption.
Before I began my ‘shitty first draft’ (as Anne LaMotte calls our beginnings of writing a book) of my book Am I Going To Be Okay, I went to as many writing workshops as possible. The most impactful bit of advice came as a shock at my very first session at the workshop. “If writing memoir, write as if everyone in your narrative has already died” said the facilitator.
So there is freedom in that?! Freedom for me to write all of the things that I have in my memory of the experiences of my life as I perceived them? Yes, that is the freedom.
For over four years I would remind myself, “Yes, put that in the book too”, some scary detail of my younger years. I tended to hesitate as to not offend any one of the myriad of relatives that feature in my book.
One of the most painful parts of the story behind the book was an incident I had when I was about 12. I had written many fanciful stories throughout my childhood which I loved to share with my mom. One time when I was babysitting at a neighbors house, I happened upon some salacious romance novel with writings about sex I had never read before. We certainly didn’t have that kind of thing in our house! Somewhere in the middle of the story a man and a woman became embraced in a scene of intimacy that sent my pre-pubescent imagination soaring. I immediately went home that night and wrote a romantic scene of my own including all of the fascinating details I had read just hours before. I know I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager and very innocent as I had written, “They were in an embrace of love and he entered her womb.” That detail my own version.
The next day after dinner my mother came into the living room where my father and siblings were watching TV.
“What the hell is this nonsense! Where did you learn this disgusting garbage that you’ve written here?!” My mother had found my writings. The horrifying shame that engulfed my naive self was never to be forgotten. She continued in a berating flow of criticism that cut me to the core as nothing ever had before and nothing has since. “Have you done these things yourself?!! You are a disgusting piece of shit to write this slut filth.” She continued on as my father, who never before came to anyone’s rescue least of all mine, said let’s go for a ride. He and I got up and went out to the garage as fast as we could to get into the car. As I was about to escape into the passenger side where safety was promised just seconds away, my mother leaned out the kitchen door into the garage and,said in a nasty, mean, high school girl voice, “Be careful you don’t let anyone enter your womb!”
Readers, I never wrote again. Ever. She was successful in shutting down any part of that creative, imaginative flow that would have come after that; until I began this book at the age of 55. Back at the age of 12 I threw away anything I had written for others to read. I certainly wrote in diaries, wrote for school, college and then graduate school. But I NEVER wrote again, for others to read. This journey of the story behind my book was painful and one can imagine the added difficulty I had with imagining any and all of the ‘cast of characters’ already dead!
One of the cast had already died about three months before my first workshop. My mother had passed away on July 29, 2012.
Courage and bravery came to me with every writing workshop I attended. Especially the one I took in the summer of 2014 at the American University of Paris.
Most participants had already published and I definitely thought I was ‘pretending to write’ there. However, I was encouraged each time I read out loud to the other writers in my group. I was working on the first chapter of my book entitled, ‘The Driving Lesson’. Am I Going To Be Okay is rich in detail of what happens in any family when mental illness, addiction and grief go unattended to, goes untreated. Through years of support through my therapeutic community as well as recovery myself, I have found the story behind the book to have been the richest part I have to share. I am Okay.
About the Author
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 Storm of Mental Illness, Addiction and Grief is her first book.