SPOTLIGHT – Debra Kelly by Tom Kernaghan

Debra with Flora Farm hearts

Debra Kelly — Storyteller & Motivator

“We’ll figure something out.” 

We say these words all the time, but when Debra Kelly said them at the end of our first chat, to schedule our second one, I sensed they flowed from a hard-earned knowingness that runs deep beneath her friendly and confident demeanour. 

Debra is a storyteller, speaker, and real estate agent who lives here in the Okanagan and in Cabo San Lucas. I can say I’ve never met a person in whom the seemingly disparate aspects of life seem so well integrated into a way of living. Now, that is. Back in 1993, Debra’s purpose, passion, and pleasures had yet to blossom from the soil of pain, fear, and darkness she found herself pushing through as a single mother and expat in Mexico. Her money was dwindling, her hope was flagging, and her determination was screaming — but her aim (especially for killing scorpions) was improving. 

She has a kick-ass memoir for you to read. Having just finished Wait a Year, an Amazon international best seller, I can see where Debra’s confidence comes from: damn, she’s been through it! As a fellow storyteller who loves a cracking good tale about life’s trials, travails, and triumphs, especially one with dark humour, I can say this book will delight you, move you, and leave you wanting more. And I can see how Debra’s story will motivate others to find their voices, set healthy boundaries, and design a better lives for themselves. 

Debra’s own voice is ferocious yet tender, playfully sarcastic yet disarmingly candid. Drawn from 27 years of journaling, Wait a Year takes the reader on a year’s “adventure” into the unknown, through which a lost and heartbroken Debra staves off suicidal thoughts before ultimately seizing opportunities to create a better future for herself and her kids, in Cabo San Lucas. But she goes through hell first. It’s not so much a leap of faith as a dive of desperation, revealing her true grit. The result is nothing short of inspiring, and very funny. 

Let’s dive in… 

What a story! Okay, it’s many years after that transformational period in your life. Today your children are grown, your real estate career is thriving, and your life between two countries sounds wonderful. What inspired you to bring this memoir to the world? What do you want women to feel and do for themselves? 

The inspiration for writing Wait a Year had been brewing over many years. How a lifelong dream of living at the ocean inspired a crazy move to a foreign country. When I would share about how I moved to a small Mexican fishing village while plagued with suicidal thoughts, telling people about the adventure trials and antics I experienced with three young kids underfoot, people would laugh and “ooh” and “aah” about it all being so crazy. But, this odd little Mexican town is where I found my voice, where I learned about forgiveness and especially how to set boundaries and carve out daily affirmations. My life was changed forever. I knew other women who had similar stories would see that there really is a way out … if they would wait a year.   

Setting boundaries is an issue for many. To give us a bit of context, what were you grappling with back in 1993? You’ve described yourself as a “blackbelt in codependent recovery.” 

Boundaries seem like such a simple ability, but most codependents find themselves being “people pleasers” without the ability to stand up for themselves. They fear being disliked and so they never say no. Without this basic skill for survival, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed with too many yeses and too much volunteering when I already had a full time job — and three kids — and had nothing left to give. Learning to set boundaries  saved my life. Learning to deflect guilt and put myself as a priority was the key.

Although your story is primarily speaking to women seeking courage and self acceptance, I think it’s broadly relatable. Your longing and vulnerability speak to the need for validation, redemption, and love most of us feel. Your relationship with Kenny is one of the most moving examples of courage, grace, and self-forgiveness I’ve read in a long time. How have other men reacted to your story? 

I always love getting feedback from men who read my story. Men share that they too can relate to being so low and desperate they didn’t know a way out and found my story inspirational. They also all said how shocked they were about the kids’ father allowing me to take them to Mexico.        

Your style is both intimate and spacious, mingling present tense and past tense into a daze of determination. You leave a lot of room for the reader to ponder. The effect is hypnotic and effective, as we feel your stunned surrender to “whatever.” Talk about this inner experience and what it means.  

After weeks and weeks … and weeks of nothing going right, I finally just gave up. It was a total surrender. An epic melt down. I didn’t know about the gift of letting go, which is a kinder gentler way of saying, “Fuck it.” True grit shows up when you are at your lowest. It is an inner strength that is a part of us and when it takes over, watch out world!

You also have a marvellous knack for interweaving light and dark; for creating sobering, hilarious juxtapositions between dream and reality; and for selecting telling details. The effect is one of hope and possibility, that life is worth living BECAUSE it is messy and worth the fight. When you look back at your younger self, what do you feel and what do you say to her?

Such a good question for everyone to look back on who they were way back when everything was going right; more importantly, to look back on who you were at your worst times. I can still see me as that young woman and feel her every hurt, her damaged spirit, and feel her broken heart. I love her today. If only I knew then what I know now — my wiser self — but who would I be today if I hadn’t gone through all of life’s troubles?

The wild adventure your kids went through with you certainly keeps the reader glued to your story! There were many challenges. Looking back now, what would you say is the most positive outcome of their adaptation to life in Mexico?

The kids had no choice in that crazy adventure, but to this day they love recalling every moment of our life in Mexico. We talk often about those days and always agree those were the best years. They learned about loss and disappointment at young ages and saw their mother crying often. They learned to be “the foreigner” in their school and yet somehow managed to rise up and make friends easily. They also had to accept Kenny — their step-father. There were some big issues around that whole dimension. Real life was happening, but we loved the simplicity of our small town beach life. They had to overcome a lot. But life is messy no matter where we would have lived.

Tell us about your work now! You do speaking engagements and lead coffee conversations on a variety of themes. What do you like most about these? 

The opportunities to do book clubs or wellness events excite me, as I LOVE talking about how the smallest and easy shifts in a daily routine can change your life immensely. I love outlining a daily dedicated practice of journaling, affirmations, and self-care, and how to create and experience those long-delayed dreams. I can’t wait to do more speaking engagements!

You’ve also been a real estate agent for twenty years. I find it poetic that you launched a career that paralleled your own life in a way. It must feel wonderful to help others through the fruits of your own transformation!

I love real estate sales because it is a deeply personal relationship. Helping families find their dream home is a gift! I am motivated to my own personal goals and dream big and bigger today knowing through experience that everything is possible.   

I’ve read some of your blog posts. I think you have another book in you! Any plans…? 

YES, I have another book planned and started. I have some titles I am working with and narrowing the storyline down. Everyone who reads Wait a Year is begging to know more about Kenny and our love story. His life alone is worthy of a book! I have journals from 1994 to present and will go through them to remind myself of the worst yet funniest expat stories. 

After so many wild experiences, what still surprises you? 

What surprises me most is that I have been single for fifteen years and could have a written a book called The Best Worst Date Stories Ever Told — Storyteller & Motivator — Real Estate

Tom Kernaghan, owner of Oak Writer
I write stories about people, businesses, and communities so that people will remember what makes them uniquely powerful.

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(250) 863-6297


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