Recovery Through Dharma: Introducing Life Coach Deb Linehan

By Andrea Pientka and Anya Ottiger

Deb Linehan Life CoachWith great pleasure we would like to introduce you to our new life coach, Deborah Linehan (46). Deb has gone through many valleys to finally reach a mountain top that she richly appreciates. Starting at an early age with diet pills and later moving on to other drugs and alcohol, Deb tried to compensate for her self-doubt, insecurity, and unhappiness with a hyperactive, checked-out mask which mostly just left her feeling more and more numb. With the help of recovery programs, work with inspiring Dharma teachers, Landmark Education, and a dedicated loving-kindness meditation practice, Deb gradually started to feel the inner change towards her true self.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

Deb: I think, creating things, building things. I remember my grandmother had little plastic stickers that you could put on a vinyl canvas and create different scenes. I loved that toy. I could spend hours in the kitchen baking or in my dad’s basement workshop hammering nails into his work bench. I loved anything that I could do with my hands.

What kind of person were you when people still called you Debbie?

Deb: I associate “Debbie” with a period of my life when things were very confusing. I was a child trying to be perfect and good but I didn’t know how to express myself or process my emotions in an adaptive way. When I got older I made a move to a different part of the country where people started calling me Deborah or Deb. It felt right. I left “Debbie”,  the confused, shy, and scared girl behind, and it felt good.

“When I was a child I felt disconnected and invisible in many ways”.

You mention on your website that you worked through several layers of addiction. What was your drug of choice?

Deb: The one that got me into recovery finally, was alcohol. But it began with diet pills when I was about 10 years old.  I felt inadequate the way I was so I stole diet pills from the drugstore. Apart from losing weight, the pills had a big adrenaline effect on me. It absolutely took me out of my genuine self into someone that I thought I wanted to be by being hyper, awake all the time, super energetic.

Through high school I leaned into alcohol. Alcohol helped me to avoid my emotions and my pain. I became very numb. Through adulthood I tried a number of different drugs. I think I really desperately wanted to be accepted and to look cool. That’s why my relationships were unsustainable. They were based around this substance that could never allow us to be our authentic selves. There are a variety of drugs in my story but the one that got me to my bottom was definitely alcohol. Ultimately, I was lazy and it was easier for me to simply go to a  liquor store than to find a dealer to buy drugs from.

“Basically I was the kind of person that would take a drug and THEN ask what it was”.

What motivated you to turn your life around?

Deb: For a long time I didn’t really know why I was unhappy. When I began to meditate many things started to change for the better. Also, I took a course in New York that talked about integrity and being a leader in your own life. It’s an approach of radical personal responsibility. During this time I was still drinking and realized that if I continued to drink I would never have this integrity that I was learning about. This education coupled with the loving-kindness meditation I was doing  for myself and for others gave me a new perspective and awareness that I was  deserving of love, health, safety and friendship. It made me realise that I could not keep on drinking and if I desired to change I would have to ask for help.

I contribute my recovery first and foremost to mindfulness, to waking up through meditation, and Dharma.  Secondly to Landmark Education which turned on a lightbulb for me. I realised that I truly wanted to be plugged in, not checked out. Once I cut through my belief that I was undeserving of love,  I really started to feel an inner change.

What helped you most on your path of recovery?

Deb: I had friends and family in my life who had gotten sober through 12-step programs and this is where I started.  Here was a safe, non-judgmental and supportive space where I could express my feelings. The fellowship made me feel like it was important that I showed up in life.

During my first year of recovery I joined the DharmaPunx sangha and began to attend retreats regularly with this great  group of people, some in recovery, some not.

That’s where I found my teacher Josh Korda who I really love to listen to and learn from. Eventually I asked if he would work with me as a mentor one-on-one to deal specifically with some of the issues that come up as an ex-addict. I had questions about how to hold, work with and process these new emotions.

What didn’t help you at all?

Deb: I tried doing it by myself, saying, “I am not gonna drink for a week“. But I would never tell anyone! Because, naturally, after a week of not drinking, I would want to drink to celebrate not drinking for a week. This is how my brain used to work. It seemed like all of the answers I came up with on my own weren’t sustainable. I couldn’t recover on my own or in secret. It took being a part of recovery positive communities.

So, the people in your environment were not aware of your addiction?

Deb: Directly or indirectly there was harm to family and friends. Not being able to show up for life events, hurt people. I was making excuses all the time to separate myself and hide. For the people who didn’t know directly that I had substance abuse issues, there was an impact of my not being awake, of my being checked-out.

You graduated from your hospice and palliative caregiver training at the New York Zen Centre For Contemplative Care. Now you are here as a life coach – what was your motivation behind doing this training and why do you not pursue work in that field now?

Deb: What’s really unique about this specific training is that it’s an immersive program where you get to work with people who are dealing with a variety of suffering. My clinical placement was at a hospital where I was able to be with people who ranged from having a broken toe to being in the psychiatric unit, to the actively dying.

It was a privilege to have these wonderful, intensive conversations with people who were in the hospital for all kinds of reasons. Intensive work with people in all different stages of life was an education in overcoming insecurities in hopes of being able to be of some service. It would be impossible to find a field of work where I would not be directly served by the education I received at the New York Zen Centre.

“We all have suffering to different degrees and different intensities at different times. It’s all painful, it’s all hard and it’s always easier when we deal with it together”.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the patients you met through the training?

Deb: I learned a lot from the openness of the people. They were so generous and forthcoming with their stories. That generosity really surprised me and helped me to try and be more generous with who I really am in turn.

What did you do for a living before you became a life coach?

Deb: I did a lot of things. When I was really young, I had a house cleaning business. It was great because I have an entrepreneurial spirit, I love to be independent. Later I got into theatre. The experience of making people laugh was amazing. For a while my whole life revolved around one bar I was working at. I bartended, ran my theatre company there and sometimes got my mail there. It was handy to be so intertwined with a restaurant/bar because during this time I was in the middle of my addiction and alcohol was always only a reach away. But, despite the drinking, the theatre work was thrilling.

Eventually my love for the theatre drew me to New York in the hope of becoming a star. The thought of becoming a celebrity of some sort seemed like a great way to get what I wanted – you get the attention of the spotlight without having to form real relationships. In reality what I ended up doing in the first few years living in New York was drinking myself silly and working temporary jobs. I landed some impressive corporate jobs that others would consider  amazing opportunities, but to me they fell flat. I wasn’t happy. I always found myself quitting and getting new unfulfilling positions identical to the last but for the people and the address; over and over again. In my frustration I kept on drinking.

“So, I think it’s true: you get the lesson you need to learn over and over and over until you learn it”.

Why did you want to be a life coach in the first place?

Deb: I naturally want to share what I have learned and methods that have been effective for me with people who feel stuck in life just like I did. It is just thrilling when others start seeing results from the tools that have helped me so much. Freedom is a big word for me. It is so inspiring and moving when people get free. It’s such a creative process; everyone does it in a different way. I started coaching through Landmark Education then became a certified Recovery and Life Coach as well as a Desire Map Licensee.

“I think it’s nice to be able to re-invent and to re-create oneself at any time in life”.

What’s special about your way of approaching your clients problems?

Deb: I always relate to my clients as whole and complete, nothing lacking. I definitely hold the view that there is nothing wrong, there is just “present moment experience”. When there’s something we want to work on, it is simply a layer, calcification of inauthenticity that’s stuck on us. Maybe something that does not truly reflect who we really are that needs to be scraped away so our authentic selves can break through. When working with people it’s also important to me to have a sense of equality. That we are in it together. I am not a teacher, I am more of a facilitator.

“My approach with my clients includes really stressing that they are not broken. They have everything they need within themselves. They are whole and complete”.

As a life coach you mostly work with feeling emotions. Which is your favorite emotion and why?

Deb: This is an easy question. There is a Pali word, “mudita”, which loosely translates to “vicarious joy for the success of another”. A good example is the kind of joy a parent might have when a child takes its first steps. In the past I was not able to readily feel joy for the achievement of another. Somehow when others had success, love or happiness, it felt like there would be less available for me. Now I know that success, love, and happiness are unlimited and there’s plenty for everyone.  I first experienced this feeling of “mudita” in my first year of recovery when a friend stood up to get his coin for 3 months of sobriety. It was as if his achievement was also mine. My heart just lit up and expanded. I had never felt this before and it was amazing.

How did you first hear about New Life and what intrigued you to come here?

Deb:  I have a few friends who have visited New Life. Whether they were here as a life coach, a resident or a Dharma retreat teacher, they had nothing but positive things to say about their experiences. Their stories intrigued me and I dreamed about the possibility of coming here, but I was not yet ready or able to pack my bags.  In fact, I was even signed up to attend a New Life retreat led by Dave Smith about a year and a half ago but had to cancel it for various reasons. In the end it was my teacher Josh Korda who propelled me into action. Last winter, when he had just gotten back from leading a retreat at New Life, he encouraged me to get in contact with Julien and Tom and they offered me this amazing opportunity.

How would you describe your first week in 5 words?

Deb Linehan: Surreal (in a good way), beautiful, welcoming, uncomfortable (because it is new), exhilarating.

What was your first impression of Thailand?

Deb: The ease! I expected the trip to be really quite difficult. I was bolstered for a struggle especially being in a country where I (regrettably) don’t know the language. I thought it would be scary and that I would really make an idiot out of myself. Well it has been scary to a certain extent and I have made myself look plenty silly but the warmth, kindness and acceptance of everyone here has made the transition very peaceful. I am impressed by the beauty, the ease – it’s the opposite of stressful. It is not New York.

There could hardly be a more extreme contrast between living in New York and in this tiny rural village in northern Thailand. What do you think is going to be the biggest difference?

Deb: Before I came to New Life in Chiang Rai, I was in Chiang Mai for a week where I made friends with a women who moved here from the US years ago. I asked her what she thought the biggest difference between Thailand and the States might be. She said that in Thailand the people have more a group mind, the community is a priority and first in the mind over the self. In the Unites States it is all about the individual.  Individuality is really rewarded. The shift from the “me” to the “we” is something I am excited about learning, but suspect it is likely to be an uncomfortable education at first.

What are you currently struggling most with in your life?

Deb: Sugar. Ending my day with ice cream or sweets had become a real problem for me in New York and I realised it was enabling me to “check out” in a way that felt addictive to me. My inner critic is something else I have to keep an eye on. This critical inner voice often arises with the fear of not fitting in. I still have to learn to be more gentle and kind with myself.

What do you hope to give to the community as a life coach and what are you hoping to get out of your stay here?

Deb: I hope to offer perspectives that incorporate real life addiction recovery experiences and some academic insights that I find useful with tools to work with identifying and processing emotional and intuitive information. My intention while here is to stay open and connected to all that is available from the whole community, expand my experience and worldview, and have fun too.

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