Having overcome daunting challenges, Deborah Vinall works to heal survivors of trauma.
CalSouthern PsyD student Deborah Vinall was recently awarded the Clinton E. Phillips Scholarship by the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. The scholarship recognizes, among other things, Deborah’s academic achievements, her dedication to community and her commitment to her profession.
While impressive, these accolades woefully minimize Deborah’s inspirational story. Modest and soft spoken, Deborah is a gifted, innovative and exceptionally dedicated therapist—driven by a burning desire to deliver the best possible mental health care to survivors of trauma. On her personal journey, she has overcome formidable challenges—poverty and homelessness, as well as emotional and physical abuse.
The following interview illustrates the intellect, drive and indomitable spirit that helped her beat the odds. And to hear Deborah in her own words, please listen to the podcast below.
Your family encountered numerous challenges during your childhood and teenage years. Money was tight and you became homeless at one point. Would you be willing to share some of these experiences with us?
I grew up in Canada in a family of six, living below the poverty line. One parent was not a resident of the country and unable to work; the other was sometimes employed, sometimes not. So there was a lot of financial stress.
In addition, my mother also had some mental health issues, although I am not sure I understood them as such at the time. She was very volatile, and there was verbal and physical abuse in the family. It was difficult.
I did become homeless during high school, although it was not directly related to the poverty as much as to the chaos of a volatile home environment. I was frequently told to leave the home throughout my adolescence, but usually came back at night or the next day. I always knew where the abandoned sheds or unlocked vehicles were in the neighborhood, just in case.
Finally, after a particularly violent night I was thrown out, and thereafter bounced around from one person’s couch to another for a day or a few at a time.
It’s remarkable that, in spite of these challenges, you always had a love of learning and an unwavering goal to attend college.
Yes. Even then, my educational goals were paramount to me. I didn’t like the way things were in my family and wanted a different future for myself. I remember at the age of nine hearing that, if I wanted to attend college, I would need to save my money. So I marched right down to the bank and opened an account, putting whatever money I had in there, from paper routes, baby sitting and whatever else I could do.
When I was homeless, I arranged for rides from classmates to get to school regardless of where I was sleeping. I toted two bags with me everywhere I went—one with some clothes and toiletries, a small wooden shoe from my deceased grandfather and a Bible I received for my seventh birthday. Another bag contained my school books.
I missed a lot of school—nearly half of my senior year—but maintained a high grade point average and received a scholarship. In a special meeting with the principal and vice-principal, I was given permission to graduate despite my abysmal attendance.
When did your interest in psychology first develop?
I was never a fan of psychology as a kid. I thought psychologists tried to get inside your head and sort of project their own ideas onto you. When I was 21 (I had left college at the time because the scholarship money had run out), I was doing volunteer work with a youth organization and encountered someone who was getting herself into very dangerous situations and had attempted suicide. I knew I was totally out of my depth. I started taking courses in crisis counseling and adolescent psychology. I loved what I studied and came to understand that it could help me actually make a difference with this person and others like her. When I was eventually able to return to school, I devoted myself to psychology
Today, you’re a licensed marriage and family therapist, living in California. Could you tell us a bit about your practice?
I have a private practice named Tamar Counseling Services. The name is derived from the combined experiences of ancient women from Jewish and Christian scriptures who shared the name Tamar. The stories involve rape, incest, prostitution, bereavement and absentee parenting—experiences shared by many of the people I work with in my practice.
I work primarily with survivors of trauma. I keep my practice very holistic, looking at cognitive, emotional and spiritual aspects. Is there a cognitive dissonance between what a person believes and how they live? Are there support structures within a person’s faith system that can be pulled in to help one cope? Nutrition, exercise and sleep are very important, too. I want to incorporate all of this into my practice, while keeping it very much grounded in the science of psychology.
What are some of the greatest challenges and rewarding moments associated with working with survivors of trauma?
In working with survivors of trauma, especially children, establishing trust is so critical. There can be such a fear of sharing a secret, of being rejected—or even hit—for expressing oneself. Building trust is probably the biggest challenge, and it can take quite a while.
But I love working with people who are committed to making changes and overcoming the traumas that are holding them back. I am privileged to be able to witness these amazing transformations. Many times it feels as though they are doing all the work; I’m just supplying the supportive presence. But seeing the shackles of shame eventually fall away—it’s very gratifying.
In your opinion, what personal characteristics are required to effectively work with this population?
Perhaps one of the most important is an unwavering belief in the goodness and potential in humanity, despite the incredible hurt we are capable of inflicting on one another. I truly believe there is a soft, human seed of love in each soul, which may have been buried deep by the hurts of this life.
Finding that light, that tender place is essential to creating the connection necessary to begin the healing process. It is like the Hindi greeting of “namaste”—the highest or the most god-like qualities in me honor the same in you. This essential point of finding human connection is primary. In dealing with troubled children, in particular, so many start with what is going wrong, and that problem-saturated approach just reinforces the walls.
Shifting gears a bit, what led you to CalSouthern to earn your PsyD?
I have been seeing an increasing number of victims of commercial sexual exploitation, both in my practice and in my pro bono work. I can’t imagine a more traumatized population; these are people that in some cases have been raped multiple times per day for years on end.
Once again, I felt somewhat out of my depth. I wanted to increase my knowledge and skills to be the very best practitioner I can be and provide the best possible care for this population. That was my primary motive for enrolling in the PsyD program.
Have you enjoyed the program so far?
Yes. The flexibility has been wonderful. I don’t know how I could be a mom and maintain my practice and volunteer work with a rigid classroom schedule. Also, the program has been a great challenge. Every course I’ve taken has grown me as a practitioner and I have been able to apply what I’ve learned in my work.
What are your plans for the future?For the immediate future, it’s more of the same, holding the balance between being a parent and maintaining my private practice and volunteer work. I am also working with a non-profit group called EveryONE Free, with the goal of opening a drop-in center in Pomona, California, in collaboration with the Survivors Consultation Network. It will provide resources and care for women living and working on the streets in the sex trade. We will be hosting a trial day soon, and I am looking forward to seeing how we can develop this project into a permanent presence in the community.
Please click below to listen to the podcast: