Dr. Joyce, The Love Doctor: A Tale of Obstacles, Family, and Above All - Love
“One of the major things that people don’t realize when they look at being an African American female coming up in the U.S., especially in the south is that the odds are against you.” So says Dr. Joyce Morley-Ball, the youngest of 14 children born to African American vegetable farmers, and she ought to know. Despite the cards that life dealt her and hardships she’s been through, Dr. Joyce has used her amazing presence and persevered to become a noted relationship expert, psychotherapist, consultant, and keynote/motivational speaker. This dynamic presence and ability to help others around her has existed throughout her life. No matter the circumstances she encountered in her life, Dr. Joyce found a way to keep going and have her voice heard. Joking around, she says that she is like E.F. Hutton. When Dr. Joyce talks, people listen. “All of the obstacles put in my way just made me stronger. It most certainly draws me closer to God and allows me to keep hope, to keep my faith, and to never give up. Nobody can take from me what is supposed to be mine. There’s a synergy that exists between what I’ve been through and what I’ve been given.”
Dr. Joyce was just 10 years old when her father died. The little girl was the one who found his lifeless body. At the time, four of her siblings were in high school and three were in college. Her mother managed to take care of all the kids on her own after her dad was gone. It is mostly through her mother and her grandmother that Dr. Joyce came to know strength and the importance of education.
“I never knew what welfare was until I was an adult. My parents weren’t sharecroppers—my family owned our own farm. We always owned land. I never realized my family was poor until I was older because we weren’t lacking anything.”
Although Dr. Joyce liked learning as a young child, she did not like school. But, getting an education was not a choice in her house. It was a command. So, to school she went! Luckily, Dr. Joyce was social and smart. She starred in school plays, danced, ran track, and played the clarinet. All the activities encouraged her to keep interested and stay involved. She also realized early on that learning came easily to her. Being on the honor roll, seeing the letter “A” in her report cards, those kinds of things were the rewards that kept her going despite walking for miles to attend the all-black school as a bus full of white children passed her by every day.
“There seemed to be a cloud that hung over me; I was always fighting the American belief that as an African American I wasn’t worth anything. I made it a point that I was not going to allow the beliefs of a population of people to get in my way. I went to all black schools until my sophomore year of high school; the black teachers didn’t play! I had to stay on my toes and stay sharp.”
When she reached high school, Dr. Joyce was part of a forced bussing program and attended an integrated school. Although she had been taught not to discriminate at home, what she was confronted with at school was very different. “The teachers would call on a white student before they would call on me, even though I was one of the smartest persons in class.” Still, Dr. Joyce never allowed the pain of what was taking place around her to get inside and destroy her. Instead, she would openly confront what she saw and experienced. “I was considered a rebel, an activist. I was always the one to question things.”
At age 15 Dr. Joyce was raped and experienced one of the most difficult times of her life. Despite her struggles, Dr. Joyce went on to attend college at age 17. She also fell in love and found herself pregnant with her first daughter during her freshman year of college. “It was a difficult time. I was about 18 and I had to catch the bus 45 miles from Rochester to attend school. I was nine months pregnant, 45 miles outside of town and far away from the nearest hospital. My partner would walk me to the Trailways bus stop in the early morning darkness. There was a wonderful older, white, male bus driver who would make sure I got off at the right stop before I fell asleep. I fell asleep a lot. If it wasn’t the right bus driver I sometimes would wake up in the next town past Geneseo!” Determined to continue with her education, Dr. Joyce was in labor while attending classes, gave birth to her daughter the next day, and went back to school six weeks after giving birth to her little girl. Her professors exempted her from all her final exams because they were so impressed with her tenacity.
“Most of the time Dr. Joyce’s partner would stay home and babysit so that she could attend school and work at her internship with the idea that he would attend school when she had finished her degree. At times the family was so poor that hot sauce sandwiches were considered a good meal.”
By her last year as an undergraduate school, Dr. Joyce was working full-time, attending school full-time, and bringing her daughter with her to classes a lot of times because she and her partner could not afford a babysitter. Most of the time Dr. Joyce’s partner would stay home and babysit so that she could attend school and work at her internship with the idea that he would attend school when she had finished her degree. At times the family was so poor that hot sauce sandwiches were considered a good meal. Having no previous experience with the welfare system, Dr. Joyce was appalled by what she encountered when she tried to get help. “The people at the child welfare department said they’d help me if I would quit going to a four-year college and attend a two-year college or trade school. I had to give up my dreams to get help. I asked, ‘What are you afraid of, that I’ll come back and take your job?’ I always dressed nicely and presented myself well. When I finally got them to give us Medicaid and food stamps, I would enter the building as if I worked there in order to meet with my caseworker. I didn’t ‘look’ or dress the part of a person in need of social services. My college advisor at SUNY Geneseo would say, ‘Well, you don’t look poor.’ What does that mean? I didn’t dress the part and so I wasn’t in need of assistance?”
Pressing on, Dr. Joyce wound up graduating at the age of 20 and became an elementary school teacher. From there, she had a second child, another little girl. But she and her mate weren’t working out. Dr. Joyce was determined to move forward and things just weren’t happening for them. They split up. While teaching elementary school was fun, it wasn’t all that Dr. Joyce wanted to do in life. Returning to school she decided to obtain a master’s degree in counseling. She also remarried, this time to an abusive man (although she did not know it initially) and had a third daughter. Shortly afterwards, her mother died unexpectedly. Dr. Joyce was once more attending school full-time and working full-time. She was working on two specialist degrees and had a part-time counseling practice. All the while her husband was becoming increasingly more abusive and using drugs. She completed an externship in marriage and family therapy and entered a full-time doctoral program at the University of Rochester.
“There were moments when I thought I couldn’t keep going. I felt like, this is just too much for me. But, when I looked around I realized I couldn’t give up, I couldn’t quit. You hear people saying, ‘my back is against the wall’ but I don’t believe that to be true. If that were to happen that would mean the wall was holding me up. But, no, God was holding me up. I was going to school full-time, working full-time, I had a part-time psychotherapy practice, a graduate assistantship, I was rearing three children, and I had a piece of a husband. When the people rallying behind me thought I couldn’t get through, when I thought I couldn’t get through, I kept my eye on the prize and I graduated. When I received my doctorate degree, my professor, Dr. H. Jayne Vogan gave me a pair of gold earrings that had been passed down from woman to woman in her family. I was so honored and proud.”
By the time she had earned her doctorate degree, Dr. Joyce had moved up the ranks in the school system where she worked to move from being an elementary teacher to becoming dean of students. In 1988, she suffered a permanent neck and back injury while breaking up a fight between two high school students.
“There was a cover-up with my injury in the school system. I had a legal battle on my hands. I sued the system and I fought Workers’ Compensation for 14 years.” Although her goal was to become superintendent of schools, it seemed like fate had a different plan for Dr. Joyce. Not knowing what direction to take, she moved to Atlanta on a whim when her eldest daughter began attending Spelman College. At the time, her younger two children were still in high school and elementary school and Dr. Joyce divorced her abusive partner. “It was difficult. But, in the meantime, I had come to discover that people were coming to me for advice! People would actually pay me to talk about my story and what keeps me going. They wanted me to help them. God wanted me to go to the masses.”
Dr. Joyce soon started traveling and doing speaking engagements. An audience member asked her to be on a radio show and when she went back to the station to get a copy of the tape a few weeks later the station manager stopped her. “He said, ‘I heard your story; you need to be on the radio. You need to have your own show.” So, without any formal speaking or radio training, Dr. Joyce was given her first radio call-in talk show, “The Dr. Joyce Show” on WGUN 1060 AM in Atlanta.
“Men would travel with their tractors and trailers and stop at phone booths to call in. People were constantly calling in and saying things like, ‘you need to be where more people can hear you; you need to be bigger!’” Dr. Joyce’s radio career had begun. Shortly thereafter she was given an opportunity to co-host a show called “Love and Relationships”. She is affectionately called “The Love Doctor”, the “love guru” or “the doctor of hope.” Dr. Joyce’s advice was a hit and she began contributing work to magazines and newspapers, as well as consulting as an expert for news shows when they discussed family, relationship, educational, domestic violence and the like. “The radio became a real forum, a real mouthpiece for me. I always have something to say!”
By the early 21st century Dr. Joyce was speaking on radio and TV programs all over the country. Then, tragedy hit yet again when her son-in-law took his life. “My son-in-law committed suicide three days before my granddaughter’s sixth birthday. I became the panacea for holding everybody together. It was very difficult for all of us, but we persevered again. Standing up against all odds, we had to move forward. My mother used to get up at five in the morning to pray. That was the way we were brought up. I was always encouraged by what she taught us: if you have faith you can do anything but fail. She used to have a saying ‘God sees through the tunnel of time.’ I didn’t understand what that meant when I was younger. But, now I know. God already knows what’s going to happen later for you. That’s been a real mainstay for me as I moved forward.”
Through all her experiences, Dr. Joyce came to find that writing and speaking serve as both releases and validations for her. When she looks back at how she has navigated all the trying times in life, she understands that God gave her the wherewithal to persevere and survive. “I believe we are all put here for a purpose. Mine most certainly is leading and motivating people. I have to practice what I’m teaching other people, so if I’m teaching other people they can go on I have to be able to go on too. In the midst of all that was going on, just believing and praying was so important. In the African American community we talk about generational curses. I don’t believe in generational curses. I think the curse is when you decide to practice or continue the same behaviors and actions that hurt the generation before. So, what I decided to do was to not continue these practices, not continue these family secrets as I call them.”
“Looking back at her vitae, [Dr. Joyce] is sometimes shocked to see that it is 14 pages long! Not only that, it is also full of firsts—she was the first African- American to earn a doctorate degree in her field at the University of Rochester, the first African-American president of the Atlanta Branch of the American Association of University Women …”
With her eyes on the prize and the knowledge that she has a true purpose in life, Dr. Joyce has managed to not just survive but succeed as an African American woman and role model. Looking back at her vitae, she is sometimes shocked to see that it is 14 pages long! Not only that, it is also full of firsts—she was the first African- American to earn a doctorate degree in her field at the University of Rochester, the first African-American president of the Atlanta Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the first African American president of the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, among other things. Beyond all those labels, Dr. Joyce believes she is just who God intended her to be and nothing more.
“I believe that whatever we speak, it can come true. I say to people when I speak is that the degrees I’ve earned don’t make me. Doctor is not who I’m defined by. No matter what I did in life, I would still be one of those people wanting to guide others and lift people up. I don’t know what it is. I just have a way of saying things that motivate people. God gives me ideas, and ways to help people. There are people out there who are being directed and guided by me. What God gives me helps me to help even more people.”
Dr. Joyce believes that there is no such thing as setbacks; only something she calls “set-asides.” To her, setbacks mean that you lost your way; you fell behind and have to work harder to get back on track. A set-aside means that you just got out of the way of whatever was going on and you can step back in place and move forward. Dr. Joyce laughs gently when recalling a recent experience she had with one her daughters. While thumbing through one of Dr. Joyce’s old yearbooks her daughter called out some of the comments people had written to her way back when. The yearbook was full of things like, “See you in Hollywood!” or “You’ll be a great marriage and family therapist!” and “I really enjoyed your poetry.” Recalling how she had once wanted to go to California and become an actress, she realized while on stage during her national speaking tour last year how all these things people knew about her from an early age have come together to give her the wonderful life she was destined to live, despite any of the set-asides she’s endured along the way.
In addition to being a relationship expert, Dr. Joyce Morley Ball is also an author and poet and is next looking to host her own TV and radio show. Learn more at http://www.doctorjoyce.com/Pages/DJHome.htm
Thank you Dr. Joyce, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris and Story of My Life®