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 Name: Debra Joy, M.Ed., CAGS, LMHC

Business: Joy Counseling and Family Mediation, a provider of emergency crisis therapy

Type of Business: Other — Counseling

Business Location: Newburyport, Massachusetts, U.S.

Reason for starting: I have been performing psychological evaluations in local emergency rooms for the past 13 years, and I saw a need for emergency crisis therapy. Many women came to the ER with a crisis and could not get follow-up therapy; the wait list for therapy in our area was 2 months long. I offer short-term crisis counseling for victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse issues. I promise to see the patient within 72 hours of their first phone call to me. I work the overnight shift in the ER, so I am available in my office for appointments in the afternoons and early evenings.

My journey has had many stages. As a divorced parent looking for friend groups, I joined a local running club and started running marathons, which was a great stress reliever. After a few years, I had completed 11 marathons. I was working 70 hours (between graduate school, internships, and my career), and started to run less. In 2010, I found out I had breast cancer. I worked full time through my chemotherapy and radiation.  I am still taking anti-cancer medication, but I can run again. This is what motivated me to start my private practice, Joy Counseling. It is important to live your life to its fullest, because you never know how long it will last. In the past 2 years, I have written a book on being sober in midlife and started my private practice.

Related: How another female entrepreneur turned a cancer diagnosis into a business opportunity. 

How do you define success? I have found, as I approach midlife, that success is maintaining sobriety. I have been sober for over 23 years, and many of the clients I see in crisis have substance abuse issues. I did my predoctoral (CAGS) internship at a geriatric psychology inpatient unit, where I saw the effects of memory and dementia. What I learned is that substances that we abuse in our 20s and 30s affect our memory loss in our 60s and 70s. Doctors have found a way to keep our bodies alive past 90–but not our brains. Dementia and memory loss is closely related to what we put in our bodies. I have tried to spend my life exercising and promoting health in general. I have run 11 marathons, and hundreds of smaller races. In addition to being sober, I do not eat meat or dairy. Success is being a role model for how you want your clients to live. I am not perfect; I am only trying to live a sober life.  Success is  to simply keep trying.

Biggest Success: I recently published a  book, “Climbing towards a Sober Midlife.” The book looks at decisions we make in our 20s-and how those decisions affect us in midlife. I examined my multigenerational history of substance abuse issues, and my family’s migration from Finland. The women in my family were not allowed to attend school, and were forced to work as maids. I am a product of a college town (Amherst, Mass.), with my own 11-year long journey in education, and I helped many adults attend college over the course of my 20-year therapy practice.

What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it? Despite 30 years of therapy experience, I was not certified as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). I worked with child prostitutes in New York City, in the 80s; did child abuse investigations in Roxbury, MA, in the 90s; worked as a drug counselor for gang youth (YouthBuild), and volunteered at battered women’s shelters. I have worked in day programs for schizophrenics and now perform psych. evaluations in the emergency room. I had always gotten jobs based on my experience, and now I needed a license for insurance reasons. These day, therapists just coming out of college all get their LMHC license. So I had to get another degree before taking the LMHC exam. I got my CAGS (predoctorate) degree, which consisted of 4 internships, night classes-while working full time (and being a single, divorced parent of 2 boys). It took 4 years, but it was worth it.

Related: Retire? Who, me? Older Entrepreneurs on The Rise 

Who is your most important role model? I would say my mother. Her parents were verbally abusive alcoholics, but she raised 6 kids as a sober parent. Then, after we grew up, she went back to school in her 50s to get her doctorate in Spiritual Psychotherapy, which explored Eastern religions. She has a small practice now, and her specialty is helping women who come from alcoholic families. She is not used to crisis work, like what I do. We are very different in that sense. She sees the same clients for years; takes no insurance, and goes by a sliding fee; and often meditates with her clients. I am a lot more grounded, structured in my practice. But, I respect that she has overcome many obstacles, and that she has continued to grow in old age. When I was a child, she was a hairdresser/brownie scout cook/church school leader/ at home mother of 6. But she is always ‘evolving’; she is not the woman I knew when I was a child, and I respect that. We can all grow and change-especially with the mentality that it’s never too late to go back to school.


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