Vanessa Harris of #fun4thedisabled interviews comedian and former teacher Cherise Johnson. They talk about invisible disabilities, mental health, and the importance of educating the public on issues related to disability.
[Visual description: Video opens with fun4thedisabled logo as instrumental music begins. Vanessa Harris and Cherise Johnson are sitting together at a desk. As they have their conversation, supplemental images occasionally appear on screen.]
Vanessa Harris: Hi! This is Vanessa Harris, founder of Strategy for Access. I am here today with Cherise Johnson. Hi, Cherise.
Cherise Johnson: Hi! Hello, thank you for having me.
Vanessa: I’m glad to see you here.
Cherise: Thank you!
Vanessa: How are you?
Cherise: I’m good! I’m good. I’m trying to stay warm.
Vanessa: Good, good. It’s cold today!
Cherise: It’s very cold.
Vanessa: Good. Well, Cherise and I are going to have a conversation today about her life. Cherise, you’ve done some cool things in your life and are continuing to do so. You were a STEM high school teacher.
Cherise: I was.
Vanessa: Can you tell me about that?
Cherise: Yeah, so teaching was a really big part of my life for a while. I actually went to school here in Chicago. I went to Rosevelt University and I actually started off as an Actuarial Science major.
Vanessa: Oh, really?
Cherise: Yes! And it didn’t go well, so I just changed my major to math and minored in psychology. And after I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next but I knew I wasn’t quite ready to go into the workforce. So I went back to school and got my master’s degree in Education. And of course, naturally, the thing to do is teach!
Cherise: So, I ended up teaching in Ohio for 4 years. I taught high school math. And I always taught in low income schools. So, these are schools that over 50% of their students receive reduced or free lunches or some kind of assistance in school.
Cherise: Which was fine, there’s nothing different about these students than any other student. But it does get labeled as “challenging” often times. But I taught in Ohio for 4 years and the first couple years were really hard. All of the years are really hard – all of the 6 years of teaching were really hard. So, one particular moment in teaching really stands out for me, every time I think about my teaching experience, was my second year of teaching. And I had a student, let’s say his name was Phil. He was always tricky to work with, I would say.
Cherise: He would be labeled one of those “at risk” students, which in my opinion is an inappropriate term for a student who just needs more support. But he was definitely a student who needed more support. Often times in class, he would have his head down, he would sleep through the majority of my class. And as a teacher, it’s your responsibility to make sure that students are awake, that they’re listening, that they’re engaging.
Vanessa: Yeah, right.
Cherise: Sometimes there’s only so much you can do if you have a classroom of 32 students. You can’t devote your entire time to one student because at some point you have to teach the other 31 students what’s going on in class. So it was always tricky balancing how much time do I give to this student, who clearly needed my support but also was taking a lot of my time away from the students who also needed me. So, one instance, this student Phil, he always sat in the back and his head was down. So today I was like, you know what, I can’t – it must’ve been the day before a test or something and I can’t devote all this time to him. And so I let him sleep in the black for probably about 5-10 minutes. And then after those 5-10 minutes, I was like ok, he should wake up.
Cherise: You know, he’s missed 5-10 minutes of class so it’s time to get up. And I went to go wake him up and I just like shook his chair and he didn’t respond. And I thought, also, he was like a funny kid so I thought he was messing with me. It was just like he’s messing with me, he’s messing with me. So, I tried waking him up again and still no reaction. So, at this point, I’m trying to pull his chair. Like physically pull him out away from his desk and he’s not resisting at all. At that moment, one of the guidance counselors walks by. I kinda flagged him down and I said “hey, Phil here won’t wake up.” And he had a relationship with this student as well because he knew that he needed extra support.
Cherise: And he looked at me and he looked at the student and said that he’s having a grand mal seizure.
Vanessa: Oh my goodness!
Cherise: I know! So, that was a lot to deal with. In the end, that student ended up being fine. Obviously we called the police and we called the ambulance to come and get him. They ended up taking him to the hospital and he was out for probably the next couple months before he returned to school. For me, it was really difficult because I felt like I was at fault in that situation because I didn’t give enough attention to that student. But it’s definitely something I struggled with even after that year of teaching, to realize what is my role as a teacher and how do I impact the lives that I deal with on a daily basis.
Cherise: So, it’s been um, obviously I left the classroom because I don’t teach anymore. I wouldn’t say that particular reason was the reason I left teaching but I definitely think we don’t give enough credit to teachers and support staff for the work they have to do every single day because I honestly, I can’t imagine, I can’t imagine my life again going back into the classroom and having to deal with that stress.
Vanessa: Yeah, that must’ve been really stressful.
Cherise: Yeah, it really was.
Vanessa: Do you think teachers need more training about how to notice signs of a medical emergency?
Cherise: I think yes and no. So I was thinking about this, and I want to respect the fact that teachers are some of the hardest working individuals in this world. Hands down, it’s one of the hardest jobs. And so to say let’s add more things to their plate, for me, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable. But I also think it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt to just be aware. I wish I had known the signs that something was wrong. Sometimes your gut tells you the right thing and sometimes you need to actually have knowledge whether this is wrong or right or these signs don’t add up. So, I think on one hand it can’t hurt to equip teachers with more skills to at least notice the signs. But I certainly wouldn’t ask a teacher to be an expert on it. Because I still think what we need are more nurses and more support staff in schools.
Vanessa: Yeah! And that’s what at least the Chicago Public School system are asking for this year.
Cherise: Yeah, that is something they were definitely advocating for this year.
Vanessa: Now I can see why.
Vanessa: Yeah. Do you think teachers need more training on how to counsel troubled students, since in today’s times kids have bigger issues?
Cherise: Yeah. I would say the same thing – it’s a hard line to balance between what’s the responsibility of the teacher, what’s the responsibility of the adult, of their parent or guardian and what’s the responsibility of other staff in the building. So I would say it definitely doesn’t hurt to give teachers more access to tools that will help them support students who are dealing with issues outside of the classroom. But again, I think it’s another thing to advocate for more support staff, more counselors in schools, more psychologists in schools to help students who need that support.
Vanessa: Yeah, absolutely. How do you feel kids can help their peers since they are more likely to open up to their peers than they are to an adult.
Cherise: Yeah, I think kids are actually surprisingly really good at, I would say, advocating for themselves or advocating for others. In my experience, kids are usually the ones to tell other students, to say “hey, you should talk to this person” or “hey, I also feel this way,” “if you’re feeling anxious, I’m also feeling anxious.” Usually students can be some of the most supportive people in a child’s life. Often times what the barrier is are adults and other teachers and staff who might say things like “oh, this is nothing to worry about” or “you’ll get by this” or something like that. Instead of acknowledging, I think often times we think that kids are just kids and don’t understand adult topics or things that are stressful when, in reality, I think we just need to pay attention to kids more often. Listen to what they’re saying and give them the time and space to feel because they can feel too. They have feelings and they can think through problems. And generally, kids usually have a good gut reaction to things and have a good heart.
Vanessa: Yeah. Ok, great! Ok, let’s segue on to another topic.
Cherise: Ok, ok.
Vanessa: Cherise, you have some invisible disabilities. Would you like to talk about your problems related to your women’s physical disabilities?
Cherise: Yeah! So, I got diagnosed with PCOS, which is polycystic ovary syndrome, and essentially what that means is a lot of things that I think, people might think are easy to do are actually pretty hard for me that I deal with every single day. So, to go back in time, when I first had my period, I was actually really young. I was actually in third grade.
Vanessa: Really?! Third grade?!
Cherise: Yeah, I was in third grade and that should’ve been a trigger right there to be like oh, something is maybe not exactly right or not 100% normal because I had my period so early. But I had it in third grade and up until maybe high school, it was mostly fine. Then I started getting really, really heavy periods. And my mom, bless her heart, wanted to help me but decided that the best option for me at the time was to be put on birth control. I think it was a two-fold kind of thing. She felt at ease that I was on birth control in case I was sexually active and also it did help with the periods at the time.
Cherise: Yeah, it helps but unfortunately, what it does is it kind of just masks the symptoms. So, birth control is used for a lot of things – for people who have heavy periods, who have painful periods, who have acne, who have other women’s health issues. And it’s kind of like putting a band-aid over a scar or over a cut. You need to clean the cut, you need to rinse it out, sterilize it and then put a band-aid on it. But the band-aid itself isn’t going to actually heal the wound. You need to do other things to actually heal it.
Vanessa: And it didn’t happen.
Cherise: And it didn’t happen and it didn’t happen. And I didn’t release it needed more than that until I had started teaching. When I moved here after I left Ohio, I went for a routine check up with my gynecologist and she told me that I had fibroids. I have been a person who has been seeing a gynecologist for way over a decade at this point and it was surprising to me that I didn’t find out until two and a half years ago, from today, basically, that I had fibroids. Mostly because it’s something that women don’t talk about really, especially women of color. My own mother also had fibroids and polyps and kind of mentioned it but kind of just like tossed it to the side.
Cherise: Yeah, she was kind of like well it is what it is. She ended up having a hysterectomy when she was in her 30’s and kind of just left it at that. Which, I knew she had the surgery. I guess in hindsight for me, I would have probably benefited from a conversation about, like, this runs in our family and the history of it, and just the actual steps that she took. We didn’t really have this conversation until I found out I had fibroids. It was “oh I also had fibroids and I also had to do this and that,” and it would have been nice to know ahead of time so I could prepare myself. Where it’s like she kind of downplayed how serious it was because my doctor pretty much gave me a decision of you’ll need to know within the next 3-4 years whether or not you’re going to have kids because there’s not really a cure for PCOS or for fibroids. So, what eventually will have to happen is I will eventually have to have a hysterectomy because there’s not a way to manage the fibroids, they just keep growing. So we can try different techniques that might slow the growth of the fibroids but essentially, they will always be with me. I will almost always have painful periods. I can do certain things to midify the symptoms of it but otherwise, it’s something I’m going to live with for the rest of my life. So, I did end up having a surgery. I didn’t have a hysterectomy but I did have some of the actual fibroids removed.
Cherise: Ten days before my wedding, yes.
Vanessa: Oh my goodness! Ten days before your wedding?!
Cherise: So that happened. But it was necessary, also, because the school I was working at the time wouldn’t let me take off the days I needed to during the school year to get it done.
Vanessa: Uh huh.
Cherise: I wouldn’t they “wouldn’t let me” but it was definitely a conversation I had with some staff that I worked with and where it was “frowned upon.”
Vanessa: But that’s not elective surgery!
Cherise: I know! No, it’s definitely not elective surgery. Well, the reasoning was that I could find time to do it outside of the school year. I mostly didn’t want to because of the wedding and I knew I was leaving that job so I wanted to use my insurance benefits during that time. So I ended up, I did find time to have the surgery 10 days before my wedding. And now it’s just kind of managing it and it’s mostly fine now. I don’t take birth control anymore so I’m not masking any of those symptoms. But it’s been really informative to me to understand my body and what actually works and taking vitamins. Exercising has really helped kind of maintain the balance. Also, I’ve been having more conversations with my mother about our history and women’s health. I know it’s something that I’m thinking about in the future, if I have kids, of making sure I have that conversation with my kids. Because I think it’s so important to know as soon as you hit puberty of like ok, here’s our family history and here’s what you’re in store for. Just so they have the knowledge. Whatever they do with that knowledge, they can do what they want with it but so they have the knowledge.
Vanessa: Yeah, yeah. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome seems to be a growing issue amongst women. Is there too much pressure to have kids by the time you’re a certain age?
Cherise: I do think it’s definitely that. I went home recently for the holidays and of course that was a question that my grandmother asked me. I think it’s so funny because it just seems, depending on what type of family you come from, I come from like a very traditional black family, and the expectation is that you’re married so now you should have kids. Where are the kids? But it’s funny because my mom and my grandmother both know about my own struggles with women’s health and fully support me in those issues. But still ask me who’s going to get pregnant. For me, it’s a very difficult process to plan a pregnancy because every 6 months I have to go and have an ultrasound to see if the fibroids are growing and what the ovaries look like. Because, obviously Polycystic Ovary Syndrome affects what the ovaries look like and what my periods look like. So, every 6 months I have to go to this extensive examination just to see where I’m at. I pretty much have a 3 month window after the examination to decide if I’m going to get pregnant or not. Because then I have to do it again. If I have to have a surgery, the surgery then limits the amount of time I have. If I have the surgery, for example I had the surgery in July before my wedding, and so then we could not try to have kids for three months. And that’s it. I kind of have to plan if I want kids or not around my own health. So I do think there’s an increased pressure on women to have children. Even though more and more information comes out about women’s health and the struggles that women have dealing with fertility.
Vanessa: Yeah, yeah. This also seems to cause stereotypes about women who have not had kids by a certain age. Have you experienced this?
Cherise: Yes. It’s very interesting, too, because even before I found out I had fibroids and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, I knew I wanted to go to grad school and I knew that was going to take precedent before anything else. I knew I was going to get my masters degree and at the time I was thinking I would go even further than that. So I knew all of that was going to happen before I got married and had kids. A hundred percent.
Cherise: So, it’s definitely something I experience. It’s again, a weird thing of I think it’s the same people who push you to – yeah, you don’t need a man, you don’t need to get married, you should definitely work on yourself and then in the same breath will say do you want to have kids? You’re getting close to 30 are you going to have kids yet? Are you thinking about how old you’ll be when your kids are in college. And no, I’m not thinking about that. I mean I’m thinking about it in a sense of what’s appropriate for myself and for my husband. But I’m not thinking about it in terms of I want to make sure my kids feel they can be included with everyone else whose parents are also 24 years older than them because they had them when they were 24-25. I’m not worried about that so much as just when is it the best time for myself and for my husband to have kids. And are we ready? Are we ready to make that commitment? Because it’s really something I want but it’s something I don’t want to take lightly.
Vanessa: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, that’s a pretty heavy topic.
Vanessa: A lot of women don’t have to deal with that.
Vanessa: That’s definitely a disability.
Vanessa: Cherise, you have another invisible disability, within the mental health spectrum. Can you talk about your experience with depression and anxiety?
Cherise: Yeah. This is also related – I think all these stories are kind of related to each other. I didn’t find out I had fibroids until my last year of teaching. And then I also found out, in my last year of teaching, that I got diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And it was strange. It wasn’t – I don’t know how to phrase this. It was something that I knew maybe felt off. I knew something was not right. But I couldn’t put my finger on it, per se. So, in the last 6 months of me teaching, I was planning a wedding, I knew I was going to leave a classroom because I wanted to look for something more, so I was looking for other jobs and I found out that I had fibroids, so I was dealing with that. I was dealing with a lot of stress but it was to the point where I couldn’t function. I couldn’t do the things, even things that made me happy, if that makes sense. So, at a certain point I maybe need to see somebody because my eating was off, my sleep was off. Things that often brought me joy didn’t bring me joy anymore. I asked my primary care physician if I could get a referral for a therapist and it was through a lot of conversations with my therapist that I uncovered a lot of things that I was struggling with. Things that are more salient for me is that anxiety has been a part of my life for a really long time. But again, I’ve been masking it or pretending it wasn’t as bad as it obviously is. So, for example, teaching, I would never be able to plan, unfortunately. So I was never a well planned teacher. Some teachers will plan lesson plans for months at a time and they know exactly what they’re going to do a week from now, two weeks from now. And I could never do it because it caused so much anxiety for me to be able to plan lessons that far in advance. So I would kind of just wing it every day. I would go into the classroom – I would have a general idea of what I wanted to do but I would just wing it when I got in. So I didn’t realize that was an issue but then it became a very clear issue. It’s like ok, this is – the fact that I couldn’t sit down and plan anything because it would cause so much anxiety. And I couldn’t label that feeling was like, I felt sick or felt distracted, or what have you. So it was nice to finally talk to someone about having anxiety. And now I use it in a lot of performances that I do. I talk about it in my standup and my storytelling, in a way that also doesn’t, I think sometimes there’s stereotypes around people with anxiety, which is unfortunate, but I think, I acknowledge it every single day of my life that I live with it and I think I’m better for it knowing that I have anxiety and depression and that I’m still going through life every day.
Vanessa: Ok. Well, that brings up a question. Since you are in the public eye as a comedienne, and you were also in the public eye as a teacher, how can we educate the public – both the kids and the adults – about depression and anxiety?
Cherise: I think it’s really important to just talk about it. I think, for example, no one in my family talks about mental illness. I don’t think that mental illness is not a part of my family, I just think we don’t acknowledge it, we don’t talk about it. I think that it’s pretty typical for black families in America to not talk about mental illness. I think just having the conversation can work wonders. I think to just say, “hey, I see a therapist and it’s great.” I think that will really help.
Vanessa: Ok alright. Well, Cherise, we talked about some serious topics today. But you are a comedienne who deals with these issues —
Cherise: I do.
Vanessa: And more in your standup performances.
Cherise: I do, yes.
Vanessa: Yes. You will be performing soon in a comedy club here in Chicago. The cost is reasonable, I checked, and the club is wheelchair accessible.
Cherise: It is.
Vanessa: I can’t wait!
Vanessa: So, to find out where Cherise will be appearing, check out our events calendar at fun4thedisabled.com/events. If you want more information, come to our website at fun4thedisabled.com and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is @FUN4THEDISABLED. Thank you so much Cherise Johnson, comedienne, for appearing on our show today. We really appreciate your stopping by.
Cherise: Thank you so much for having me.
Vanessa: Thank you! This is Vanessa Harris, founder of Strategy for Access. We have a lot more exciting shows coming up and great guests. Stay tuned! Bye bye.
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