Lessons in resilience: A comedian shares her story

October 29, 2020 Allison Milionis

[4 MIN READ]

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” This proverbial phrase has been a standard for encouraging optimism and resilience since it was first penned in an obituary in 1915 (according to Wikipedia). It’s an easy phrase to recite when you hit a snag in your day, like a broken water pipe or fender bender. But it can be difficult to apply to life’s more complex hardships.

This year it feels like it’s raining lemons. We’ve been handed challenges we couldn’t have ever imagined. And with so much uncertainty, it can be especially difficult to summon hope and inner strength to push through these hard times.

Debbie Wooten-Williams will tell you she doesn’t know how to do anything else but push on. An award-winning comedian, actor and international motivational speaker, Debbie faced more challenges during her childhood in the 1950s and ‘60s, than most people experience in a lifetime. She agrees this pandemic is the source of a lot of suffering and pain, but her life experiences and unflappable attitude have established a foundation for her to stand on, and from there she can see the light ahead.

This year it feels like it’s raining lemons. We’ve been handed challenges we couldn’t have ever imagined. And with so much uncertainty, it can be especially difficult to summon hope and inner strength to push through these hard times.

We spoke with Debbie about her life, how she has dealt with the three P’s (polio, poverty, prejudice), and the role well-placed humor has played in helping her express herself, connect to others and laugh at herself as she navigates the challenges of getting older.  

Q:  When you were a baby you contracted polio. Can you tell us about that experience?

I was born in 1956, on the tail end of the polio epidemic. The serum had been available since ’49, but it was 1955/56 before it trickled down to poor Black communities. Babies had to be six months old to get the serum, and I was five months old when I contracted polio on the south side of Chicago.

My mother was a nurse in a hospital and when she got home she would shower before she touched me because she was so scared of giving me the virus. It was highly contagious – it could float in the air and live in water, too.

When my mother saw the signs, she knew I had polio. They put me in an iron lung right away to help me breathe. I was only a baby and I remember being in a tube. It was hot, and I couldn’t move my body. There was a mirror over me (in the hospital bed) and I remember just screaming. That’s how much I was traumatized.

Q: You were crippled by the disease. How did that affect your childhood?

When I was old enough to go to school, my mother took me to the neighborhood school and they said, “We don’t take crippled kids. She can’t go to school here.” But they had so many Black kids with polio, they built four institutions for all of us. So, I never went to a “regular” school. 

There was no group where I fit in – until I realized I had a gift from God. That was the gift of humor. I was able to bring humor to my conversations and people started to put down their guard, and stopped judging me.

In my neighborhood, I was teased because I was crippled, and because I was a chubby girl. Around white kids I was crippled, chubby and Black. There was no group where I fit in – until I realized I had a gift from God. That was the gift of humor. Everybody likes to feel good and laugh. I was able to bring humor to my conversations and people started to put down their guard, and stopped judging me. They’d say, ‘Debbie sure is fun to talk to.’ That helped me get through a lot.  

Q: How did racism affect you as a young girl?

When I was seven, I came home from school and was watching TV with my mother. On the news they showed a race riot in the South with Black people held against walls. My mother got really, really upset about it. I looked at her and realized I’d never noticed she had a skin color. I told her ‘I feel so sorry for you Black people.’ She told me that I was Black, too, and I was shocked. I said I was “polio,” not Black. I asked her what we did to all the white people to make them mad, because they were nice to me at school.

But at our school, it wasn’t about skin color. It was about your inner person. We all had braces, crutches, wheelchairs – that’s what was happening in our school. So that’s what helped me start seeing people from the inside. I knew I needed to nurture that in my life.

Q: In what ways did your mother and others contribute to your resilient spirit and independence?

My mother loved me but she had six kids after me and I became their mother, and hers when she became intoxicated. I’d be lying in bed with casts on and she’d come in to check on me. If my legs hurt but my arms didn’t she’d put a baby on my lap to change, or give me clothes to fold. Polio was not in the equation. My mother was tough and it was all for a reason.

All of us have life-changing power to help others – just by the example we set.

Also, in elementary school, I had a friend whose mother came to everything. She had polio, just like my friend, but she drove a car, she was always dressed really pretty and her hair was always done up. What she showed me is that I could take care of myself – that I could be happy in my life – all the things alcohol stole from my mother. She showed me how I could live my life. She helped me break a three-generation curse (of alcoholism), just by the way she carried herself. I saw that all of us have life-changing power to help others – just by the example we set.

Q: How did your childhood experiences and trauma inform the way you raised your children?

I moved my kids to Tacoma, WA, to get away from a domestic violence situation. I didn’t drink, but I just tried to do things that wouldn’t carry the pain to the next generation.

I have 17 grandkids now, and they have such engaged fathers. All of my boys are married – engaged husbands and fathers. And I’m so proud of them. I was able to let them have a normal childhood, be normal teenagers. I kept them busy with meaningful activities.

And the girls – you know if they don’t see you taking caring of yourself, it affects how they take care of themselves. I was their example.

Q: How are you using your voice to encourage others, as a part of the social justice movement, or in other ways?

I’m an advocate for transit riders with disabilities. Because I’m high risk for COVID-19, I'm confined, so I'm not able to get out and be part of the protests. But I think the Black Lives Matter movement was part of my life way before it became a “thing.” My Black life matters, even though I was crippled, even though I was poor, even though I was a chubby girl. My life matters and you're not going put me in a little box. See society, they didn’t expect anything from somebody like me, they expected me to be a burden on the welfare system. They put me in that tiny little box so I turned myself into a human box cover and cut myself out of every box that society wanted to put me in. I tell everybody, ‘try to be a box cutter,’ don’t let people tell you what you can’t do, even if you have a disability. You’re worth something and there’s something you’re supposed to be doing. And love yourself.

See society, they didn’t expect anything from somebody like me, they expected me to be a burden on the welfare system. They put me in that tiny little box so I turned myself into a human box cover and cut myself out of every box that society wanted to put me in.

See, I’m not a victim, I’m a victor and a cheerleader to others. I want to see more people have victories, to get to the other side and say ‘look what I can do.’ And then raise that inner voice and know that you’re worth speaking up for yourself. You’re worth it.

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About the Author

Allison is a passionate writer who brings a depth of knowledge of healthcare. She is committed to finding ways to add value through clinical and lifestyle insights to our patients and readers.

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