Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
When speaker, poet, and advocate, Russell Lehmann, was 12 years old, he spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital, plagued with troubling symptoms like crippling anxiety and such sensitivity to sounds that he was nearly nonverbal. Even after his prolonged hospital stay, doctors remained puzzled and he was discharged without a diagnosis.
Later that year however, he was diagnosed with autism, a life-long neurodevelopmental disorder that affects a person’s social skills, communication, and behavior.
Living with autism rattles your social and emotional world and Lehmann has spent much of his adult life learning how to navigate these challenges.
“People living with autism often struggle with anxiety and depression. For me, they’re intertwined. Some days, it’s difficult to get out of bed,” says Lehmann.
He also struggles with OCD and severe depression. “In 2012, I didn’t shower, leave my bedroom, or change my clothes for 56 straight days. After those 56 straight days, I took one step outside of my bedroom, and I went back inside,” he tells Healthline. But by the end of the week, he made it to the end of the hall, and has continued to persevere.
Instead of letting his disorder control him, Lehmann uses his creativity to cope with these emotional difficulties. In 2011, he wrote his first book, “Inside Out: Stories and Poems from an Autistic Mind,” which won a literary award at the 2013 International Autistic People’s Awards in Vancouver, Canada.
“I’m a very philosophical person. When I met all of these struggles, I found it my moral obligation to live the life I want to live and not to let my disability control my actions,” he says.
My mom has always had my back. She fought for me when I was too weak to fight for myself.
Despite his optimistic outlook, living with autism can be a lonely world. In fact, for the first 22 years of Lehmann’s life, he felt utterly alone. “I can’t tell you how agonizing it was,” he says.
But two years ago, Lehmann pushed through his loneliness and gave his first speech. “I was a social recluse. I just wanted to be known and to let others know that it’s okay to let your feelings show,” he says.
Now, through his speeches, poetry, and writing, Lehmann turns his struggles into wisdom, spreading hope to those facing similar challenges. While public speaking is a newer endeavor, he began writing poetry in high school. “In high school, I wrote a poem about a hurricane. It was one of the first times when I felt proud of something I did,” he says.
For Lehmann, poetry is a form of therapy that allows him to write down his feelings and visually process them by reading his words. “When I read a poem out loud, it adds a third dimension, allowing me to dissect and process my emotions. It reminds me that vulnerability can make us stronger,” he explains.
Lehmann is sharing his prose with you in a new poem about perseverance and how pushing through difficult times can make us stronger. You can also see Russell read the poem in the video below:
- You wake up, wishing to stay in bed
- Your head is clouded, you dread the day ahead
- Yet you still shed the bedspread, all the while wanting to be dead
- You get up! You fight! You focus on life instead
- You move throughout each and every day
- With a hardened look of apathy
- Passersby not able to see
- You’re on the precipice of self-catastrophe
- It hurts to be misunderstood, on top of barely surviving
- You’re taken at face-value, instead of the price your heart brings
- Yet you somehow cast that all aside, in order to simply do the right thing
- The epitome of a broken soul, housing a fire that is ever igniting
- You let the world know, that it’s okay to let the pain show
- To fail, to cry, to be in woe; Plant the seeds that in turn proceed to grow
- A fervid force within you, that you would never know
- Has the power to bring this world together; Bonding in sorrow for a better tomorrow
Encouraging parents to be the rock his mother was for him
While creativity and expressive arts help Lehmann heal, the 27 year old still faces social and psychological obstacles.
“Last week I felt very anxious. My heart was racing, and I couldn’t open my computer to look at my emails,” he says. But instead of playing tug-of-war with his depression and anxiety, Lehmann tries to coexist with his emotions, especially when he can’t overcome them.
“We tend to judge our feelings by saying, ‘Why am I thinking this?’ but I try to accept them,” he says.
Lehmann also relies on the support of his loving mother. “My mom has always had my back. We have an honest relationship, and she fought for me when I was too weak to fight for myself,” he says.
It’s his mother’s unending love and support that’s given him the courage to advocate for himself, as well as for others who are living with autism.
And Lehmann’s words inspire parents, too.
“Parents often ask me if they’re on the right track and I say belief is contagious. If they believe in their kid, their kid will believe in themselves.” He also reminds parents that if they “do it out of love, they can never go wrong.”
Lehmann says that when their autistic child is having a meltdown, parents often want to “fix, fix, fix.” However, during those times, Lehmann was most comforted by having his mother by his side.
“Really simple things mean a lot to kids who are on the spectrum,” he says.
Russell Lehmann is an award-winning and internationally recognized motivational speaker, poet, author, and advocate who happens to have autism. Russell sits on multiple councils and boards and he currently travels the country spreading hope and inspiration. His passion is to be a voice for the unheard, for he knows how difficult and frustrating it is to go unnoticed. Visit Russell at www.TheAutisticPoet.com, or on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco, California. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.