‘Running From Myself’: Reno Mental Health Advocate Struggles With Pandemic-Related Disruptions

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.

Bert Johnson / CapRadio

When you meet Russell Lehmann, the first thing you notice is that he looks like he just walked off the set of an action movie. He has built shoulders and chiseled biceps, because he spends hours throwing heavy weights around.

But it’s not just about his physique — working out keeps him alive.

“When I work out first thing in the morning and have a great workout, my social anxiety for the rest of the day is just gone,” he said. “Almost everything is gone: my body dysmorphia is gone, my OCD, my depression, my anxiety.”

That's why when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered gyms closed on March 17 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, it came as such a blow to Russell.

“My jaw just literally dropped when I saw that on my phone,” he said. “I was terrified.”

Russell carries a heavy emotional load. On top of those other conditions, he also has autism.

In spite of all that, he’s a motivational speaker, mental health advocate and spoken word poet. He travels around the world, appearing at conferences and spreading awareness of the harm caused by the stigma around mental illness.

Mental health advocate and poet Russell Lehmann posed for a portrait near his North Reno gym on June 15.   Bert Johnson / CapRadio

 

He’s also active online, connecting with others in the mental health community and self-publishing his poems. They’re a way for him to articulate the pain he feels — and the daily triumph of persisting anyway.

In a recent piece called “Simply Exist,” Russell summed up the toll his mental illness takes.

“I’m withered. I’m worn. A decrepit soul, to be precise.”

Russell has to be uncommonly strong just to get out of bed. On the really bad days, he can’t.

Over the course of this story, he made several voice recordings of himself to document his experience during the pandemic shutdown. He made one of those on a day when he wasn’t able to get exercise — which led to a depressive episode by the early afternoon.

“I’m not tired at all,” he said. “But I am in bed with my blinds closed, because I couldn’t stand to be awake. It was too painful.”

COVID-19 restrictions have been disruptive for the entire country. But for people like Russell, they’re more than just an inconvenience — they’re a threat. On top of interrupting his routine, which Russell says is especially difficult for people who have autism, the pandemic has the potential to exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Herbert Coard is a clinical psychologist at  Renown hospital in Reno. He says many of his patients are struggling with the new normal.

“One of the variables associated with depression is isolation. Well, we’ve certainly built that into this equation,” he said. “We’ve decreased the contacts that people have had and because of those decreased contacts that they’re having, their senses of depression are increasing.”

According to Coard, that’s putting people with mental illness at heightened risk.

“We have seen some increase in suicidal ideation,” he said.

Russell turned to running as an alternative to the gym. It wasn’t a panacea, but it helped. On another of the recordings he made — this one during an 11-mile run — he described the fear that drove him to keep going.

“I know that when I get home and I stop being active, the gates are going to open and all my mental demons are going to be rushing back in,” he said. “I just wish I could just keep running forever. Run away, really. But I’m running from myself.”

Russell’s devotion to fitness is a well-recognized strategy for managing mental illness. According to Coard, exercise can be an effective treatment for chronic depression in particular.

“One of the best protectors for depression is physical activity,” he said. “We call it behavioral activation, people doing things. Because if you do things, then guess what happens? You feel good about it.”

Russell Lehmann works out at the gym. He depends on regular exercise to help him manage the symptoms of chronic depression, anxiety and autism.    Bert Johnson / CapRadio

 

For Russell, exercise isn’t enough on its own. He’s in therapy and takes medication, too.

His mom, Gretchen Lehmann, says there’s a huge difference between the days he’s been able to work out and the ones he can’t.

“If he has not been able to exercise, he pretty much is stuck,” she said. “He will often sit on the sofa with a blanket either over his head, or partially over his head. And that’s kind of his coping mechanism, is to withdraw and pull into his shell.”

Gretchen is grateful he’s found an effective way to manage his multiple diagnoses. But in an emotional interview with CapRadio, she also acknowledged it’s a day-by-day fight for him to survive them.

“I worry about him, but at the same time I know what he has overcome,” she said. “I know how hard it is for him to feel like there’s a purpose for all this suffering.”

Russell is open about the fact that he endures suicidal ideations as a result of his depression, but according to Gretchen, he tries not to dwell on them.

“He does talk about it when it gets, I think, to a crisis point,”  she said. “The rest of the time he tries to shield me.”

Herbert Coard says if people notice signs of severe depression in friends and family, they shouldn’t be afraid to check in.

“You can not make somebody suicidal by asking them if they’re thinking about suicide.”

But he cautions that if someone has gotten to that point, it’s critical to get outside help. “That’s really outside of your ability to help them,” he said. “In order to keep yourself healthy, it’s time to pull in the professionals that can help you.”

Ultimately, Russell finds strength in sharing his perspective and fighting the stigma associated with mental illness.

“The toughest challenges are reserved for the toughest people,” he said. “I know that through my challenges I can spread hope to others, through my speeches and writings. So that’s what makes it worth it.”

Russell’s been back in the gym for a few weeks now. He says getting back to his old routine is already restoring his hope for the future.

And a lot of Russell’s speaking engagements are being rebooked as webinars — he says sharing his experience virtually makes him feel almost as good as the in-person appearances he’s used to.

But the pandemic is far from over — in recent days, Nevada’s case numbers have started to climb again — and that could mean more changes to come.

For Russell, that uncertainty is a challenge in itself.

“The key for me will be to implement the flexible thinking I developed during the shutdown.”

If you’re in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.   

How An Air Traveler With Autism Found Strength In A Stranger’s Kindness

Russell Lehmann (left) and David Apkarian at their StoryCorps interview in Reno, Nev.

Courtesy of StoryCorps

Air travel can be a stressful experience for all of us. But for Russell Lehmann, who has autism, a flight delay or cancellation isn't just a small inconvenience. Unexpected changes can cause him to have panic attacks — or worse.

That's what happened when Russell was trying to catch a flight from Reno, Nev., to Cincinnati in June that got delayed.

"I remember sitting in the same exact spot for seven hours crying and not one person approached me. Not one person made eye contact with me," Russell, 29, says in a StoryCorps conversation. "The next day, once again, my flight was delayed, and that's when I found an empty ticket counter. I sat behind it and I started sweating bullets, rocking back and forth, hyperventilating. I hadn't had an episode like that probably since I was like 11."

That's when David Apkarian, an airline employee, walked up.

"You were sitting on the floor, and you looked really upset. Do you remember what I first said?" David, 49, tells Russell at StoryCorps.

"I don't remember a whole lot, 'cause for me, in the midst of a meltdown, my brain literally feels like it's on fire, with a vise grip around it, just getting tighter and tighter," Russell says. "I have a hard time comprehending the simplest sentences. I just feel like I'm on a planet all by myself."

Then David crouched beside him and asked him what was going on, he says, meant the world. "I didn't feel as fragile. I had someone on my team," he says.

David says he let the crew know Russell was uneasy about getting on the flight, and he brought the captain over to him in hopes of giving him a boost of confidence.

"That's when I made up my mind, 'Yeah, I'm getting on this plane,' " Russell says. "You walked me onto the flight. I was able to board before anybody else to get situated and just kind of have some peace."

Russell asks David if he wondered what happened to him after he boarded.

"It's actually funny you should ask that. You know, I have access to our computer system at home, and I followed you," he says. "I saw that second flight did have a little bit of a delay, but it showed that you had stayed on board and got through. I was very happy about that."

"You didn't really know much about autism that day in the airport, but you connected on a human level," Russell says.

And that, he tells David, changed his life.

"Knowing that since this was such a difficult meltdown — and one of the worst I've ever had — that since I got through that, I can pretty much get through anything," he says.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren.

My Interview with Jacqueline Laurita

Interview with Jacqueline Laurita about her experience in the autism community

Jacqueline Laurita has made a household name of herself after joining the cast of Bravo's own Real Housewives of New Jersey. Beyond the hearty exterior portrayed on the show (although she's known for her honesty and authenticity), Jacqueline has struggled in her own right while raising her autistic son Nicholas.

I had the pleasure of interviewing her, and I hope as you read you'll join me in welcoming her to our growing and compassionate community!

Jacqueline is a very strong-willed woman who has a magnificent outlook on life. A loving mother who is not afraid to back down from any challenge, she actually takes the time to learn about somebody before passing judgment, unlike many of us. Jacqueline is also very ambitious when it comes to her multiple careers, yet she somehow manages to always make time for her beautiful family.

Jacqueline’s son Nicholas was diagnosed with autism back in 2012 at the age of three, and in the years since Jacqueline has become a leading campaigner for increasing autism awareness. I asked her about views on autism, her goals for the future and how she grew into the amazing woman that she is today.

Russell Lehmann: You are revered for being a thoughtful, down-to-earth woman who loves to give back to the community and spread welfare. Where do these impressive principles and traits of yours stem from, and what have you learned from your experiences of helping those who are less fortunate than you?

Jacqueline Laurita: I think that my parents had something to do with that for sure. I was always encouraged to be honest, stay true to myself and to stay grounded. I think it also comes from my life experiences. I’ve been through a lot in my life and it has always been the support of others that has got me through the obstacles in my life. I want to be there to support others because I know how it feels. Others have been there for me. It’s a way for me to pay it forward.

You exited “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” after season five. What have you been doing with your time since?

I have been enjoying time with my family and focusing on Nicholas’s recovery, writing books on beauty and autism, which are both passions of mine. I help out my husband with his beverage company while also trying to get my beauty website launched.
I have also been a very active advocate in the autism community by answering emails from families affected, attending autism related conferences, benefits, doing public speaking engagements and writing featured articles for magazines. I will continue to do that.

You have said that early intervention is the key to recovery. For the first half of my life I confounded doctors with my symptoms, until I was finally diagnosed with autism when I was 12. Your son Nicholas was diagnosed when he was three. You are a woman who emits vibes of positivity and optimism. Nicholas is almost five now, and so I pose this question to you:

If Nicholas wasn’t diagnosed for another seven or eight years, and you and your family were left in the dark with no idea as to how to help your son, what actions might you have taken, and do you think this hypothetical situation would have changed your bright and confident outlook on life?

I think that I would have taken each challenge as it came with the best of my ability. Regardless, I would have focused on enhancing Nicholas’s strengths and do my best to give him the tools he needed to get around whatever obstacle or challenge was in his way and to bring out the best in him. I’m all about focusing on the solutions rather than the problems. Otherwise, life can get too overwhelming.

With or without an actual diagnosis, the challenges would have eventually presented themselves and we would have had to address it and find a way to make progress by giving him the right tools he needed in order to thrive.

There is no doubt that the diagnosis definitely gave us more clarity and understanding to what we were dealing with, while also providing us with a better road map of what active steps we could take to help Nicholas, including knowing our legal rights. Regardless, I would continue to try to defy expectations. It’s never too late for anyone to learn and improve. Always believe things can get better, because they can. In coping with anything, it’s all about perception and keeping a positive attitude. Focus on the amazing “abilities” our children have and not so much on their “disabilities”. Everyone has special skills, and everyone has challenges.

Have a clear vision of what you want your future to look like. Believe you can manifest it. Make short and long-term goals while focusing and following through on them with tunnel vision and perseverance. Block out all the negative talk and choose positive thoughts and actions. Have gratitude. Continually try to defy expectations while focusing on the solutions rather than the problems when hitting any obstacle. This will help you achieve anything in life… if you believe it’s possible!

What lessons of life have you learned from having a first-hand experience with autism?

I have definitely learned patience and understanding and what’s important in life. I learned to still remember to make time for myself so that I don’t get too overwhelmed. Those small breaks help me to go back in and fight harder for my child. It’s also important to make special time with your spouse and other siblings that are not diagnosed. The experience has also taught me to be more accepting and understanding of others’ idiosyncrasies. It taught me to have gratitude and celebrate each and every accomplishment my child makes, and not take anything for granted, because I see first-hand how hard he works for those accomplishments.

I myself do not think that autism should ever be fully cured. I believe it is a gift that one must learn to live with. I couldn’t agree with you more when you say Nicholas doesn’t need to be fixed, because he isn’t broken. When did this philosophy of yours come into being and what do you think made you come to this conclusion?

I don’t see autism as being something bad or something to be ashamed of, and I never want my son to be ashamed of it either. It’s just one piece of who he is as a whole individual. He just has a different way of processing things. I know my son is brilliant and I have heard of many well-known successful people at the top of their fields who have either been suspected to have or have been diagnosed with autism. I know it’s a gift, I know my son is happy and I know he loves me. People with autism just learn and view the world differently. Different does not mean bad. It’s just different. When I say “recover” my child, I want him to recover all the skills he lost when he regressed and for him to continue to learn things that will help make his life a little easier in the future. I’m not trying to “fix” him or even make him “typical” but I am trying to give him all the tools I can provide for him to help him to become more independent. If I can do that for him and he is going to benefit from it, then I am going to keep fighting to give him what he needs. His quirkiness makes him unique and adorable and I wouldn’t want to change that for anything. He makes me smile every day. I think everyone is a little quirky. I know I am.

Autism definitely has an ugly side to it, but with that ugliness comes the opportunity to learn and grow in a very unique and special way. When times get tough and Nicholas is having a bad day, do you sometimes wish that Nicholas never had autism? Or would you rather live with the emotional wounds dealt out by the disorder, knowing that you have an ability to be much more insightful about life than the average person?

Don’t we ALL have an ugly side as well as the opportunity to learn and grow? Someone with an autism diagnosis is no different. Autism is not something that I ever wished my child would have, and it’s a different journey than the one I had expected, but it is still just as wonderful. I think it’s difficult for any parent to watch their child, typical or not, struggle with anything, so when Nicholas is struggling with something and is having a bad day, it breaks my heart.

Nicholas has struggles that my other children don’t have, but they each have their own unique struggles in life and have challenged me and themselves in different ways. I’ve hurt watching all of them struggle at one point or another. That’s a parent’s love. We all have struggles, they are just different struggles. You learn to adjust and cope. We all learn, grow and evolve. We all get frustrated with life, we all hurt at times and we all feel joy. Support from others is really important during these times.

I honestly love the journey that my son’s autism diagnosis has taken me on. I have learned so much and I have met so many wonderful, supportive people along the way. My son has brought me so much joy each and every day. All my kids are unique and I love them all.

What is your biggest stress reliever?

Venting to someone who “gets it”, then meditating while listening to positive affirmations. I like going into the Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber to relax and walking outdoors when the weather is nice. Sex works, too. (Laughs)

What do you like to do for fun, and what kind of activities does your family enjoy doing together?

I enjoy our crazy family gatherings every Sunday because they are very entertaining and always a lot of fun. I enjoy date nights with my husband as well as with other couples. We enjoy good food. My kids enjoy watching movies together. We also enjoy hiking. In the summer we rent a beach house with many of our family members. We also do a lot of fun activities in the fall at local farms. Road trips anywhere are always fun.

What do you have your sights set on for the future?

I want to continue to raise autism awareness any way I can in hopes that I can help educate people to be more understanding and compassionate toward others with autism or other idiosyncrasies. Different doesn’t mean bad, it’s just different. Acceptance is so important. Everyone can learn from each other if you allow yourself to be open to it.
I want to make a difference in this world. I have a few things in mind that I’d like to accomplish. I’ll share those at a later date.

I also have several books I’d like to write. Two of them are being written and published right now. I want my family to stay healthy, happy and very connected with each other. Oh…and world peace.