We got chatting to writer and performer Sarah Emmott about ADHD, mental health stigma, and how her new show encourages people to celebrate themselves.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up on a council estate in Essex with a love of Rainbow Brite, Skeletor and Starlight Express. I never owned a Gameboy, Stretch Armstrong or those cool (expensive) shoes with the keys in them. From a really early age I loved performing, and making people laugh. I was the class clown, a bookworm and have an ability to remember a plethora of facts.
Throughout my life I’ve always been curious and had energy like a coiled spring and I’m always looking for ways to channel it constructively. I think my boundless energy is what drives me, and has helped me carve a career in the arts. In 2010 I founded Art with Heart in the hope that as a working class, queer woman I would be able to share our stories. Aside from the arts, I can talk for hours about neuroscience, astrology and coffee.
How did Declaration come about?
I’ve had ADHD symptoms all my life, but as I approached 30 I found they were increasingly impairing me. I was struggling and knew I needed help. After some convincing from my wife, I went to the doctors and faced a diagnosis for ADHD at 30. I felt lost and vulnerable.
I found a local adult ADHD support group, met with other adults with ADHD and no longer felt alone. My feelings of being misunderstood resonated with them and I felt galvanised to share my story.
With the group I felt understood and supported and I wanted others to feel that too, so in 2016 (2 years after my trip to the doctors) we started to create Declaration. I didn’t want to shy away from the difficulties but I also wanted to share the positives of ADHD. I had no idea how successful Declaration would be - it’s helped people understand themselves, their friends, their partners and children. I feel really proud that by being open and honest my story has helped others go to the doctors, tell their family they are struggling or to feel more comfortable in celebrating themselves.
Can you explain what ADHD means?
ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder which has three main symptoms; inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and you can have a combination of them. My mind is constantly flooded with an overwhelming amount of thoughts, and is easily distracted because it seeks out things which will quickly stimulate my brain, but it also has an ability to hyper-focus on one thing for hours. For those with ADHD, we are 70% more likely to have a co-morbidity like anxiety, depression, autism, and problems with low self esteem.
Declaration explores how we can all acknowledge the struggles we have with our mental health, and how we can look at our positives and using them to thrive. ADHD is both my enemy and best friend; at times it stops me from doing basic tasks but it also keeps me driven, bouncy, able to empathise, be spontaneous, make fast connections and make almost anyone feel comfortable in an awkward silence.
Why do you think there is stigma around adults who are diagnosed with ADHD?
Stigma is complicated and wrapped so much in our culture and expectations of ourselves and others. With ADHD, I think we associate a lot of the symptoms with children (forgetting and losing things, being easily distracted, over-excitable and hyper-focusing on something we enjoy) and so we expect adults to have ‘grown out of it’.
Meanwhile, the media have been perpetuating the image of ADHD just being ‘naughty children’ and there is still an element of shame around ADHD and mental health. I think after generations of being told to ‘pull ourselves together’ means we’re now dealing with its aftermath. Various recent campaigns have supported people to talk about what they need, but I still think there is so much more that needs to happen before that stigma is broken.
Declaration addresses and challenges gendered stereotypes; can you talk a bit about that?
When thinking about ADHD, people often people think of the image of a small boy running around a supermarket, but it’s also a woman in her 30s desperately trying to get to work on time with everything she needs for the day. There is such a lack of visibility, and huge imbalance of diagnosis rates in women and girls with ADHD.
ADHD often manifests itself in different ways in women, and so if we are using a template which only fits men, then we will continue to slip under the radar. The majority of research has been done with men and boys and new studies need to be able to cross check the data so often use men and boys too, and so the cycle continues.
With Declaration I wanted to talk about how, as a woman, ADHD impacts me in the hope that we can start to see more women being part of the conversation.
Finally, why should people come and see the show?
The most important thing to know is that Declaration is upbeat, joyful, bold, bouncy and a hopeful celebration of us all, even when we feel we’re the outsider. It’s colourful, fun, chatty; there’s loads of laughter, and opportunities to get involved if you want to. A few people tell me at the beginning that they don’t want to participate, but have then told me afterwards that they regret it - we’ve even had people come back so they could be part of the interaction they missed out on!
Declaration is really honest and I talk openly about my own experience but it isn’t just about me, it’s about all of us; knowing that it’s ok to not be ok, and to ask for help when we need it. We have a wellbeing room called SPACE run by mental health practitioner Steph with wellbeing activities for audiences and a chance to get a brew and have a chat. I hope that Declaration will encourage us all to talk, laugh, and celebrate ourselves.
With autobiographical storytelling, comedy, and conversations with audiences, Declaration is a vibrant and daring adventure of school day survival tactics, super-hero alter-egos and the stumbling blocks to self-acceptance.
Fri 12 - Sat 13 Oct
Book now >>
Fri 12 - Sat 13 Oct
Book now >>