London-based Norwegian photographer Nora Nord was diagnosed with ADHD in 2018, when she was in her early 20s. It was an immensely freeing feeling, she says, because it gave her the space for some aspects of her personality to finally make sense. But it was a frustrating time, too. "I had an underlying feeling most of my life that something is wrong with me," she remembers. "I wondered why I couldn’t focus or finish things, and why everything I did was last minute, and I think many people with ADHD still feel this. Due to the fact that there is a lack of both understanding and easily accessible support, the work comes on us to find our own language and figure out how we want to move through the world."
As she began to research her condition, Nord quickly came to realise that voices like hers, as a queer woman, were especially drowned out in the conversation and so she decided to do something about it. The result is a portrait series meeting and hearing the stories of other underrepresented people with ADHD.
Beginning the project just before the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, Nord started her portraits as a way to show the many different faces of ADHD. "There’s this stereotype that ADHD is a rowdy boy in a classroom that can’t sit still but it’s different in everyone and that's what I’m trying to show here. Stereotypical understandings are the reason undiagnosing can go on for so many years because people don’t look beyond that stereotype. I felt like a lot of the research and projects I found when I was first diagnosed had been done by the same type of person – white cis men – and so I wanted to change the narrative," she says. "It has also been important for me to talk about what ADHD can look like – from our funny habits and irritations to our creative paths – because there are so many people who don’t fit the stereotype. I certainly didn’t, and there are so many others who would benefit from knowing they are neurodivergent too." She started by photographing friends and friends of friends, and later, people she got chatting with on the internet. Every participant so far has been UK-based but in time, Nord says, she hopes to talk with people in other countries to see how their systems differ and how cultural thinking about neurodiversity compares.
In the same year that Nord was diagnosed, the BBC reported that it can take adults in the UK more than seven years to receive a diagnosis, and that out of the 1.5 million members of the population with the condition, only around 120,000 are formally diagnosed. What's more, it’s mostly white, heterosexual men who receive the diagnosis. Psychiatry UK states that as of this year, men are three times as likely as women to be diagnosed. In Australia, around 2.5% of adults have ADHD and currently, 0.2% are being treated, which means around one in 10 adults with ADHD are being recognised and treated.
Talking to Nord, it becomes clear that some of the reasons for the gender diagnosis gap may be socially constructed, including the fact that markers of neurodiversity are often hyper-focused on external factors like disruption or picking fights. Girls – who are rigorously conditioned away from this type of behaviour – may be learning to mask their ADHD better. Regardless of gender, if your ADHD is mostly internalised it can be more difficult to recognise. "Most ADHD researchers didn’t start to believe women could even have ADHD until the 1990s so we still have a lot of catching up to do," says Nord, adding that it’s a similar story for other underrepresented groups, including queer people. "I think there are a lot of connections with ADHD and queerness: realising what’s right for the majority isn’t necessarily right for us and living life on our terms."
"It’s a challenge to get help with mental health in any sense in the UK if you are marginalised, working class and dealing with a system that doesn’t have time for you," Nord continues. "That’s why services like Right to Choose are so important, because where the NHS waiting times are 4+ years, Right To Choose can help you get talking to a specialist within months." To those who have been diagnosed recently, Nord also recommends reading the book ADHD 2.0 and applying for Access to Work, a resource offering free ADHD mentoring and tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, standing desks and fidget toys. She also wants people to know that the government isn’t exactly advertising what it can offer. "Some doctors will prescribe medication and say that’s the treatment when, in fact, medication is only one of a long list of important treatments."
Shot in natural light, Nord’s pictures are lovely, intimate portraits of her sitters in their bedrooms, accompanied by their quotes and meandering thoughts. "I told everyone not to clean because I wanted to capture how things really are, and a person’s space says so much about them," she explains. "It was also important for me because there is often a lot of shame associated with how messy we people with ADHD can be, and it's interesting for me to see how everyone deals with that part of it." Deeply in tune with the importance of getting to know your sitters as a photographer, Nord spends the first hour or two with each person chatting about ADHD before beginning to take pictures, audio recording their chats as she goes.
Alongside her portraits, Nord has recently turned her attention to a new part of the project: a podcast entitled You & Me: Let’s Talk About ADHD. "It just made sense that the conversations I was having had to be accessible to a wider audience," says Nord, "so this was really a natural next step." The podcast is almost entirely interview-based, with Nord and her guests speaking openly about the different aspects of ADHD, from having it to diagnosing it and appreciating it, too. It's blooming into an invaluable resource. "I speak with a lot of the same people I photograph but I’ve also expanded it to speak with my partner and groundbreaking trans photographer, Heather Glazzard, and an ADHD mentor with 25 years of diagnosis experience too. It's still being made and episodes are released every two weeks." The podcast can be listened to on the project website as well as on most major podcast platforms, including Spotify.
Meanwhile, Nord says, the best analogy she can come up with to describe the making of this project is that it has been like building a messy, big, beautiful house. "Like a place where everyone can find themselves, in the corners and drawers, in the rooms and sometimes on the roof," she muses. On a personal level, she’s learned to lean into a new form of self-acceptance which she didn’t have access to before, and it’s become a really celebratory aspect of her life. "One of my big takeaways has been feeling comfortable with taking space in announcing my neurodivergence and telling people my accessibility needs – whether that’s a friend, my partner, or someone I work with," she says warmly. Ultimately she hopes that people seeing her photographs and listening to the podcast will realise that having ADHD is a gift or, better yet, a superpower. In the end, the work she is doing is all in aid of drawing together a new community. There is healing through community and storytelling, she says. "My hope is that more of these stories are told and more people find the language they need."
This article was originally published on Refinery29 UK.