Writer, singer, comedian, top-rating podcaster, and self-described maximalist power queen, Em Rusciano nearly aced a test – a first.
“I got a near-perfect score in the ADHD exam,” she said in an address to the National Press Club in partnership with Women in Media.
In a speech entitled Blood, Sweat and Glitter: The Story of a Neurodivergent Girl Living in a Neurotypical World, Rusciano said she was diagnosed with ADHD in February 2021.
“Throughout my life, it’s been joked that I may have ADHD because of my rubbish memory, my inability to regulate my emotions, my complete lack of organisational skills, my inability to speak at a normal pace,” she said.
“It’s something I never took seriously because I associated it with hyperactive 10-year-old boys who should avoid red cordial, certainly not 42-year-old anxiety-ridden adult women who are chronically exhausted all of the time.
“I’ve since learned that women and assigned female at birth people, with undiagnosed ADHD, experience anxiety and depression at a higher rate than the rest of the population.
“Why? Because of the shame that consumes them when they can’t keep up with what society expects of them.
“We spend a lot of time over-compensating, trying and mostly failing to do it all, which is an exhausting concept for anyone.”
Here are some of the highlights from the address, which sold out in record time.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a factor
Rusciano shared that her mental health was “completely unravelling” during lockdowns and tiredness “crept into my bones and settled there”.
What an incredibly insightful, funny and important moment! Congrats @EmRusciano on your @PressClubAust speech, it had blood, sweat and glitter but most importantly a message for change and a way to take action in this country #ADHD #NDIS #health #action #gowatch #abciview pic.twitter.com/ClSu4QMPoy — Claireabelle (@Claireabelle) August 24, 2022
“Why did the pandemic cause many of us to seek a diagnosis?” she said.
“For me, lockdown took away all my usual routines and all the things that help me function, which exacerbated my undiagnosed ADHD symptoms.
“I had built a house of cards of coping mechanisms that got smashed to the ground, and I took myself off to my doctor.”
Then came the ‘enormous grief’
Rusciano said her core beliefs about herself changed when she was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 42.
Completely, totally, in every way, impressed by Em Rusciano. What a speech at National Press Club, what a STAR! #npc #auspol @EmRusciano #NDIS #ADHD https://t.co/RxOMLQNc4l — Need_A (@NeedA37856342) August 24, 2022
“It revealed the terrifying fragility; it ripped open scars I didn’t know I had and it triggered enormous grief,” she said.
“I felt a deep sadness … for that precocious, curious, and chaotic 10-year-old girl who desperately wanted to get things right; the girl who tried hard all the time, and who just wanted to be like everyone else.”
While it has been tough, Rusciano pointed out the strengths of being neurodivergent.
Much like @EmRusciano I was diagnosed with ADHD last year aged 40. She captured so many of my life experiences in her speech. I hope ppl who want to understand #adhd more or think that adhd is a “fad” watch this to understand how debilitating it can be. #npc #Neurodiversity https://t.co/zikMF60Nnz — Jo G (@ItsMeJoeyG) August 24, 2022
“The combination of my big picture approach, my love of new projects and my courage to be creative are the strengths of someone with ADHD,” she said.
“And it also means that I’ve managed to become pretty successful – depending on the definition of success.
“But that doesn’t mean for a second that it hasn’t been really, really hard.”
‘Trying to herd a group of drunk elderly cats’
Rusciano described her experience as a “neurodivergent girl”.
One of the best things I’ve seen in forever: @EmRusciano at #NPC on neurodivergence. Wickedly funny and powerful. Won’t forget it (and you should absolutely watch it)! And hosted by the inimitable @EmmaSMacdonald pic.twitter.com/U1xHzmpWqs — Lara Stimpson (@larastimpson) August 24, 2022
“I have ADHD – hyperactive, inattentive, really fast brain, live in a dream world a lot of the time,” she said.
“And my biggest issue is, I struggle with executive function.
“The executive function branch of your brain resides in your frontal lobe and this department is in charge of you paying attention, transitioning between tasks, time management, planning, organising, remembering things, and not saying weird shit that offends people.
“When your executive function is dysfunctional, your ability to gather information and organise it is akin to trying to herd a group of drunk elderly cats through an obstacle course.
“It’s also nearly impossible to adapt your behaviour to what your surroundings require – case in point is me standing here at the press club.”
How Ash Barty’s mindset coach helped Rusciano find her superpower
Mindset coach Ben Crowe has worked with champions, including tennis player Ash Barty who credits him with changing her life.
I watched @EmRusciano’s #NPC address today & I laughed & cried. I wish everybody that has ever given dirty side eye to a screaming child was forced to watch it. I plan to roar at a lot more little kids! AND the deep red suit & colourful shirt were magnificent. Perfect combo! pic.twitter.com/c30M0OkQBR — Kristy (@3catlady) August 24, 2022
“He asked me, what’s my superpower?” she said in response to a question from musician and author Clare Bowditch.
“When I’m on my knees with life and something really dark has happened and I’m really challenged, what do I draw on?
“We came to the conclusion that it was my ability to be transparent; that it was my ability to tap into being vulnerable and I know that is so overused and cliched, but it’s the truth.
“And so, I think any time now that I’m feeling challenged and if anyone at home is waiting for a diagnosis and feeling challenged, I think being vulnerable with yourself and speaking out loud your challenges and being gentle with yourself, really being kind with yourself is an important thing.”
The turning point
After reaching the finals of Australian Idol, Rusciano was offered a gig hosting on breakfast radio in Perth.
If you just missed @EmRusciano addressing @PressClubAust, you have SUCH a treat waiting for you. What a deadset legend with a really eye-opening heartfelt, hilarious and tear-jerking message. Come on, Em! — Nate Byrne (@SciNate) August 24, 2022
“I now know that a person with rejection sensitivity dysphoria, low self-esteem, time-blindness, someone who is very blunt, has a complete inability to regulate her emotions and is hypersensitive to external stimuli, should be nowhere near the breakfast radio environment,” she said.
“It brought out the very worst of my undiagnosed ADHD symptoms. It brought out the very worst in me as a human.”
She woke one morning and decided to stop “pretending everything was okay”, sharing with listeners that she had postnatal depression.
She described it as “one of the biggest turning points” of her life because her honesty was met with love and support from listeners.
Just having a lil lunchtime cry while WFH today, listening to @EmRusciano. As an Autistic ADHDer, your words resonated with me on another level – thank you 🦖 #adhd #autism #NPC pic.twitter.com/kT3TnL6SZp — Emily Rodgers (@EmilyRodgers55) August 24, 2022
“I told the absolute truth,” Rusciano said.
“I was radically honest about how I was feeling. I was completely myself and the sky hadn’t fallen in.
“The person who’d been told to play a smaller version of herself on air, who had been told that she was too loud and too opinionated, the Em Rusciano who had spent her entire life masking her true self, stopped existing that day.”
In part, so did the kid who thought she would never be a storyteller because she couldn’t spell; the teenager who couldn’t make friends because she was painfully afraid of rejection, and the 22-year-old first-time mother who sat quietly in a mothers’ group listening to others talk about their joy when she “wanted to scream at them and ask how the hell were they coping” because she wasn’t.
“That day [on the radio], I realised the power of being vulnerable, of how freeing speaking openly and honestly is. And most importantly, when I’m on my knees, not being afraid to be vulnerable is the power source that I actually draw on to survive it.”
Why she spoke at the National Press Club
Rusciano decided to deliver the address to share a message – the neurodivergent community were not “lacking or less than” but were “different and equally worthy”.
A beautiful and powerful address today by @EmRusciano at @PressClubAust. Worth a watch, the more informed we are as a community the more equipped we are to support and roar back when needed. https://t.co/pWMLZC3Cao — Linda Lazenby (@lindalazenby_) August 24, 2022
“When we’re not forced to try and fit into a framework and societal structure that was built for people who aren’t like us, we can be pretty impressive,” she said.
“But at the moment, in most cases, when we send a kid with ADHD to school, it’s like sending them to play baseball with a golf club.”
Through tears, Rusciano spoke about her youngest child Elio who has been diagnosed with autism.
“I can’t go back and advocate for 10-year-old Em and, most importantly, I won’t always be there to advocate for my son …,” she said.
“I won’t always be able to be there to step in and explain why [Elio] goes up and roars loudly like a dinosaur in people’s faces. That’s how my son connects.
“The reason that I eventually agreed to give you this speech was because I wanted to make sure that all of you here today, and everyone watching from wherever you are … that you get it, that more people get it.
“So I ask you all, the next time Elio or another kid comes up to you and roars, please don’t be alarmed or look around for help.
“Please don’t treat them like there is something wrong with them.
“Be bigger than that, be better than that, be kinder than that and please, roar back.”