EXCLUSIVE: How an adult diagnosis of ADHD helped former Dolly model Sarah Nursey make sense of the “chaos”

''I keep going for my girls.''
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Images can arrest our senses and enslave us to dreams. When 15-year-old cover girl Sarah Nursey graced the cover of Dolly magazine no less than three times in 1984, she was like an incantation commanding me to perm my hair.

Sarah’s dazzling smile, round face and inviting eyes are proportioned in the same golden ratio as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. To my chubby teenage self, Sarah’s lean, 178cm body – honed by athletics and aerobics, and sporting Dachet jeans – was the impossible dream.

When Lisa Wilkinson edited Dolly in the 1980s, she worked closely with fashion photographer Graham Shearer, discovering fresh-faced and friendly Australian girls to put on the cover.

“From the very first time I put Sarah on the cover, the readers fell in love with her and demanded we keep using her,” the presenter of The Project says.

“Graham also came to me with some Polaroids of a young up-and-coming model he’d found called Nicole Kidman. I put her on the cover straight away, and it was my first ever sellout issue.”

“From the very first time I put Sarah on the cover, the readers fell in love with her,” Lisa Wilkinson says.

(Credit: (Image: Julie Adams))

Yet Sarah would beat the A-lister-to-be in the popularity stakes, gracing the bestselling cover of Lisa’s editorship. Sarah appeared to have it all before she’d even finished Year 10 at high school. Sports Illustrated’s 1985 swimwear issue showcased her beachy athleticism in a Baywatch-style red swimsuit, inspiring piles of fan mail from male admirers and prison inmates, as well as teenage girls like me.

“I was stunned – all I could think was, ‘Why would they write to me?'” Sarah says. “I wish I could look back on that time and see it for what it was. I am completely dissociated. It’s like I’m looking back on someone else’s life when I look at those old photos.”

Yet Sarah rose like an apparition, also starring in Pseudo Echo’s video for the 1983 hit Listening – ironic given she was battling an undiagnosed condition that makes it almost impossible for her to listen for long periods or focus. Sarah has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an often hereditary condition. She was diagnosed at the age of 45, too late for the treatment and skills training that might have changed her life.

“I always felt there was something wrong with me,” Sarah says.”I was an outsider, never fully present – it was like life travelled too quickly for me. No one knew what ADHD was when I was a kid, let alone that girls could have it. I am easily distracted. I can never remember things. I can’t even put the Vegemite back in the same place after I’ve used it. My house is usually in chaos.”

“I always felt there was something wrong with me,” Sarah says.

(Credit: (Image: Julie Adams))

Braced for change

Sarah’s inability to focus is as genetic as the beauty that blessed and cursed her in equal measure. Additionally, at 13 she was diagnosed with a painful sideways spinal curve called scoliosis, which often affects taller-than-average girls. Doctors strapped Sarah into a so-called Milwaukee brace for 23 hours a day: her neck was in traction in a metal collar, her hips, chest and shoulders caged ramrod straight. Sarah couldn’t look down to see her feet, only straight ahead.

Sarah was scouted at her local gym by the teenage daughter of modelling agent Vivien Smith. “I saw her in the change rooms and couldn’t help but notice her – she was dazzling,” says Catherine McGill, who now runs Vivien’s and managed successful models such as Sarah O’Hare and Kristy Hinze.

While Sarah’s looks enraptured teenage girls who wanted to be like her, they also attracted dangerous men. As her modelling career took off, a running coach recognised her talent for athletics and promised to help her win gold medals. The coach would massage her legs “to help her feel better”.

His hands kept creeping. After a training session, the coach raped her. The shame contorted her into silence. “I was so young. I didn’t know how to process it. No one knew about grooming or paedophiles in the 1980s, just like they didn’t know about ADHD,” Sarah says.

Sarah would force her best friend Simone Fernando to come with her to castings because she needed moral support when clients openly said her hair wasn’t right or her shoulders were too broad to fit into the size 8 sample fashions.

Those teenage modelling years went by in a blur of school holiday and weekend photo shoots that Sarah remembers painfully. Her anxiety and panic grew as people looked at her. “I didn’t like being the centre of attention. The brace was ugly and uncomfortable. I was completely self-conscious,” she says.

“I didn’t like being the centre of attention.”

(Credit: (Image: Julie Adams))

Simone – who was photographed alongside Sarah in Dolly in 1984 – remembers the time more clearly, saying most of their peers were in awe of Sarah and her modelling. “Everywhere we went, people would lose their jaws and I would tell them to take a number,” Simone says.

Yet Sarah hated being looked at. She felt like a fraud. An impostor. “My black-and-white thinking meant I believed I was a terrible model. Because Vogue magazine didn’t book me, I figured I must be crap.”

“Sarah also believed she was a terrible student, but Simone says Sarah – or Sarsie, as friends call her – did well at school. However, she often forgot her homework or sports gear, which is a classic ADHD symptom.

“Sarsie never seemed to really love modelling,” Simone says. “She was so stunningly beautiful, but it was hard at our school. The headmistress wouldn’t give her time off and her parents weren’t really into her being a model, either.”

Graham says 1980s Dolly cover girls earned serious dollars – “way more than photographers did” – with many leaving Australia to earn big money in Europe or America as Elle Macpherson, Emma Balfour, Tonya Bird and Sonia Klein did.

Sarah travelled after finishing Year 12, but rather than build a modelling career, she took up residence at Israel’s Sdot Yam kibbutz, where she fell in love with a boy named Roded. When a phone call came asking Sarah to fly to New York for a lucrative modelling contract, she turned it down. “I was finally happy – modelling had made me feel awful and self-conscious,” she says.

But after Roded left the kibbutz for compulsory military service, Sarah’s anxiety returned. An unplanned pregnancy derailed the romance and Sarah returned to Australia directionless, distracted and still undiagnosed.

WATCH: Nicole Kidman talks about her modelling photos on Graham Norton. Article continues after video

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Park life

I befriended the real Sarah, not the cover-girl version, when we were both new mothers in the early 2000s. I had always wondered what happened to my teenage dream of Sarah Nursey. I read that she had become a police officer in one of those “where are they now?” articles. It turns out she lived in the same inner-city suburb as me. She had two beautiful daughters, Ruby and Nellie, born just 14 months apart.

I instantly recognised Sarah in the handkerchief-sized patch of lawn we optimistically called “the park”, where her daughters played with my sons. She laughed raucously when I told her about the disastrous teenage perm she inspired me to save up for when I was at high school.

“Why would anyone want curly hair if you didn’t have to?” she asked, raising those beautifully groomed eyebrows at me. Break-and-enters, muggings and car thefts plagued our neighbourhood. When Sarah’s car went missing, she called her former police colleagues to report it stolen, but later strode into the park with a sheepish look.

“There’s my car,” she pointed, realising her vehicle had never been stolen. She had driven it to the park two weeks earlier, but walked Ruby and Nellie home instead of driving. “That’s classic ADHD,” Sarah says. “I am really vague and not tuned in. I act without thinking things through. My body is there, but my brain can be off in another dimension.”

Sarah and I spent hours discussing life, love and maternity leave as we pushed children on swings. “Having kids kills your sex life,” Sarah said, blurting out the unsayable. “My idea of a good night now is being able to lie in bed under a heavy doona with the hum of a fan in the background.”

Sarah hid behind her giant sense of humour as she struggled with early motherhood, a common time for women with ADHD to feel swamped by the multitasking demands of family life.

“You can’t function without a high level of interest or stimulation with ADHD, so the job of homemaker was mostly impossible for me,” she says.”I spent most of my time having to go to bed to get away from it because I was overwhelmed. If all my senses aren’t engaged, my inner restlessness comes out. I’m either all go or catatonic on the couch.”

ADHD is vastly under-diagnosed in girls and adults, says neuroscientist Professor Mark Bellgrove, leading to a list of poor outcomes for women including increased rates of trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction and even fibromyalgia.

Psychiatrist Dr Charles Chan says hard-to-treat depression can also be common in those diagnosed with ADHD. Dr Michele Toner says there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that menopause reignites the brain fog and concentration problems of ADHD.

Sarah Nursey on the cover of Dolly magazine.

(Credit: (Image: Dolly | Graham Shearer))

People diagnosed with ADHD may have special gifts – what Dr Toner calls “islands of excellence” – but are easily bored, often throwing themselves into new relationships or jobs to distract themselves. They lurch between chaos and striving for control. Many live in a state of anxiety that prevents them from reaching their potential.

“Friendships are hard to maintain because they misread social cues and can’t follow conversations – they come across as being disengaged, but it’s hard for them to concentrate on someone speaking,” Dr Toner explains. “They say inappropriate things. It may seem to be uncaring, but often it’s the exact opposite – they want to maintain friendships, but the logistics are beyond them.”

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental problem with a confused reputation. Many think it only affects kids. Cynics try to paint ADHD as “made up”, invented to allow parents to drug poorly-behaved children. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“When people are diagnosed as an adult, it’s rare they have had an advocate in their corner to teach them the skills they haven’t learned,” Dr Toner says. “When adults are diagnosed late, they are never quite where their peers are – they always feel behind.”

When her girls were small, Sarah retrained as a pastry chef. “I quit that, even though I really enjoyed it. I used to get so flustered doing the assessments and trying to measure exactly the right ingredients,” she says. Sarah went on to work as a judge’s associate before the family moved to the country in search of more space.

Sarah has two beautiful daughters, Ruby (right) and Nellie (left).

(Credit: (Image: Julie Adams))

“There is a high prevalence of divorce amongst people with ADHD,” Dr Toner says. “Partners find their energy and enthusiasm charming in the beginning, and then they label their partner as the extra child they don’t need.”

“Roger [my ex-husband] had to do everything,” Sarah says. “He’s still the organiser! I used to drive him nuts putting everything in the kitchen back in a different place.” The marriage frayed and Sarah’s crushing anxiety came back again, prompting her to seek psychological help and the diagnosis that suddenly made sense of her life.

“It was a relief to put all the pieces together and work out why I am the way I am,” she says. The diagnosis led to better treatment and inspired her to retrain again, this time as a parole officer where she could support clients with ADHD and other mental-health conditions.

Stimulant medication for ADHD fixes symptoms in around 80 per cent of cases of adult ADHD, but Sarah requires other medications to balance the over-stimulation of the drugs. She also loves swimming in the ocean, no matter how cold it is, and playing with her rescue dog Trip.

“Swimming is the one thing that gets me out of my head – and Trip can’t help but make me smile,” she says.”The biggest regret I have is not being the best mother I could be to my girls. I was so distracted and unavailable when they were young. It hurts to know I can’t fix that.”

“It was a relief to put all the pieces together and work out why I am the way I am.”

(Credit: (Image: Julie Adams))

As COVID lockdowns have taken their toll in the years since March 2020, it became harder for Sarah – and many others – to find laughter or joy. Her couch sucked her back into what she calls “nothingness”. “When I’m down, I get really down,” she says. “My life hasn’t turned out the way I thought.”

While she was on leave from work, doctors prescribed Valium. It was the first time she’d felt a blissful state of peace in years. So she took another pill. And then another. And another. “I wasn’t trying to kill myself so much as numb my pain,” Sarah says. “I wanted to stop feeling so bad.”

She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, feeling like the misaligned, broken girl inside the scoliosis brace. Her girls sent her flowers with a card commanding her to “keep fighting”. And today, as we photograph her with her daughters, she still very much is.

“I keep going for my girls, and for every other girl who needs to understand that ADHD isn’t something to be ashamed of or judged for,” Sarah says. “I hope other parents can identify it early, in both themselves and their children.”

You can read this story and many others in the July issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now

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