It was a wet winter’s day and actress Fern Sutherland had just got back to her damp, draughty Auckland home after a stressful day at work on the set of The Almighty Johnsons and a gruelling gym session.
She opened the fridge to sort out some dinner and a tub of hummus tumbled to the floor. The carton broke and its lumpy, beige contents splattered all over the kitchen. “It was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” recalls Fern, 27. “I couldn’t take it any more. I slammed the fridge and just started bashing away at it.”
Her partner Jarrod Kilner, 32, took her under his arm and told her, “It’s just hummus.” But Fern couldn’t speak. Suddenly, she felt dizzy. Like she was going to fall over. She raced to the bathroom.
Fern remembers, “I felt really hot and was having difficulty breathing. I desperately wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I was losing it and having to splash water over my face. It was then that I realised I needed help.”
The petite blonde suspected she might be depressed, but when she visited her GP, he told her it was a “pretty textbook panic attack” and that she was suffering from anxiety. Finally, Fern had a name for the mental disorder that had plagued her for decades.
Now starring as Detective Kristin Sims in the hit Prime crime drama The Brokenwood Mysteries, the Taranaki native is opening up about her anxiety issues for the very first time, talking to Woman’s Day to mark Mental Health Awareness Week. “I was always quite an anxious, extremely nervous child,” says Fern. “I certainly had the worst constitution for someone who wants to be an actress, but somehow, I’d put on a dress and some make-up, and pretend everything was fine.”
Fern initially found her nerves enhanced her acting, giving her an adrenaline boost that helped her focus. But the excitement soon developed into stage fright. She recalls, “I’d be shaking like a leaf and I wouldn’t be able to eat. Then I’d walk out on stage and erupt into a red, patchy rash. It was pure terror. I was a mess.”
Things came to a head when Fern was starring in a play called Tribes in 2012. “I absolutely loved the rehearsals, but when it came to actually doing the show, I lost my nerve,” she remembers. “I thought I wasn’t good enough to be in it and that everyone was going to realise I was a total fraud.
“I’d find myself blinking nonstop and going completely dry on stage, and the other cast members would have to work around me. Suddenly, acting was something I never wanted to do again. It made me think I was crazy.”
Yet Fern didn’t discuss her troubles with her co-stars – or anyone else. She explains, “There’s this stereotype that actors are quite neurotic and I didn’t want to be that person. Plus, people would think I was fishing for compliments.”
Instead, she took a step back from acting and scored an office job with TV company South Pacific Pictures. “I enjoyed my time there,” she says, “but I slowly started to realise I was just trying to kill this urge to act.”
Eventually, Fern accepted the role of Dawn on The Almighty Johnsons and found that working on screen was easier for her, as there was a smaller number of onlookers and a chance to reshoot any mistakes. Yet the stresses of everyday life still got to her, leading to the “terrifying, painful” panic attack.
However, after a stint on anti-anxiety medication, Fern has developed some coping mechanisms and has once again learnt to channel her nerves into excitement. She tells, “The pills gave me a moment of clarity that helped me realise I needed to figure out a way to deal with my anxiety instead of pretending it’s not really there.
“I’ve found yoga and doing something physical outdoors have really helped me create a bit of distance between myself and the events of the day, so I’m not so reactive and consumed by them. I learned I can’t control everything in my life or the way other people react, but I can control my own thoughts – and that’s pretty powerful.”
And after years of staying silent on her anxiety issues, Fern confided in a few of her closest friends, who confessed they’d had similar experiences. She smiles, “They were really open and it made me realise that I had been living in my own little bubble and, really, we’re all going through this together.”
With her anxiety no longer incapacitating her and a second season of The Brokenwood Mysteries under her belt, Fern now feels more confident than ever and she’s embracing acting with open arms. Last week, she and her partner of seven years, landscape designer Jarrod, moved to Sydney to explore her options in the Australian industry.
“Yes, it makes me anxious, but I’m not worried about having another meltdown,” Fern smiles. “The fear is manageable. Jarrod and I have had our hard times and it’s been painful, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and it’s really solidified our relationship. Life is good!”