At the height of her success, Emma Gannon had a breakdown. Only a 'year of nothing' fixed it.

The following is an excerpt from the book by Emma Gannon titled, A Year of Nothing, a two-book special. Now available for purchase.

When you're a woman in your 30s, people around you tend to assume that you will, at some point, have children. At weddings, people would smile at me while I held friends' babies and say things like, "great practice for when you have your own!" When my husband and I were first shown round our now home in London, the estate agent kept pointing out that the two small spare rooms that "would be great baby rooms". They would in fact be our offices (we’re both freelance creative types).

A few months after I got married, my financial advisor rang me to talk through my finances should I need a "year off" soon for "obvious reasons". Did I need to have a plan in place? I wasn't immediately sure what he meant by "obvious reason"? Ah, of course: when I decide to have a baby. When you're self-employed, you ideally need to have a buffer for maternity leave purposes.

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Even though my husband and I are not planning to have children, I did already have the beginnings of a solid financial buffer: savings from multiple income streams created by my self-employed career which I was lucky to have. I was always aware that you needed to save a bit, even when work was going well. Saving for a rainy day. There was no harm in creating a financial safety net for myself, I thought, should anything unpredictable happen. I stopped spending on bags and shoes and cooked more meals at home. Something was telling me to reserve some money.

Funnily enough, shortly after these discussions, something unpredictable did happen. And I found myself having a year off work. But not to have a baby. My 'baby money' buffer became my 'whoops, I'm having a burnout breakdown' buffer. My very own non-maternity leave. I wasn't nursing a baby, I was nursing myself.


The word 'breakdown' has negative connotations but I actually quite like it. I also like the word 'meltdown'. I embrace it. It makes me think of a caterpillar melting or breaking down inside a cocoon. I like the words 'shape-shift' and 'morph' too. It reminds me of nature – things in nature are always changing, mutating, evolving, transforming. There are so many other descriptive words we can use to describe these periods in life: burnout, nervous breakdown, or exhaustion. We can also call it 'existential burnout'. Essentially, this kind of breakdown is a way of life saying to you: this current way you are living isn't working and it can happen at any age. Time to transform – but not without some pain.


My career had reached exciting highs, but I was spiritually confused when the success wasn't matched with inner happiness. If success wasn't all it cracked up to be, and I wasn't going to have a baby, then, what? I remember a woman in Boots, waxing my eyebrows, once saying to me: "Girl, if you don't have kids, you better figure out how you want to spend your time, because life is long." So many people were scaremongering me, projecting their fears. But it didn't feel true. I didn't want to panic. Working out how to spend my time didn't feel like the issue – there's plenty of things to do in this life – the issue was that I was coming to terms with my child-free identity. I was no longer 'young'. I was entering into a different phase. Baby or no baby, we don't give ourselves time to morph into our new selves.

In nature, things are allowed to break down and regenerate and build back up again. But as humans, it feels trickier. Life is busy. You can't really schedule in a breakdown. Luckily, I could afford to have the best part of a year off. I didn't have a choice; I couldn't leave my bed, couldn't look at a screen, couldn't even go downstairs to make toast, had to be brought food in bed by my husband. I couldn't stop crying. I felt extremely fortunate that I had the time and space to let myself crumble. A privilege in a fast-paced modern world.


My meltdown began on October 22nd 2022 in a spa hotel in the New Forest, Hampshire. I'd just had a massage. I was with my best friend, it was a treat for her as she'd just got married. We were so excited to spend some time together. So why was I drifting away mentally in the swimming pool and then later at dinner having the worst panic attack of my life? Why wasn't I relaxing, in one of the nicest places to relax? Why was I pacing the ladies loo wondering what on earth was going on – wondering if something was seriously wrong with me?  


Without sounding too Star Wars-y – it felt like a Force or some kind. Some people call it a divine intervention when something somewhere says 'nope', puts a cosmic hand on your shoulder, and simply re-routes you. This can sometimes come in the form of panic attacks or illness or accidents or grief. There is often a precursor to your life changing, a before and after, and most of the time it feels like a massive inconvenience. 

A few nights before, I'd gone out for dinner in London Bridge with this same friend. When I walked in, she said: "You OK? You look really frail." A shell. I didn't realise it, because I was powering on. Papering over the cracks with a bold coat and red lipstick. Because that's what most of us do. Put a glossy band-aid over it. I had just handed in my new nonfiction book The Success Myth. I'd given all I could give. 

Busy busy busy. No time to rest and recover. How are you/yeah I'm fine! Bit overwhelmed, but hey, that's life! Everyone's busy!

We know it's impossible to bloom all year round – and yet we are told to be productive at all times, to always perform our best self, never get ill, never have an off-day. 


In a world of social media and WhatsApp groups, it feels hard to take your foot off the gas and say '"I'm opting out for a while". When a break is forced upon you due to illness, grief or a big catalytic event, there's something deeply uncomfortable about having to stop, to hide away, to become invisible for a while. It also felt like a huge relief. I felt a genuinely bizarre wave of calm when I dropped my phone from my bed and let it roll underneath to gather dust for a bit.


In her infamous Emmy awards speech, writer and actor Michaela Coel said: "Do not be afraid to disappear – from it, from us – for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence." In premise, it’s great advice. In reality: it's terrifying. Going underground is the closest we come to experiencing our own death – our deep fears rearing their dramatic head: if we go there for a bit, will anyone miss me? What if nobody notices I’m gone at all?

Other ways of describing this subterranean period in culture or in conversation: 

Being 'in the soil' (transforming underground).

Having a 'fallow year' (a farmer not growing any crops for a while so that the quality of the soil can eventually improve).

Living in 'the liminal space', from the Latin 'limen', which means threshold. Limbo comes from the Middle English ‘lymboa’: "A place where innocent souls exist temporarily until they can enter heaven".

Even though we know deep down these periods of life are temporary, it is terrifying not knowing when it will end, when we will be allowed back into the next phase of life. It's an 'Insert Here' kind of feeling, a blank page, the great unknown. 

Some people call it an old-fashioned existential crisis that we're due one every 5-10 years. Or a quarter-life/mid-life crisis, depending on your age. Researcher and storyteller Dr Brené Brown calls it "the mid-life unravelling": when the armour that you've built up over your teens and 20s comes crumbling down. Some people refer to it as the 'cocoon period' or a bear hibernating for the winter, sinking into a state of torpor, to ultimately conserve energy. It's a vortex of some kind, or a gateway. 


Writer Anne Helen Petersen refers to these life transitions as 'The Portal': describing this strange period as "painful and discombobulating". Author Sam Baker calls it 'The Shift', particularly in relation to women growing older with changing bodies. Back in the day Britney Spears hinted at this liminal space in her song I'm Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman. Therapist Donna Lancaster recently coined the phrase 'meno-portal' to describe the menopause – a natural biological transition that we still don't know enough about. There are so many different types of liminal portals (temporary housing, pregnancy, maternity leave, career garden leave) whereby lots of emotions and fear arises: we have no idea what's going to happen next, and it's something we are uncomfortable with.

Our identity doesn't feel solid. 

I was saying goodbye to my former self.

Emma Gannon took a year off because of burnout. Image: Paul Storrie.


 "The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now, Why? 'Cause she's dead."

There is a Dutch word: niksen. It means doing nothing or letting go/stopping. Olga Mecking, the author of Niksen: Embracing the Dutch Art of Doing Nothing describes it as doing something but "letting go of the outcome".

I suppose it doesn't really matter what you call it, which is why I've decided to brand my particular flavour of liminal meltdown "a year of nothing".

I felt like a ghost, floating, untethered – and I visited graveyards more than I ever have before. Some people sometimes say "I didn't really feel like I was there" during intense life transitions, and that is exactly how I felt. I didn't feel 3D, I had to literally 'ground myself' – something I've heard many yoga instructors over the years say and never really listened to or understood. 


We all have to grieve losses: family losses, identity loss, career loss – and on a bigger scale: climate change and grieving the mess of the planet and the loss of wildlife. My youthful jovial personality was shedding like a snake, my vision was cloudy and narrow. My voice sounded different. I felt like I was shifting up a gear. The young maiden becomes a crone.

As a writer, who is used to working solidly and always jotting things down – I kept a diary throughout this year of nothing. I had no work or outward achievements. I had no plans in my diary. I had nothing to root me or guide me. My usual routine was discarded, I was forced to look at what life had become: the things I value, the things that matter, the things that make up a life, the small things: the texture of the green leaves on my houseplants, the soft texture of my blankets, the smell of incense. While most of my friends were pregnant or busy building a family, I was forced to reckon with what my life was going to look like without any of the usual cultural comfort blankets and how to deal with the wide open space in front of me. This book is both a reflection and a thank you letter to my year of nothing–*


*–that turned out to be everything.

A Year of Nothing, a two-book special by Emma Gannon. Image: Supplied/The Pound Project.

A Year of Nothing, a two-book special by Emma Gannon, is out on limited release until June 4th through the Pound Project for £12.99.

Feature image: Paul Storrie.

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