Gradually, Then Suddenly.

What to do when you find yourself suddenly struggling.


“How did I get to this point?”

I asked myself this question repeatedly as I drove to my parents’ house in a state of utter exhaustion. My young daughter was strapped in the back seat, my pregnant belly pushing against the steering wheel, tears streaming down my face.

I was done. I had nothing left to give. How did I get here?

Gradually, then suddenly.

With eternal gratitude to Hemingway, three simple words so elegantly summarise how I ended up in a situation I didn’t want or expect.

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Gradually, then suddenly.”

~ Ernest Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises)

It happened so gradually, almost imperceptibly. And then suddenly, unequivocally, shockingly, I snapped.

Looking back, I can see that I had willingly immersed myself in anxiety, perfectionism, comparisons, sleep-deprivation, a lack of mindfulness, poor health, and the idea that I deserved more from life.

Gradually, these things took their toll. Until suddenly I found myself in a very frightening place.

This gradual, then sudden decline is not reserved for dramatic breakdowns. It’s not reserved for high-achievers, or emotionally sensitive people.

We each face sudden declines. Moments where we realise what we’ve been neglecting, treating poorly, or taking for granted. It could be our:

  • Health – the moment we step on the scales, try to walk three flights of stairs, or look at a recent photo.
  • Addictions – the moment we realise we cannot cut ties to a substance, emotion, or person.
  • Debt – the moment we are brave enough to look at our credit card statement, answer the debt collector’s phone call, or realise we’re living beyond our means.
  • Clutter – the moment we realise how materialistic we’ve become, how much money has been spent on stuff, or how entitled our children are.
  • Time – the moment we realise we’ve watched more than sixty days worth of television in a year, the months are passing with little to show for it, or the reflection in the mirror is ten years older than we remember.
  • Relationships – the moment we realise we haven’t spoken to our best friend in months, seen our grandmother since Christmas, or played CandyLand with our kids.

Either we’ve stopped paying attention to what’s important, or we’ve decided that not knowing the truth of our situation is preferable to seeing the reality.

Unfortunately for us, there will come a moment when things snap back into focus. And that moment will build gradually and arrive suddenly, leaving us reeling.

Turn It Around by Embracing What Matters

Just like the decline, the ascent will be gradual.

When my husband picked me up from my parents’ house that evening three years ago, we drove home in silence. Our daughter was sleeping peacefully in the back seat and I felt relief. That night’s rest was the first uninterrupted sleep I’d had in years.

Over time, I have turned things around. I am happier, healthier, more engaged, and more content than I have ever been.

As I realised my life had been one big, precarious balancing act, I began to see what was and was not important.

Establish Priorities

I took the time to work out what truly mattered. Once I removed the expectations, the comparisons and the thought that I “deserved more from life” it was quite simple to see what my priorities were.

My husband and children, love, creativity, health, spirituality, joy and beauty. And importantly, making the time, space, and energy to experience each of these fully.

Your priorities are likely very different to mine. But ask yourself, “If I took away the expectations, comparisons, and entitlement, what would be most important to me? Where do my priorities lie?”

Embrace Mindfulness

Initially, embracing mindfulness and really engaging with my family, friends, and work was terrifying. What if I was lacking? What if I didn’t like what I saw? What if they didn’t like what they saw?

Over time I discovered there is so much more to experience in life by practicing mindfulness. Taking the time to engage in fierce and real conversations, to notice the exact shade of lavender in a sunset, to be completely in the moment. There is depth and joy right there.

Care for Your Self

I long neglected my own health—both physical and mental. But as I started my ascent I began to see huge benefits to time spent on myself.

Counselling, time spent alone, eating clean foods, drinking less alcohol, sleeping more, exercising regularly, rising early—these changes all assisted my ascent.

When you are unwell or in poor health, you can’t fully engage with those people and things that matter. Too much of your energy will go towards simply getting through the day. So ask yourself, “What is one thing I can change today that will help improve my health?”

Find Contentment

Learning to be content with my circumstance has helped me live a far more meaningful life. Finding contentment has brought peace and gratitude and happiness, where for years there had been none.

I no longer feel like I deserve more from life. I know I can work towards goals and dreams – and I do, every day – but I no longer feel entitled to them. It’s incredibly liberating.

If you can find contentment in where you are right now, the pressure, the anxiety, and the stress of needing to be more simply disappears, leaving you free to pursue your goals and dreams from a place of peace and acceptance.

Don’t Wait

Don’t wait until you hit the sudden decline. The beauty of it is that you can choose to turn it around today.


The full version of this post was published Tiny Buddha in July 2013. 

21 Responses to Gradually, Then Suddenly.

  1. Your writing stuns me sometimes, Brooke. I finding myself saying, “Whoa. I need to internalize this before it slips away.”

    I can see how my life would unravel in the next couple of years if certain scenarios plays out. Right now my self-sabotage is gradual, but like you, it could be sudden. I’m taking some deep breaths right now to decide what I should do as a result of reading this. For now, let me simply say, “Thank you.”

  2. I had this happen last month. Gradually, then suddenly is exactly how I had my first ever anxiety attack. People who were told it’d happened couldn’t understand how I had let myself get to that point, and all I could say was that it was like my sould was being chipped away slowly.
    Hemmingway captures it so much better – thank you Brooke xo

  3. I’m struggling with this right now. And the sad part is that work and commuting take up so much of my time that I know I need to take care of myself when I get home, but I can’t find the energy.

  4. Thank you for your words. I think I’ve been feeling in that down place for a while – I’ve been slowly starting to crawl back out. Starting my blog has been a help, it’s nice to connect and share and have an impetus to be creative. It’s a slow process, changing your life, but thank you for reaffirming that it can be done :)

  5. Thank you. I am very close to the “then suddenly”. I hope I can take your advice and turn things around before I crack.

  6. I happen to stumble onto your blog today, this post, after a strange day of reflection and realisation. You know the saying ‘when the student is ready the teacher will be found’? This post has been to me like words from a wise teacher. Thanku.

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