April 15, 2024


Wwhen he was 16, Corey Keyes was finally doing well after a brutal childhood. He got high grades in school, played quarterback on the football team and lived with his loving grandmother in Wisconsin, USA.

But, writes the sociologist and professor emeritus of Emory University in his new book, Miss: How About Bird Alive Again in a world It wears us down, he lived on autopilot, throwing himself into every activity. Every time he slowed down, everything felt “drained of color”. A feeling of “restless emptiness” gnaws at his insides. Terrified that this feeling might haunt him for the rest of his life, he determined to become a sociologist to find out if other people felt the same about “running on empty”, eventually coining the terms “withered” and the antidote ” flourish” or created good spirits. health.

Fainting is not depression, or feeling depressed, and it is not a diagnosis. “It’s a normal reaction to a lot of things going on in our lives,” says Corey. “Heart and fear are normal. But sadness can become depression, and fear can become anxiety when it persists. Similarly, when you stay in a state of decline for too long, it becomes a very debilitating, dangerous thing, just like depression. I’m not trying to pathologize waning. I’m simply saying, if you don’t listen to that empty silence within yourself and do something about it, it will get worse. Trust me, I’ve been there.”

Withering away is a feeling many of us are familiar with, no matter how outwardly successful we consider ourselves. We may have a good job, family, friends, financial security, and more, but the building blocks of flourishing, which are essential if we want to flourish, are missing. To languish, says Corey, “is the absence of well-being. It is the absence of the truly good things that make life meaningful and worthwhile. We all wither in a slightly different way. You may feel you have no purpose in life. You don’t belong. You are not contributing. You don’t have warm relationships. You don’t grow as a person.”

But if you check off some of the above, you’re closer to flourishing, which, Corey says, depends on living a purposeful life. Fortunately, it’s there for the taking, even if you suffer from mental health. It is a life underpinned by community and warm and trusting relationships, spiritual exercise, curiosity and playfulness. The bonus ball, says Corey, is that we can achieve these principles of wellness on our own: we don’t have to wait for doctors or public systems to provide them. Following this internal path, as opposed to the external one of so-called success that depends on others and on factors beyond our control, builds immunity against the stresses of modern life. It enables resilience and staves off anxiety, fear, depression. “So if you have depression, like me, it recedes into the background, it becomes the ghost, and flourishes becomes the friend. That’s why I call flourishing my North Star. The more I focus on it, the longer I stay in recovery from depression.”

The roots of that depression, and the acute sense of not belonging or not mattering to anyone that creeps up on him from time to time, lie in a past that Corey believed he had “overcome.” Happily married to Lisa, his college sweetheart, he was an award-winning academic and comfortably off. But as we speak, he opens up about what he now recognizes as a traumatic childhood and the PTSD it caused.

He grew up in a small town in northern Wisconsin. His father was a construction worker and an alcoholic, often working away. His mother abandoned Corey and his big sister when he was a baby. When Corey was four years old, his father remarried. His stepmother had two daughters of her own and a few years later the new family unit moved to Florida, Corey’s father chasing fair weather work in the south. He says that when his father was out, his stepmother was physically abusive towards Corey and his sister, two years older than him.

“She never touched or hit her own children,” Corey tells me, “but we were hammered almost every day. Hit, hit, kicked, hair pulled. I was bitten a few times. Cigarettes were put out at my place . It was very violent. My father wasn’t there, and he rarely came home before seven in the evening, and when he did, it was clear that he had stopped at the pub on his way, so there was no protection and no awareness whatsoever that it was going on. It seemed futile to tell him.”

He has two memories of his father. One is to wait on the front porch for him to come home on his birthday, convinced that he will come bearing a present for once. He didn’t. The other is forgetting to wash the dog and flipping out his father. “I had to sleep outside.”

“There was a lot of what psychiatrists call ‘dissociation’. When we were in the house, my sister and I never, ever spoke. It was survival. You go deep inside. You’re hiding, you know what’s going on, but there’s a piece of you that goes into the background that no one can touch. It’s the best thing you can do as a child. That’s actually what saved us.” At school, Corey was constantly in detention. “My life went in a bad direction.”

When Corey was 12 years old, his step-uncle came to visit and noticed “this extremely strange behavior”, the two stepdaughters and the parents talking during meals and around the house, Corey and his sister never saying a word. They only talked to each other when they were alone. His step-uncle notified Corey’s grandparents and arrangements were made for Corey and his sister to be adopted by them. “Transplanted” to a place of love, Corey blossomed. Tragically, his beloved grandfather passed away two years later. “It was very difficult for me. I thought, I didn’t have you long enough.” Sensing this, his grandmother told her 14-year-old grandson a story.

“She told me how she found me in the crib about a week after I was born. My mom just left and didn’t come back. We were left for days, me and my two-year-old sister. My father worked in construction outside of town. My grandmother called and called, and so, after a few days of no response, she went to the house and found me in our crib. Our pants are full you know what, we haven’t eaten, I had pneumonia. She said: ‘There was very little they could do for a barely week old baby with pneumonia. Corey, you have to understand how strong you were. How strong you are. You beat pneumonia. I want you to know you are a survivor.’

“There was a part of me that wished I’d never heard that story – that my mother had just walked away. It hollows me out to even think about it and talk about it to this day. But I have a hunch that if I hadn’t been adopted and tasted what love is like, my fiery determination wouldn’t be there. I knew I was worth something.”

He decided “to be seen”, partly achieved through his academic research which he considered his “higher purpose”, all the while trying to “forget that I was considered rubbish to most people”. Then one day, at the height of his career, his “higher purpose” was swept from under him when a book was published which, he writes, “introduced a model of flourishing remarkably similar to my own”. His response was sharp: it cost me my dignity, my purpose and everything I had to give. The world just took it.” That’s how it felt to Corey, testament to how deeply his insecurity was embedded in his psyche.

Today, he sees this episode for what it was: a mid-career meltdown, one that showed him that, “no matter how much you’ve tasted prosperity, until you let go of the things in the past that trigger you have, you will not prosper for long.enough.

“It’s also easy to say that if you put all your purpose into your work, it can be like placing a very big bet with the last bit of money you have. Maybe you’ll win that bet…” And maybe you won’t.

On the night of his collapse, he told his wife that he could not go on; he was exhausted, no one needed him. “I remember the pause, and then she said those four words: ‘But I need you.’ I knew she meant what she said. To this day I’m like, whoa! I feel it now. Wow!”

What saved Corey from his past is his own theory of well-being: that if love and human connection prevail, if you are needed by another, if you matter to them and serve them and others, you give yourself purpose and meaning and gave the way. to thrive is once again yours for the taking. “That’s the whole message,” says Corey, “and the hope.”

Languishing: How To Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down is published by Torva at £20, or buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com for £17



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