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Archive for the ‘Feeling Mad, Sad, or Afraid’ Category

Two lessons from the death of Robin Williams

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I don’t have much to add to the stream of grief many people are expressing about the death of this great comic artist. I loved him too, and have been preoccupied by the fact that he was defeated by his diseases. I wish his family comfort and rest during this time, and am thankful that he is at rest from his suffering.

But I want to underscore two things.

First, as many have noted, this is a powerful example of the danger of depression. Blogger Dave Weigel captures it well here. I’ve worked for years with clients battling depression, and I know what kind of dragon it is, and how hard it is to slay. Sometimes the more successful survivors of depression simply learn how to ride the dragon, or talk to it, or appease it. Often enough the dragon becomes their muse. But this is a reminder that the dragon of depression breathes fire, and must be respected.

But there’s a second lesson in the sad death of Robin Williams. And that is this: he was also killed by the disease of addiction. I don’t know his personal story, and it’s not my business, but I know what we all know: he had a history of rehab and relapse. He fought this dragon too. As a clinician, I know the term for his problems is “co-occurring disorders,” that is, he had a mood disorder (depression) and a substance-abuse disorder. Whatever. The clinical terminology doesn’t capture the depth of his darkness. It doesn’t satisfy my desire to understand or explain what he was up against.

Two dragons, not one. Two monsters.

Addiction offers you a solution, but the solution betrays you and only deepens your crisis. You drink from the chalice of addiction and only become more thirsty. Like depression, there are real solutions to addiction: we live in an era when addicts and alcoholics can go to rehab, attend daily meetings, and build a sober community that helps us stay in healthy recovery. But we also live in an era when addicts and alcoholics don’t get the help they need, often enough because it’s hard to read the signs, or hard to follow through, or just hard. It can be so hard. It makes sense to me that he didn’t make it. Many don’t.

I want to remember the life and achievements of Robin Williams. And when I remember his death, I will keep in mind that he was fighting two dangerous dragons simultaneously. Remembering him this way can save a life: if you are concerned about depression, in yourself or in a friend, take heed that it is a potentially fatal illness. But remember that’s also true for addiction. And both illnesses are treatable today. And—it’s hard.

Much love and peace to you on your journey, Robin.

Laziness does not exist, cont’d

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

There’s one more thing I want to say about laziness.

I was too lazy to post it before. (joke)

Sometimes people confuse ordinary, healthy resistance with “laziness.”

You might be resisting something not because you’re lazy, but because the thing you’ve been told you’re “supposed” to do is just not what you want to do, or just not what you want, period. Or it’s something you don’t need, or shouldn’t do. We all get “should” statements like “I should weigh ___ pounds” or “I should expand my job search in this field” or “I should break up with that person already!” … and sometimes your resistance is a sign that you really shouldn’t do that thing right now. Or at least you don’t need to. You may need to do something else first, or spend some more time in reflection and discernment.

Resistance is nothing more than information about yourself or your situation—information that you can receive and use. “I’m too lazy to get up off my butt and join a gym,” you tell yourself. What if it’s not that at all? What if your body is telling you it needs you to sit in silence and stillness at least once a day, and only then will you feel motivated to exercise? What if your body is telling you you’re sick and need to see the doctor? What if your doctor advised you to exercise more but didn’t listen to what you were saying about your anxiety? Resistance always makes sense.

So don’t confuse resistance with (fictional) “laziness.” Listen to your resistance: it’s a cluster of feelings and behaviors that are trying to tell you something. Only then can you understand the resistance and move through it, into action.

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Person of the week

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

One time, long ago, I found a certain person in my personal life difficult. I found it hard to like this person. I found him/her to be provocative, and I noticed that I felt irritable whenever this person was around. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t you!)

So here’s what I did. I held this person in my mind and on my heart for about 30 seconds each day. I thought about their name, and sometimes said it aloud. I allowed this person to occupy my consciousness in an intentional way. After a while (longer than I want to admit), I began to understand this person a little better, react with less irritation, and even like this person.

And so I present this technique to help you appreciate bothersome people in your life, so that you can let go of the negative effect they have on you, and even grow a little bit yourself: Person of the Week.

Each week, select someone in your life who “brings stuff up” for you, riles you, bothers you, angers you. Or maybe they make you sad, or anxious, or worried. Maybe it’s a co-worker and you can’t do anything to change your working relationship with them, so you just want to make your day-to-day contact more tolerable. Maybe it’s a family member, or a friend of a friend. Maybe it’s your beloved spouse, or your child. Anyone!

For the week, adopt a practice in which you keep this person on your mind or heart for some short amount of time each day. If you’re a creative-arts type, you could doodle their name and sketch something from the letters of their name (it can be something upsetting or unkind: be yourself!). But your goal is to move from lacking kindness for the person to tolerating them, and then to acceptance of their presence in your life.

Use humor, and apply it to yourself in liberal amounts. Remind yourself that you can sometimes find practically anybody irritating if you’re in the wrong mood. Be gentle but also goad yourself a bit: okay okay! you might tell yourself. Time to hold this person for 30 seconds! Take a deep breath, center yourself, and breathe your way through the 30 seconds of mental time you’re sharing with them.

There’s a saying that crazy thoughts (or ‘crazy’ people) sometimes occupy our mental real estate “rent-free,” and our job is (I suppose) to evict them. In this exercise, you’re inviting them into your mind as a guest. An irritating, bothersome, challenging guest—but a guest.

It’s okay if it takes longer than a week. You could adopt a “Person of the Month” practice. Take all the time you need.

But above all, remember this: the person you hold in your mind or on your heart is not you yourself. This practice takes you out of yourself. And if you’re anything like me, you will feel relief when you do so!

The importance of friendship

Friday, February 24th, 2012

You’ve probably heard therapists (or people who make fun of therapists) talking about the importance of loving yourself. And you’ve probably learned from pop culture the importance of loving your partner. Lots of people feel upset when they can’t come up with anything close to self-love, and many couples worry when they don’t feel strong love for one another. Maybe today you just feel…meh. Or maybe your relationship has (or has had) a lot of passion, but not enough of an everyday sense of pleasure in one another’s company.

So let’s sing the praises of liking yourself, liking your partner, and cultivating friendship in your life. John Gottman has a lot to say about the importance—and the enduring power—of simple friendship in romantic relationships. And friendship is built in thousands of small ways. My favorite example is actually not from a romantic relationship. It’s from the relationship I had with my mother, who died 15 years ago. Once I got to college I started to notice that my mother was taking an interest in me for no reason other than she thought I was interesting. She would ask me questions about my activities, or my friends, or my day, and she would simply enjoy the information. Sometimes she’d unexpectedly show up in my life. My favorite example: my college sent my parents a note telling them that I was receiving a scholarship at a little award ceremony. And I mean little—it was a Tuesday-afternoon kind of affair. I almost didn’t go. But I walked over to the auditorium, and there was my mother. Maybe you think this is just something mothers (or fathers) do. But my experience of it was that she simply wanted to express interest in my life, not as a parent, but as a supportive friend. Sometimes she would just be looking at me, and I’d get the sense that she was curious about me, interested in me, not because I was her son, but just because she thought I was…interesting.

I probably understood this more fully after she was gone, but even then I could tell that she was cultivating a friendship with me. She wasn’t trying to be my parent, or my mentor. She just thought I was fascinating and unique, and she wanted to have a front-row seat in my life.

There are times when I do this with my spouse. I have no interest in gardening, for example, but he brings his wizardly powers to the garden each season, and there are times when I walk out there and find out what he’s doing, not because I’m interested in the garden itself, but because it fascinates me to watch another human being do something he loves to do, something that is beyond my own interest or ken. I married an introvert, so I often have to quiet down and really watch, really listen, to truly encounter his world. It’s one of the reasons why we’re such good friends. Another: I delight in his laughter when we’re watching (currently) reruns of “30 Rock.” His amusement is like a balm for me.

Other times—and this may sound odd—I cultivate a friendship with myself. I ask myself questions about how I’m doing, what’s coming up for me, what my reactions to others are all about. And I ask these questions from a stance of curiosity, not frustrated criticism. I ask myself things like, “I wonder why I keep blowing that off. Maybe I never really wanted to do it…?” I wonder. I wonder…

Friendship (with self, family, friends, and lovers) is underrated, perhaps because it is so abundantly available. All it takes is a little curiosity, and paying attention to another person, encountering (if you can) their world. (To do so, you have to leave yours for a moment.) It’s as important to our emotional needs and sense of security as any passionate romantic union. Is there anyone in your life today whom you feel curious about? Someone you might want to connect with, get to know better? Maybe it’s you yourself. I hope you can make the connection, and enjoy more and more the ordinary yet life-changing experience of friendship.

Water 101

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I want to sing the praises of water as a useful therapy tool. More than useful: it’s an essential ingredient in any sane person’s sanity-preservation kit.

Years ago I knew someone who was prone to anxiety attacks. I had read while studying Dialectical Behavioral Therapy that holding your face in a bowl of ice-cold water for 30 seconds can be a quick and effective way to, well, literally chill out. I think DBT also taught me the ice-cube technique I used on my friend. I told him to just sit tight, I’ll be right back. I went to the fridge and filled a cereal bowl with ice cubes, came back, and said, “Here. Hold these in your hand.” He obeyed (he was too anxious to resist or push back with questions). Within one minute, his anxiety attack was over. He was looking at his freezing-cold hand, and the pain of that coldness had yanked him out of his anxiety. His brain had something else to focus on.

Is this the total solution to your anxiety problems? No. You’ll probably also have to talk about it, to work through it cognitively. But it’s a great example of how water (this time, in its frozen form) can manipulate our bodies in such a way that anxiety suddenly drops down to normal levels. This is because we experience emotions in our physical bodies. Emotions are physiological phenomena. The ice-cube technique works with anxiety, but also anger: if you’re enraged about something, go grab some ice cubes. You’ll start to calm down almost immediately, and you can then work effectively deal with what (or who) made you mad.

Hot water works too. I’m a big fan of hot baths as a way to relax, but also regroup, re-organize, and re-orient both my head and my heart so that I can look at a problem in a new way. Even simply washing your hands and face with hot water and soap can be an effective self-soothing skill that frees you to engage your problem with strength and renewed concentration.

We’re mostly made of water, and we live on a planet with 70% of its crust submerged under water. Water is everywhere. It only stands to reason that water can be a powerful tool that helps us relax, refocus, and approach our complex issues with a refreshed body and mind.

Bonus: ice cubes are way cheaper than meds…and no side effects!

I learned a lot…and it was hard

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

As I mentioned in the previous post, I spent three days this past week attending a human-interaction-skills lab, a training program that offers participants the opportunity to experiment with new behaviors in a group setting, and get feedback about the impact of those behaviors. The goals are to increase your awareness of the way you behave with others, improve your relationship skills, and, in general, stretch and grow in the area of human interaction.

And this was my goal: to 1) not use charm to get what I want; and 2) tell the truth. It sounds immodest, but I can be very charming! I have a natural friendliness, and a desire to be liked by others. I’m an extravert, and I enjoy the company of other people. If you’re my friend, or my client, or my sibling, I will rely on my natural humor and smiles and generally buoyant personality to connect with you. It’s not fake. I truly am a nice, sweet guy! But there are times when that sweetness can get in the way of my personal growth. Specifically, there are times when I might use a joke to diffuse healthy tension, or rely on my own personal warmth to avoid an important confrontation that I need to have with someone who is important to me.

So…for this training, I followed a few basic rules. If I didn’t think a joke was funny, I wouldn’t laugh at it. Even if I thought it was funny, but also thought that all the laughter was getting in the way of the intensity I needed to learn something new, I would not only resist laughing, but I wouldn’t even smile. I did nothing untruthful: I was not negative or hostile in a fake or artificial way. I just peeled back the warmer side of my personality so that I could be more direct—and more intense!—with my group members.

Well. This certainly got a reaction. The content of our group process is confidential, but I think it’s okay to say that I was not a very popular participant in the group. It was interesting to see how my usual good humor and sweet personality really softens the experience I have with people, and how, when I strip that away, I put myself in hot water. This was difficult, but I really, really wanted to learn from this! A growing edge for me is ‘speaking truth to power,’ to borrow a common phrase. It can be hard to confront both myself and others with the painful truth of my honest reaction, my challenging opinion, my hard-to-hear concern.

For example, when I felt the group was getting off track, I would say something like, “I feel frustrated, because right now my experience of the group is that we are avoiding our task and just taking care of each other. I wish we could get back to the real reason why we’re here.” That was hard for me to say! I felt a ton of social pressure to just go along, be sweet, suppress my frustration.

Why did I do this? Well, one good reason is that I expect that my clients will tolerate pain for growth, so I can’t dodge that same pain myself. I need to practice what I preach. And, as odd as it sounds, I felt true pleasure in stretching like this. On the final day, after our group processes were finished, I relaxed and let my fellow participants see my full personality. I joked and smiled again, and thanked them for working with me on my goals. But I felt a lovely feeling of satisfaction that I had really taken this training seriously, and pushed myself to make the most of this laboratory learning.

Now that it’s over, I’m glad it’s over! But I move forward with more insight about how I can continue to stretch myself, to challenge myself, in my truthful interactions with others.

Seattle weather: a reflection

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Okay. First just let me say, *sigh.*

One more. *sigh*

Okay, just one more. *SIGH*

Now can I try to put a positive spin on this?

It’s been a really rough winter in Seattle. And I know that sounds whiny, particularly if you’re one of my relatives from Minnesota. Seattle Whiner: “It barely made it above 40 for like, what, six months in a row?!” Minnesota Whiner: “Ha! 40 what? Degrees? You actually had degrees above zero??!”

But it has been rough. It’s been cold, and cloudy, and rainy. We have sun breaks (like today!), but they are short-lived. It’s May 11, and the rhododendrons are barely budding. I’m not an expert, but I think they’d be almost over—or at least in full flower—by now. (Minnesotans are once again snorting and rolling their eyes…) I can now say it’s been the hardest winter, weather-wise, since I moved here in 1997.

And then there’s today. To illustrate what happened to me today, I give you my Facebook post from this morning’s coffee time (click on the image if it appears too small):

But I want to do more on sunny mornings like this than just sing a great song and appreciate the break. (Though that’s a good thing to do. I recommend it.) I want to figure out what all this weather has done to me, or with me, over the past few months. I want to do some meaning-making, people!

And here’s what I’ve come up with: Seattle’s crappy weather has gotten me in touch with the restlessness and uncertainty I’m feeling in several areas of my life. It’s gotten me thinking about, oh, everything: what I’m eating, how (and whether) I’m exercising, what’s going on with my money, how my marriage is going, how my practice is doing, what my friendships and other relationships are bringing up for me, what I envision for 2012 and beyond…and so on. (Maybe it sounds a little self-focused, but did I mention the weather’s been cruddy in Seattle?!)

In short, the weather has made it almost impossible for me to be complacent. In a typical year, the sun pops out plenty of times, especially after the grueling month of February. And so I sing a bar of “Sesame Street” and go about my day. But this year, when I’m not joining my fellow Seattleites in sun dances, I’m forced to confront the fact that life isn’t always a song about muppets. Sometimes you have to take stock, look at things critically, ask the crucial “wonderment” questions of your life. Questions like… I wonder what kind of retirement funds I want tucked away by 2015. I wonder whether my daily work is really lighting my fire, and if so, whether I’m celebrating that enough…and if not, why that might be. I wonder…

But for now, I’m taking in the blue sky, so these questions can wait for the next gray and gloomy weather front.

It should be along in a few minutes.

Just for fun, some paint therapy

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Happy spring, everyone! And for those of you who are still well aware that it’s unseasonably cold in Seattle, and windy today, and look, the clouds are back after a sunny morning, so blurg… well, I have a suggestion: how about painting a bright accent wall in your favorite room?

I know, it’s silly. I’m a therapist, right? I’m supposed to help you gain insight about your late-winter blues and help you take concrete steps toward happiness. Okay…I’m happy to do that. But I also think that sometimes a small project like the one I did yesterday is just the kind of thing we need to see the world differently.

I had been looking at my office with a critical eye for several weeks, and I knew that rearranging the furniture was going to happen—I usually turn everything around every year or so, just to give myself a new physical perspective, a new way to occupy a room where I spend so much time. But this time, it just wasn’t enough. I realized that I had never done anything about the industrial white walls of my office, other than hang a few pretty pictures. I needed some paint therapy.

This was my first time, so it didn’t go entirely as planned, but it was less difficult than I had imagined. I polled a few clients as we were walking out of the office at the end of their sessions: so, take a quick look at that wall. What color should it be? The suggestions were all over the map: “dining-room red,” “gold/yellow/earthy,” “lush meadow green,” “sky blue.” Red seemed too dark and angry for a therapy office, and yellow seemed too, I don’t know, chipper, I guess. And blue seemed too cold. So green it was, and I settled on “Herbal Green,” as you can see below. The office feels so much better—more color, of course, but also more energy, more liveliness. I’m really ready for the warm green months of the year!

 

Valentine’s Day 101

Monday, February 14th, 2011

So, today’s the day. That ambivalent, complicated, frustrating day (for many people). Like Christmas and other holidays, it can be hard to feel good today when you’ve lost someone, or been dumped by someone, or have never had a Special Someone. It can be particularly hard if you thought you had a soulmate, but learned that the person you loved no longer loves you, or isn’t who you thought he/she is. Valentine’s Day is not just a day for candy hearts.

In 2009, when Valentine’s Day fell on a Saturday, I was open for business and saw several couples. (I had plenty of chocolate in the office.) I still believe couples therapy is the best Valentine’s Day gift! But if that’s too strong a potion for you, I’ll offer my reflections on the day, including my beliefs about what exactly is worthy of celebration today.

Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about romantic love. It has a history in the Christian tradition, and was sometimes a feast of “agape” love, or the kind of love one would share with God and other members of one’s spiritual community. Valentines—the greeting-cards, that is—date back centuries and slowly shifted the emphasis to romantic relationships. At this point, I think we can decide for ourselves what we think (if anything) this holiday means. And I have two answers that work for me:

1. Valentine’s Day is simply a chance to chase away the February blues with beautiful colors and rich foods. Deep-red chocolate boxes, a succulent dinner (at home: I don’t go near restaurants on this day), a chocolate-peanut cluster paired with a sweet ice wine. I accept today as simply an aesthetic respite in late winter. You could buy flowers, but it’s more sustainable—and more cheering—to take a walk and notice the small crocuses that are pushing out of the cold ground. Winter is almost over.

2. Valentine’s Day is a chance to notice, and celebrate, all of the forms of love that you experience in your life, whether it’s parental, romantic, friendship, collegial, animal-companion, or even self-love. If you feel lonesome this year, take today to reflect appreciatively about your own self, your own best qualities…and how you bring that ‘best self’ into the many relationships you have in your life. When we feel heartbroken, we can be tempted think that the person who left us took away all the love in our lives, all the delight. It really feels that way for a lot of people, particularly on February 14th. But it’s not true. Today can be a good day to tune back in to the reality of love—in all its forms—that surrounds you, even during times of painful loneliness.

And I think it’s worth saying again: chocolate-peanut clusters are really tasty. I think on this rainy Valentine’s Day, you can afford to have two!

Face plant

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Well, I just have to admit it—I fell flat on my face the other night. Literally. I was walking the dogs at the end of the evening, and something went wrong (for the third time!) with our younger dog Hoku’s leash, and in a flash of confusion and commotion, he was gone. There I was, walking Stella on my left, holding a dog-less leash on my right. I broke into a run. “Hoku! Hoku!!” I yelled into the night. But he was gone.

And then I tripped on a buckled sidewalk and went down, head first. Broken glasses, scraped nose, scraped knee, cut leg. And poor Stella suffered a little scrape under her lower lip.

Face plant.

Frantic, in a blind panic, I kept searching for Hoku, walking breathless through north Ballard for what turned into two or more hours, calling his name in vain. Finally, in tears, I gave up and headed back to the house. And there he was, standing up, healthy and whole, in our front yard. I rushed toward him and pulled us all inside to safety. My sense of relief is hard to put into words.

After a few days of reflection, it’s hard to know what to say about this experience. On the surface, it was just a bad night. It doesn’t offer a lot of wisdom or insight about me or my life. It certainly reinforces my faith in the natural wisdom of canine companions and their uncanny ability to know what’s most important, how best to behave in a crisis. Of the three of us—me, Stella, and Hoku—I was definitely the least functional, the least adaptive to the unique and terrible challenge of that night.

But I’ll offer this reflection: it was a reminder to me of my frailty. I am not always powerful. I do not always know what to do, or how to do it. I am vulnerable to terrible loss, and also the particularly human dysfunction that can follow a (perceived) loss. I still shudder to think how I would feel if Hoku had never reappeared that night. How would I have dealt with the grief, and the guilt? I still don’t know.

I work day by day with human beings who struggle and strive to be the best they can be in their lives. They work hard to confront their inner demons, wrestle valiantly with their emotions, and build lasting, healthy relationships. And I do the same myself. But there are days—and nights—when I am reminded that as strong as I am, and no matter how many skills I have, I can find myself in a terrible situation in which I am, to put it mildly, helpless.

After we were all safe and sound, I brought Hoku up onto the bed and put my arm around him. He didn’t know why—he was fine, after all! But I needed the comfort of his living presence after a harrowing night. For a little while, he was stronger than me. He was more secure. And that’s okay. Dogs don’t share the existential anxiety and emotional complexity of humans, bless them. We all lived to see another day, and my little wounds are healing. I am glad that night is over, and I can also honestly say that I appreciate the hard lesson it taught me (once again): there is a limit to my strength, a border around my power. I am vulnerable.

And that is just one part of the wonder of my abundant life.

Hoku ala Papageno, our good little dog who found his way home.

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Stephen Crippen
Seattle, WA
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Email: stephen@stephencrippen.com
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