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Archive for the ‘News and events’ Category

Take good care

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

I work with both individuals and couples in my practice. I also work with Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Greens. I know that I’ve had people in my office recently who supported Hillary, Bernie, and yes, even Trump.

I can’t disclose client data publicly, but I think it’s not a surprise and will reveal the identity no one in particular to say that we are all just flipping out. This is truly a traumatic time for most of us. Seriously: take my diagnostic manual off my shelf, turn to the PTSD page, and yeah, that’s us. Except it’s not even “post” trauma. The trauma is happening right now, like a live video on Facebook.

One couple felt sheepish that they were coming to work on relationship problems while the world outside my office seemed to be hurtling into apocalypse. I dispensed with that concern immediately: there is probably no better thing to do right now, for all of us, than to take good care of our personal relationships. That has to be a starting point for us. Tempers are beyond frayed; people are losing sleep (I finally got a full night of sleep last night, after laying awake the night before feeling profound anxiety about what was happening); even therapists like me are getting therapy to cope with the strain.

I also believe that what happens globally also happens locally, in the same general pattern. If you’re in a pattern of discord and chaos in your primary relationship, some of the dynamics of that problem mirror the dynamics we see in the news: you are likely interacting with unflattering caricatures of each other; you are likely making decisions from an unconscious place of emotional overstimulation; you likely have much more in common with each other than you are prepared to admit; and you likely do have authentic hope that you can somehow make your way through the mess, even though that hope proves elusive right now.

So my advice to you, and to myself is this: “take good care.” It’s how I sign off on my emails, and for me it’s more than just a nice courteous way to sign a note. I really mean it. Take good care of your relationships. Take good care of your physical bodies. Start there. You are probably being traumatized right now, and for some of you, you obviously are, and you know that. Focusing on your personal needs is not only okay to do, it is essential.

Know also that when I say “take good care” to you, I am also saying it to myself, about you. When I write it in an email, it is a wish that moves in both directions: I am gently reminding myself to take good care of you, as best I can in my role as your therapist.

History is full of dreadful stories of political and social upheaval, violence, trauma, and terror. We are moving through that right now. Will we survive? Yes and no. We are a resilient species, and we have many gifts and skills. We are also deeply fallible and universally mortal. At some point, none of us will be here to see how things turned out.

In the meantime, take good care, and know that you are not alone.

Freedom to marry: a conservative idea

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

Many people assume that freedom to marry for all couples (gay or straight) is a liberal, progressive idea. And…it’s easy to see why they make that assumption: freedom to marry for all couples certainly looks like a progressive response to a changing society.

But freedom to marry is a concept that many political conservatives enthusiastically support. ‘Marriage’ as we understand it today can often bring to mind a heterosexual couple, but many conservatives want to expand the definition, understanding that all couples should be encouraged to embrace the stability, community support, and family cohesion that comes with marriage.

What would happen if marriage became legal for all couples, including gay and lesbian couples? More people would publicly promise to share their lives, to commit to one another, and to stand firmly as a couple within their larger families, networks of friends, and communities. (And many, including me and my spouse, count faith communities among those we cherish.)

Many of us need to move from a place of concern on this issue. I myself had to do that when I came out in 1991. My first question, posed to a Lutheran pastor, was, “But…aren’t I supposed to believe that God doesn’t like gay people?” This good pastor answered me with three questions: “Stephen,” he said, “do you think God makes mistakes? And Stephen, how do you think God feels about loving relationships? Do you think God wants more of them in the world, or fewer?”

Can you hear the conservatism in these questions? My pastor was helping me make sense of my orientation and accept the truth about who I am not by leading me away from our shared tradition, but by affirming that what I desired—to accept myself fully, and to love one other person (who, it turned out, would be a man) in a lifelong commitment—was an expression of two age-old beliefs: a belief in the fundamental worth of every human being, and a belief in marriage. It’s a lovely vision.

And a conservative one.

For more, I defer to the inimitable Andrew Sullivan.

“Come home.” Where’s that?

Friday, June 1st, 2012

My well-meaning sister said I should just “come home.” She’s wicked smart and knows full well that she isn’t giving me logical advice, that her appeal is about her concern for my safety, and her simple wish to connect with me when CNN tells her that guns have fired in Seattle. “Come home,” she said, meaning the Twin Cities, Minnesota.

But I wouldn’t be safer there, either. And not just from flying bullets.

I wouldn’t be protected from a national culture that refuses to take responsibility for the (literally) dead-serious problem of mental illness.

I wouldn’t be protected from a national culture that tolerates racist systems of oppression, revealed just this week when the shooting deaths of white people by a white shooter made national headlines, but the shooting deaths of black or brown people by black or brown shooters are met with a yawn and a sigh, oh well, isn’t that what life is always like in the Central District?

I wouldn’t be protected from an economic climate of profound, chronic, debilitating anxiety which wears down even the privileged and comfortable, and pushes the people on the edge into the abyss of despair and violence.

I wouldn’t be protected from a political climate of demented absurdity in which my decision to marry a man is more troubling to so-called “conservatives” than the violence that is destroying lives, families, and communities, seemingly without end.

If “home” is a place where I am protected from all of those things, then I am homeless.

How about this: yes, dear sister, I will come home. But home for me is this: home is where I stand with my friends, neighbors, and even my so-called enemies against violence and ignorance. Home is where I resolve to be a teacher, and a good listener, and a safe and well-informed neighbor…and voter. Home is where I state openly and often that I support leaders who want to take guns off the streets, and ensure that we all pay the high cost of effective mental-health treatment, and the high cost of sound education for everyone’s children, and the high cost of neighborhood renewal and development throughout my beloved city. Home is where I decide to say: Enough. I am going to do more, do my part and then some, to resurrect a safer city from the tragic deaths of my neighbors.

Down with initiatives! Who’s with me?

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I’m departing from my usual topics (therapy, relationships) to talk about an issue that really fires me up. Not sure if that’s okay in the world of therapy blogs (that’s probably a pretty tiny world), but hey, it’s another example of how I think, and what I care about, so maybe it still has value for clients. And as the song goes, it’s my blog, so I’ll rant if I want to… Regardless, I want to get this off my chest.

Whatever your position on equal marriage rights for all citizens, surely you’ll agree that Monday was an historic day in the state of Washington. Marriage rights are the law of the land now. Well, that’s not exactly true. They’ll be the law of the land if and when the inevitable ballot initiative is defeated in November. (Actually, there may be two initiatives. Blurg.)

I loathe ballot initiatives. Not “dislike.” Not “disapprove.” I see them as a pernicious threat to everything we hold dear about our political life in this democratic republic. And their wickedness is two-fold: not only do they undermine the power of the electorate, but they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, appearing on the surface to be the opposite of what they truly are.

Here’s how I see things as a voting citizen of this state and nation: I always vote. I vote in elections big, small, and tiny, and I vote for president, Congress, the legislature, judges, Port Authority officials, mayor, school-board directors, everything. You want me to vote for dog catcher? Great, happy to do it. And as a voter, I have the right to write my representatives, campaign for them, campaign against them, hey, I could even run against them myself. And between elections I have the right to read free media that covers what they’re doing.

And here’s what I see: they present legislation, debate legislation, block legislation, amend legislation, form coalitions to overturn or pass legislation, implement legislation, and on and on. There are tons of problems with the process–campaign finance and what Mitt Romney likes to call “closed-room” decision-making, to name two. I don’t pretend the system is running in a clean and spiffy way. But it’s a system, a democratic republic. I like it.

I watched that system work here in Washington as our duly-elected governor and representatives signed equal marriage rights into law. It was a triumph, but more importantly it was a triumph of discernment, debate, and legislation. The governor herself chose to go through a process in which she moved from opposing the idea to being ambivalent about it to embracing it. And now, after the people have (through their elected representatives) spoken, sore losers are working to put initiatives on the ballot to overturn the law.

I can say honestly that if the law had not been enacted—if it had failed in this legislative session—I would not have supported a ballot initiative to remedy the problem. I would have felt disappointed, but that’s how things go in a democratic republic. We would have lost this one. There’s always next session, next year.

But that’s not good enough for the sore losers. They want to win, regardless of the process. So here’s what they do: they collect 120,577 signatures, get ballot language approved, and put the issue directly before the people for a simple show of hands, preceded by nine months of aggressive advertising by both sides, paid for in large part by out-of-state special-interest groups. The issue this time is gay marriage, but typically it has to do with taxes. So all the voters trudge to the polls (or the mailbox, I should say) and revisit the issues they elected their representatives to address. Here are some of the many problems with this:

Most voters (including me) are not trained experts on the issues in question. That’s why a democratic republic works: I don’t have to understand tax law to be an informed voter, I just need to pay attention to the candidates, be generally informed on the issues, and cast my vote. If I think car-tab fees are too high, for example, I can vote for someone who promises to reduce them. I can then watch her as she works with her colleagues to do that in a responsible, deliberative way (or not), and I can stay in touch with her if I don’t like what I see. But I can leave it to her to iron out all the details. But in a ballot initiative, all of that nuance is gone. How will we pay for this tax cut? How will we maintain our roads without the revenue? What social programs will suffer? What will be the social impact of the cuts? Regarding gay marriage, if I personally like or dislike the idea, that’s interesting I guess, but in a ballot-initiative process, I have no motive to listen to the other side, wrestle with a nuanced position, work through ambivalence, or gain understanding. They just want me to say yay or nay. And you have no guarantee that I even know what I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, the representatives I voted for have lost power. On the same ballot on which I check their name, I diminish their influence by taking my own position on a legally-binding initiative addressing an issue before them. This looks like voter empowerment, but can you see how it’s the reverse of that? My left hand votes for you to be my state senator, and my right hand passes judgment on an issue because I just can’t trust you as a public official to address that issue on my behalf. Or is it that I can’t trust myself to hold you accountable? Either way, I’m not a happy voter.

And…ballot initiatives are anti-progressive. I’m not going to say they’re “conservative,” because I think that term—like “liberal”—has been badly abused lately. All kinds of movements for government overreach have been labeled conservative, and the marriage-rights issue is a perfect example. True conservatives understand that it isn’t their business to forbid two consenting adults from joining together in a marital bond. True conservatives would see overwhelming data proving that same-sex couples raise healthy kids. True conservatives would know in their bones that if the government outlaws marriage between two women or two men because of a cultural belief about the “sanctity” of male-female marriage, the state is treading into dangerous constitutional waters. So that’s why I don’t call ballot initiatives “conservative.” They don’t “conserve” anything, least of all the political system created by our forebears. But they do stop progressive legislation from being enacted. Marriage rights for all: it’s an idea whose time clearly has come, given that seven states (one of them the huge state of New York) have affirmed these rights, and others are planning to follow. But so far every ballot initiative to deny these rights has succeeded. Polls show that a broadening majority of people affirm the right of any two adults to marry, and yet these so-called “democratic” initiatives—because of their polarized language, their lack of debate, and their appeal to demagogues looking for a fight—are inhibiting the people from making their voice heard.

The main problem, though, is that wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bit. You have more things to vote for on the ballot: surely that means you’re a more-empowered voter! Nope. But it sure feels like you are. Don’t buy it. Ballot initiatives seek to replace our (admittedly broken) political system with a mob-rule design that makes it harder (or even impossible) for anyone to air their differences, listen to dissent, develop their position, learn, and work together toward a solution that makes this state and nation a better place.

…And one last thing, for the two or three of you still reading this. Remember what I linked to above, that there might be two initiatives about marriage on Washington’s ballot this fall? Because of the way they’re going to be written, anyone who wants to vote their beliefs needs to vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other. That’s yet another problem with these dreadful initiatives. Voter error can skyrocket with a ballot like that, and maybe your side will get lucky and you’ll capitalize on the confusion. But really, is that what you want to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate? “Hooray! We confused enough people to get that undemocratic initiative defeated!” Meh. If Washington still has equal marriage rights this New Year’s Eve, I’ll toast our governor and legislature for a job well done.

But some people like to be wives!

Friday, February 25th, 2011

A reader writes, “Ouch! You said “I am by no means anybody’s ‘wife,’” implying…what, exactly? That if my wife and I like to call each other wives, we’re somehow endorsing a sexist agenda? We love being wives to each other, and using that particular word. For us it is a word for the exact kind of loving, supportive relationship we want to share.”

Point taken! I was just saying (perhaps not very well) that for me personally, the word ‘wife’ doesn’t work. But that’s just me. My spouse happens to be a particularly strong, bright, and responsible person, and though I also (ahem) have those qualities, I’m much more extraverted and—true confessions—silly than he is. So sometimes I joke that I am the “junior partner” and he’s the “senior partner,” which is completely a joke: I don’t like the word ‘partner,’ as I said in my original post, and I don’t really see myself or our relationship that way. But for me—and again, this is just me, coming out of my own social location—the word ‘wife’ has ‘junior-partner’ connotations. For my reader, it does not. If I were socializing with her and she called herself a ‘wife,’ I would not assume that she meant it the way I understand it. I would know that other people use words differently, and apply different meanings to them. That goes for ‘partner,’ too.

DOMA, Obama, and the word “spouse”

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Of course I’m pleased that the Obama Justice Department is no longer going to defend Section 3 of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in court. And though it doesn’t sound like a major step forward—okay folks, not to worry, we’re not going to defend this particular section of a noxious law…that’s hardly a slogan that inspires massive celebrations in the streets!—it’s gratifying to know that my government is no longer going to go along with this.

And I find one factoid in particular quite comforting: section 3 concerns itself with the definitions of two particular words: “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word ‘spouse’ refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Back up. Let’s look at those words again. My definition of ‘marriage’ can be found here. I think it’s a good idea to look at ‘marriage’ this way, since the joys and sorrows of any marriage have much more to do with how the couple sees their union than what sort of legal document they have on file at city hall (if any).

And as for ‘spouse,’ well, don’t get me started! I should just come out and say that I love this word. It’s gender-neutral, so it avoids the problematic cultural connotations of ‘husband’ and ‘wife,’ which came from a culture in which men and women did not enjoy positions of equality in their married relationships. And it’s a much better word (in my view) than ‘partner,’ which is a word I’d use to refer to you if you and I decided to open a coffee shop together. My beloved spouse is not merely my ‘partner,’ and I hesitate to call him my ‘husband’ (if only because I am by no means anybody’s ‘wife’)…so ‘spouse’ it is. And since I live in a place and time that at least theoretically celebrates the independence and freedom of the individual (which is at least a stated value of the same folks who wrote DOMA), I’d like to reserve the right to decide for myself what I think the word ‘spouse’ means, and what word I choose to refer to the one person in my life with whom I share the greatest amount of intimacy and trust.

Finally, for some final thoughts, let’s go back to my definition of ‘marriage.’ Speaking as a therapist, it’s clear to me—and I spend most of my working life talking about relationships—that whether we desire this or not, our own assumptions, beliefs, values, and attitudes about ourselves and those we love will determine what we mean by these words. Our sex—whether we’re biologically male or female—is far less important. Even if you are a socially conservative heterosexual person in a conventional marriage, how you view your relationship is going to make much more of an impact on the quality of that relationship than what you are biologically. We are not merely physical animals. We are complicated, sentient, discerning, imaginative beings. Our relationships reflect that.

So, thanks, Attorney General Holder, and thanks, Mr. President. Thanks for getting out of the way so that we can go on defining all of this for ourselves, the way we’ve always done!

Ina and Oracle

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

As it happens, I know all about the intersection where Rep. Gabby Giffords held her event last Saturday, and where six people died and 19 were injured in a terrifying shooting. I have family in Tucson, including a sister-in-law who lives with her family only a couple of miles from that site. When I heard the news, I immediately pictured the scene. I’ve driven through Ina and Oracle many, many times.

I mention this because I was once again reminded that as much as we might want to deny it, events like this have everything to do with all of us, even those who have never been to Tucson, or never been involved in politics. It may be easier for me to relate to this tragedy because of my familiarity with the locale, but I wonder if everyone can understand on some level that the entire cast of characters in this terrible event—including the shooter—were human beings just like you and me.

That’s one reason why I felt so disappointed with Sarah Palin’s response to the crisis. I actually sympathized with her in the early hours and days, as she attracted unwanted (if not uninvited) attention as an alleged culprit in the cultural context that gave rise to the shooter’s behavior. It felt like a bridge too far, the idea that because of one ill-advised graphic on her Facebook page from last year, this guy shot up a crowd of people at a political event. I don’t think Palin was wise to use gun metaphors in her political rhetoric, but I knew (and still know) that she is far from alone in this respect: even President Obama has done this. Moreover, we learned that Jared Lee Loughner had his sights on Rep. Giffords as early as 2007. So it was far from a closed case that Palin could be held responsible, even in the abstract, for this event.

But I felt disappointed, as I said, with her response, which was defensive, reactive, and polarizing. A better response is this: we are all, each of us, connected to this tragedy. Ours is the culture from which it sprung. Ours is the society that doesn’t necessarily care for people who suffer mental illness. Tucson is one of our cities. We share a common humanity with everyone involved, including that disturbed young man. And so we should all take responsibility for our conduct, public and private, and work hard to be advocates of peace and justice in our common life together.

As a therapist, I know about both the loveliness and the wretchedness that marks every human life, including my own. I don’t separate people into angels and devils. I know that we humans are capable of tremendous virtue and courage; and I know that we are—each of us—capable of monstrous savagery. My hope for all of us is that we will be sobered by this tragedy, and will use it to dedicate ourselves more passionately to the creation of a just and peaceful society.

We are all—all of us—well acquainted with the intersection of Ina and Oracle.

Rest in peace, Elizabeth Edwards

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

I’ve posted on Elizabeth Edwards a couple of times over the past two years. I was sad to hear of her death today. In the last year or so, she became a complicated public figure: a great mother, a fierce intellect, a passionate health-care advocate, and a life-long friend to many…and also a person prone to vindictiveness, and even, perhaps, narcissism. Maybe. But I still like and admire her, even if all of the troubling details of the Edwards family scandal are true.

I like her because she was bravely open and honest about her terrible grief in the wake of their son Wade’s death. This is highly uncommon in American public life. Too often we only hear tidy accounts of simple grief. Everyone grieves, but then (we tell ourselves) we “get closure” and “move on.” But this is, I’m sure you know, B.S. Grief isn’t linear, it makes no sense, it tears a life apart. It’s anything but tidy. And Elizabeth Edwards unflinchingly recounted her own story of grief. She never moved on, though she did move forward. She never “got over” her son’s death, but she did make sense of it, and ultimately use it to bring more life into her life, and the lives of those she loved. And when she suffered debilitating betrayal by her husband, she made an imperfect but—in my view—earnest attempt to make sense of that betrayal and do what she could to help herself and her family.

In short, I identified with her at times, learned from her, and admired her a great deal. She informed my practice as a therapist, and gave me new insights on what it means to be human, to be met with adversity in the course of a joyous but troubled life. Blessed be her memory.

Do you know what today is?

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

One year, on December 7th, my uncle asked me a question. “Do you know what today is?”

I immediately knew what he was asking. This was a history question. My uncle, like my dad, has always been for me an exemplar of a curious mind: if he asks, “Do you know what today is?” I know right away that the answer is not, “Umm…Tuesday?” Why is today—December 7—significant? And to my own great relief, I had the answer: “It’s Pearl Harbor Day.” My uncle then said something about how many people in the country might not know this. He was making a point about cultural literacy, which I know can be a controversial subject. Ever since my college days when I read “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” by E.D. Hirsch, I’ve known that when people talk about cultural literacy, they might just be talking about dominant-culture literacy. “What every American needs to know” can too often be a thin veil for “What every American needs to know about the dominant White culture.”

And yet…Pearl Harbor Day is (or can be) something different, in my opinion. And here’s what I mean: this morning, as I walked the dogs, I recalled that it was December 7, and, like I do every year, I recalled my conversation with my uncle. My mind wandered, as it does when I’m walking the dogs, and I recalled the cinematic depiction of D-Day (June 6, 1944) in the film “Saving Private Ryan,” in which gallons of blood mingled with the crashing waves on the beaches of Normandy. And then I thought about the Silent Generation, and the Boomers, and all of the cultural back-and-forth that we’ve seen over the past seven decades. (Seven?!) And…I felt some appreciation for the Americans I’ve known or read about whose political views, shaped as they were by these bloody battles, are often so different from my own. Finally, I wondered where we’re headed next as a deeply divided, economically troubled, and astonishingly diverse nation.

(Oh, and yes, I also got over myself and played with the dogs!)

And all of this happened to me because a teacher taught me why December 7 is an important day in history. Whether you’re a conservative hawk, a peacemaking progressive, or something in between, I think it’s important to know about December 7. And June 6. And…December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron of Mexico and an icon of cultural liberation for the indigenous peoples of North America. My answer to those who are nervous about “cultural literacy” is this: yes, you’re right. Too often we make a big deal of dominant-culture events, like Pearl Harbor. But we need to remember them, because they shape who we are and how we think today. Let’s just add many more dates from many more cultures, because they also shape us!

What does this have to do with counseling and relationships? It’s sounds like a thin link, I know, but there’s a connection between what I’m thinking about on a dog walk and what I’m thinking about when I’m working with clients. (And, to be sure, what my clients are thinking about as they walk through their lives.) Are we taking time to notice the cultural forces that bear down on us? Are we taking time to reflect on the accomplishments, gifts, mistakes, and limitations of our forbears? If we do this, we’re much more likely to think reflectively on our own personal relationships.

Happy December 7!

My take on health-care reform

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

This is not a political blog, but these are interesting times in the world of politics, and since I work in a field which can be included under the ‘health-care’ umbrella, I think I should offer my take on the months-long health-care fight in Washington, since it now looks like the bill might (might!) pass this coming Sunday.

In short, I am a big supporter of this bill. Here’s a good, short rundown of what the bill offers the American people. This is taken from the blog of Ezra Klein, a journalist, blogger, and pundit who (at the believe-it-or-not tender age of 25!!) has been one of the best voices of reason and analysis during the last year of back-and-forth on health-care reform.

It’s not just important that this bill passes for political reasons–you know, because President Obama needs a big win heading into the midterms, and Democrats don’t want to lose the House or the Senate. If the bill passes, not only will it be more likely that the Democrats will retain most of their seats, but in my view, it will be more justifiable, too. I’ve thought for a long time that if they lose this fight, they deserve to lose control of the Federal government.

But the politics of this issue can’t compare in importance to the urgent need to cover 32 million people, outlaw denials for pre-existing conditions, make health-care coverage more affordable for everyone, and secure, once and for all, the right of all Americans to health insurance. The bill is far, far from perfect. I would have loved a public option, and I think the amendments about abortion are a travesty, and endanger human life. I hear the complaints of many of my women friends who are appalled at the concessions Democrats made. And I am appalled, too, that they made all those concessions and received nothing in return from the obstructionist Republicans.

But this is an essential, monumental first step. It won’t be too hard to add a public option, perhaps even next year (give or take the midterms). And other fixes can be made to expand coverage and level the playing field so that middle-class and poor citizens receive more coverage, better health care, and more financial security.

I was surprised that so little was said about mental health throughout this fight, and I intend to follow that issue in the coming months. But for now, I’m rooting for passage, and will celebrate on Sunday if it happens. If you haven’t been following this story, tune in. We could be approaching a history-making moment.

And for more on the issue from another great blogger, go here.

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