As a parent I knew that one day our son (who is an only child) would become an adult and leave home. But as prepared as I thought I was to manage that transition, in truth I wasn’t prepared at all. I think this was the result of naivete’ as well as lack of knowledge and experience. None of our close friends had been through this yet (we were all going through it at the same time) nor had anyone older shared words of wisdom with us about this phase of life. Strangely, even my social media feeds seemed to lack mention of college parents grieving when their kids left for college….only the occasional mention of missing them or how good it felt to have them home for holidays and vacations. So, when the day came for me to drive our son to college, I was aware that our lives were about to shift but I had no idea how much.
Now, of course, everyone experiences adjustment, change, loss, and rites of passage differently. There are many parents who get through this experience with their hearts intact and even thrive as empty nesters in those initial first few months. I had envisioned myself as being in the latter group— I had, afterall, spent 18 years encouraging my son to live life, explore, and make memories. I was excited for him to be heading to college…to be leaving our small town and moving to a place where academia, diversity, and opportunity are embraced and celebrated. I could feel his readiness to foster this new life. I was overjoyed for him.
But as some parents do, I was so focused on him having a positive transition to this phase of life that I kind of forgot to prepare myself. You’d think, as a counselor, I would have been better prepared. I wasn’t.
On the day I drove him to college it was a beautiful day. Ideally beautiful. We listened to his music all the way there and I soaked in every second of sharing this time with him. We stopped to have Thai food before heading to campus.
When we got to campus we followed lines of directed traffic that eventually led to his dorm. There were student volunteers to help unload the car and take my son’s belongings to his room. I then parked the empty car in a nearby lot and walked back to his dorm room to help unpack what I could.
And then, it was time to leave.
I gave my son a big hug, told him to enjoy this—all of this— and said the usual mom things…I love him; to be safe; that his dad and I are proud of him; that we are always there for him and just a text away.
And then I left.
I walked back to the car and tears started to flow. That seemed expected. But the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. That was not expected. Ugh— I loathe crying. I really do. I know its healthy and cleansing and that our bodies need to do what they do— but still, I loathe it. I’m also the ultimate “ugly crier” who cannot hide the fact I’ve been crying. My eyes instantly swell to three times their size, creating bags upon bags; my face becomes so blotchy it lasts for hours, long after the tears stop. So imagine my face after an hour of crying…then three hours of crying…a full day of crying…2 days of crying…and still more tears on the third day. I was a complete and utter mess. I had moments of panic and irrational fear. It took days for these feelings to subside and eventually calm. Still, even then, I felt emotionally gutted.
One beacon of light in all of this is that my husband was understanding, supportive, and not afraid of my constantly flowing tears. He was grieving also. He got it. We both missed our son. We were both untethered from our parenting roles for the first time and it was disorienting and heart-wrenching.
Another beacon of light included a few unexpected conversations with neighbors and colleagues who shared their own experiences of grief when their children left home. These small, intimate conversations were validating and made me remember that life is beautiful, in all of its bitter-sweetness.
The best beacon of light, however, was realizing that, like any adjustment, a new normal settles in. Things do get easier. Joy and resolution return.
We did get through it— slowly but surely. For us it took a lot of Netflix, calming teas, extra walks with the dogs, and checking in with one another. Now, as a parent who has survived the experience (as you will also) I want to share some helpful things I learned in the process in case it’s helpful for any others about to go through the same transition.
*** Some of these tips may also be helpful for adult children “leaving the nest” for the armed forces, traveling abroad for a semester, a new job, leaving home in general, etc.
2-3 months before your child heads to college and/or leaves home
Moving Day and Beyond
Art therapy is an intervention and treatment modality I use a lot at my private practice. Not only can it be used in conjunction with other therapy models, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it can be used with all ages and abilities.
I use art therapy in many forms at Indigo North Counseling, LLC— from drawing and painting to multimedia projects. I use photography, mandalas, collage, writing, triptychs, shrines, totems, life maps, altered books, found objects art, dreamcatchers, storytelling, and more.
Art taps into a whole different language for people to express themselves and share their stories. You don’t have to be adept at using words, or explaining things verbally, or remembering linear details of your life when you use art as a language. The colors, textures, symbols, and details speak for themselves— through metaphor, through process, through creation, and through release.
If you have a general interest in using art therapy to help you through a part of your life, to explore who you are, or to express any feelings, you may find some of the online activities to be helpful (use the keywords “art therapy activity” in your search engine).
However, if you need or desire more directed activity based on your unique needs, art therapy with a counselor or art therapist is recommended. Art therapy can be used to help with depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, acute stress, mood disregulation, self esteem, stress management, self care, adjustment to change, grief/loss, and more.
The next time you look for a boost to your well being, don't forget to consider art as part of your self care regimen.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
Comfort Zones are those places, physical and metaphorical, that provide respite. They can be places of residence, i.e. your own home or a loved ones home. They can be natural spaces such as the mountains, a forest, or the beach. They can be places of sanctuary, prayer, and meditation. And comfort zones can also be needs or wants that regulate your level of comfort-- i.e. if someone asks you to do something that doesn't feel right, or feel good, you might find yourself saying, "No--that's out of my comfort zone".
Comfort zones provide the space for us to reflect on our experiences. People are not well equipped to process a lot of information (external and internal) when under stress, so finding and utilizing time to retreat to a safe and comfortable space allows us to truly think about, and feel, what is going on around us and within us.
But what happens when our comfort zones fracture? For example, what if the friend we always turn to for support is not available? What if a location where we typically find comfort is currently off limits?
Comfort zones will fracture and evolve from time to time which is why I often suggest making sure you have a selection of comfort zones to begin with. Diversifying is key. Here are various examples to consider:
If you expand on the meaning and breadth of "comfort zones" you will be better prepared if one (or more) of your zones "fracture". For example, if you move to a new place you might suddenly find yourself feeling out of sorts, whether you have moved across town or out of the country. While you adjust to the new feeling of "home" and orient yourself to new surroundings, you can still connect with close friends, keep familar routines, wear a favorite piece of clothing, or immerse yourself in a favorite activity. Before you know it, you will have created new comfort zones and/or your fractured zones will be accessible once again.
Many people who have experienced a traumatic event know that the annual anniversary of that event, and each year thereafter, can be emotionally challenging. There are always exceptions, of course-- some people can experience the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a harrowing event and not notice any change in affect or physical symptoms on the anniversary. For many people, however, the anniversary can create a sense of angst and side effects: a feeling of unease, disrupted sleep, a feeling of dread regarding the anniversary, anxiety and restlessness, depression, grief and sadness, lack of focus and decreased attention, irritability, and more.
However, there are ways to care for your mind, body, and spirit prior to the anniversary, and throughout, to get through it (and even feel stronger to deal with it).
There are more ways to get through a trauma anniversary--if you need or want more ideas you can research the topic of “trauma anniversaries” online, seek professional support, or reach out to loved ones for additional ideas.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling, LLC
Change comes in many forms. The small changes in life are typically the more manageable ones, such as learning to ride a bike or making a new friend. But there are changes-- life altering changes-- that require a whole different set of resources (internal and external) to manage. Life altering changes include the death of a loved one, leaving a long term relationship, transitioning to a new identity, “coming out”, bringing a new child or sibling into the family, a traumatic event, leaving home for the first time, etc.
As many of you know already, change is messy and exhausting-- sometimes even the “happy” changes can be messy and exhausting too. Change also requires patience even when each and every cell in your body is screaming that it wants things to feel comfortable and okay and familiar RIGHT NOW.
In an ideal world, at least in my ideal world, each of us would be compassionate and open minded to other people’s experiences, especially during these life changing ones. In addition, we would also be more gentle with ourselves.
That being said, here are reminders and tips for getting through those life altering changes, as well how to help others going through the same.
Self Care during difficult changes:
How to be supportive to loved ones facing life-altering changes:
There are so many more ways to be gentle and real with yourself --and others --during a life altering change but I hope these lists serve as a good starting place.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling
Like many adults, I am constantly navigating the world of coping strategies to see which ones help me feel and function better. One of my favorite strategies is Finding Hearts. It's not a commonly listed strategy in self help books (in fact, I may have made this one up). However, when I am feeling uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or having a particularly rough moment, I look for hearts.
Looking for hearts does a few things for my state of mind and well being:
1. It's a practice in grounding. Grounding is a technique used to decrease emotional distress that accommodates anxiety attacks, dissociation, PTSD and other intense emotional states. Grounding means bringing yourself to the present moment by checking in with your senses (what do you smell, hear, taste, feel, or see around you at the moment); checking in with your surroundings (look around you, identify where you are or what is in your view); and also checking in with yourself (say your name to yourself, state the date and time of day). Grounding basically means you pull yourself to the present moment. Finding hearts is one way to bring yourself to the present moment: scan your immediate surroundings; see if you can find any hearts hidden in the clouds, in the ceiling tiles, in the food you are eating, on your clothing, in the trees, etc...
2. Its a practice in focus. My ADD can take on a life of it's own and there are times when simply looking around for hearts helps my brain and body slow down enough so I can pay better attention to other details.
3. It's a practice in mindfulness. Mindfulness is observing the details of your surroundings (even your "inner surroundings"-- your feelings and state of mind) and being fully present in the moment.
4. The creative part of me simply loves this activity-- for me it feels like a mini-recess for my brain. It's playful, it's creative, and it's a nice break from the routine of the day that can be done in seconds or minutes.
5. The metaphysical/spiritual/curious part of me can't help but love the fact that we are surrounded by hidden hearts everywhere.
6. Photographing the hearts you find and sharing them (i.e. on social media) is a simple and fun way to connect with others. Once you start sharing them, you may find that your friends and loved ones start sending them to you as well.
Bonnie Thomas, LCSW
Indigo North Counseling