Juriaan van der Graaf is a mathematics teacher in the mechanical engineering department and took a bicycle trip to Copenhagen this summer to process what he learned about his past. “I have to do something about it and can no longer bury my head in the sand.”
‘A year and a half ago I found out in a very strange way that my past is different than I had always thought. I knew home wasn’t much fun back then, but it turns out there was a lot more to it than I thought and could remember.
“After I broke up with my girlfriend, I had a bad feeling about how it had all gone. I had the feeling that I was quite difficult in relationships, and suspected that it had something to do with my home situation from back then. I then visited my brother and sister to ask if they recognized this. They knew exactly what I was talking about.
“I knew it wasn’t much fun at home back then, but it turns out there was a lot more to it than I thought and could remember.”
‘It was quite something to visit them again, because I hadn’t had contact with them for years. At the age of twenty I was forced to make a choice between my divorced parents. I stayed with my mother and my brother and sister stayed with my father. My mother was at war with the rest of the family, very violent and problematic. She is a complicated person, and I felt obligated to take care of her, even if I didn’t get anything in return. Two years ago I pulled the plug, we haven’t had contact since then. It sounds harsh, but I’m very happy about it.
‘My brother and sister talked a lot about the past; violent stories of abuse and neglect. I don’t even remember many of those things. I think so, because we’ve all noticed that we have big gaps in our memory when it comes to that time. I know of other things that happened, but I never really attached a particularly strong feeling to it. It wasn’t until I suddenly heard my brother and sister say it that I realized how intense it really was.
It wasn’t until I suddenly heard my brother and sister say it that I realized how intense it really was.’
‘I understand now that I don’t know many things because I have deliberately suppressed them. I deleted it purely out of self-defense. It also explains a lot about my own relationship problems. You learn how a relationship works from your mom and dad, and if you’re given a bad example, you grow up with the wrong image of a relationship. I think I can get away with it. I bury my head in the sand and hope that the problems in a relationship will work themselves out. I was also often outside when someone needed affection or intimacy. My brother and sister recognized this.
“After that night it felt like a bomb had gone off. Your world is turned upside down for a moment, but then again not because it wasn’t a complete surprise either. I knew a lot was happening but I always acted like it was normal not to worry about it. Since that night, I know it’s not the right way. It all had a huge impact, and it still does. I have to do something about it and can no longer bury my head in the sand. I have something to process.
“After that night, it felt like a bomb had gone off.”
‘In the beginning I mainly dug. I wanted to find out exactly what happened and looked for people from the past. I went to the mother of a good childhood friend and it turns out she knew that our house was always arguing and chaotic. I found that quite difficult to hear. I was always welcomed and she always had the best intentions, but I don’t think she really knew how to handle it or how to help. I don’t blame her, but I think that as an adult you have a responsibility in such a situation.
‘I sought help from a psychologist, two even, and it helps. On the advice of my brother, I also did a guided mushroom tour because it had helped him a lot. This has been very important to me. I learned that I no longer had to bury my head in the sand and accept my situation and also that I had to work on the things I could influence. Then I had another setback. I played in a band that was very important to me, but because the singer was my ex, we had to break up in the end. To process a few things, I decided to take a bike ride to Copenhagen. That trip came to symbolize the lessons I learned.
“That trip became a symbol of the lessons I learned.”
“One evening in Denmark, my Airbnb for that evening was canceled at the last minute. With the help of the receptionist at a climbing forest where I had dinner that night, I finally found another Airbnb that looked super shady. It was the only option, so reluctantly I got back on the bike. On the way, a car drove by and stopped right in front of me. Someone from the climbing forest shouted out the window that they had found another place for me. Back at the climbing forest I was told to wait in the parking lot, someone else would come and pick me up. After a long wait – I was almost beginning to doubt whether it would still be OK – someone came with a van who didn’t speak a word of English.
“We drove through a forest to a meadow where there was a wooden bed with a kind of corrugated iron roof and nothing else. So outside in the middle of nowhere. I was given a sleeping bag with a Post-it written in English, which I could have my breakfast at the reception the next morning. We took a picture together, I thanked him and he drove off again.
“It soon got dark and I just went to bed. It will probably work, I thought.’
‘So I was standing there with my bike and nothing else. All I saw were meadows, some flower fields and somewhere further on in a field with some pigs. It soon got dark and I went to bed. It will be fine, I thought. At that moment, it started to rain, causing a huge noise due to the corrugated tin. I fell asleep anyway and when I woke up an hour later I saw that the edges of the bed had become completely soaked.
“I tried to go back to sleep and every time I woke up I saw that the water had come closer. I sat staring hopelessly in front of me, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn’t snap my fingers to stop it from raining. This is what I got and I just have to deal with it, I thought. I realized again that I just had to accept some things; the rain and also my youth .
‘So I sat there naked, the sun was shining and I actually felt good.’
“The next morning my sleeping bag was soaked and all my clothes were soaked. I would fix what could be fixed and put my clothes in the sun to dry. So I sat there naked, the sun was shining, and I actually felt good. I was proud of myself because I had done it all anyway. I asked some people for help and was immediately offered breakfast and a shower. Two hours later I was back on my bike and there was really nothing to worry about.
‘The trip was almost therapeutic. After that night I felt very strong. A lot has happened in my life and there will be more, but I also realized that I am very strong and that it is not the end of the world. I can just handle it all. If I had wanted to, I could have cycled directly to Stockholm. I was proud of myself and that helped me a lot in the end to get through everything.
‘I communicate much better with friends about my situation and tell them when things aren’t going so well.’
‘Once I was home, everything felt a lot easier, like I’ve regained control and I’m no longer going through life without direction and having to endure everything. I can try to fix what can be fixed and the rest I have to accept. The turning point was I went to my brother and sister, they have helped me tremendously. Since then I have asked for help many more times. I communicate much better with friends about my situation and tell them when things are not going so well. I see now that I have people around me who want to help me, I just have to dare to ask for it. I have really learned that.’
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Text and photo: Wietse Pottjewijd