Walk #9: Ben

Walk #9, with: Ben (born 1979)

Date: 21 April 2016

Where: Danube Delta, Romania

Context: My brother and I grew up in an often tense environment where anxious feelings were generally taken personally and labelled 'anger', or - as in many families - either denied, 'fixed', or occasionally ridiculed. I must have learned at an early age that the safest course of action was usually to dissociate from difficult emotions, which of course made it hard for me to empathise and resulted in my being typecast within the family as not very nice and/or cold. Ben for his part experiences his emotions profoundly, and also finds it very stressful to be around others experiencing powerful emotions.

Now in our mid/late 30s, with several years of therapy behind each of us, we're collaborating to try and break free of our programming, particularly in the way we relate to one another, which of course is especially hard but also especially rewarding. Words can't describe my amazement and joy when Ben decided he'd like to spend his first foreign holiday since before Luc was born with me. Me! His horrid, grumpy, 'camel's bumhole face' older sister! I knew there was a risk he'd find many aspects of getting to and cycling in Romania stressful, saw the potential for us to push each other's buttons, then observed myself trying to mitigate all the risks and becoming furious with myself when I failed to (cf. the bus tickets incident)! In fact, overall, our efforts paid off and for the most part I think we allowed each other to feel our full range of emotions including a great deal of joy, laughter and love.

This account relates to a period of about two hours within the ten days we spent together. It wasn't actually supposed to be a walk, but since we had to push our bikes a lot I'm bending the rules to include it in this series.

As I'd observed the previous day, if my road atlas of Romania said something was a minor road, it was an unsurfaced cart track. If the map said it was a cart track, it was 'more of a cow track'. On this particular morning we agreed to risk following one such track across a vast reed bed in the hope of saving ourselves several kilometres of doubling-back. To cut a long story short, we wasted at least two hours fighting our way through reeds and sludge with our heavily-loaded bikes only, eventually, to abort and retrace our steps completely. Ben said afterwards he was afraid if we pushed on we might never find our way back out, but as I pride myself on my sense of direction and navigational judgment - and loathe going backwards - I was the driving force behind pushing on a bit further and a bit further. One good thing that happened was Ben found a lovely tortoise.

We could each feel within ourselves the temptation to fall back into old ways: blaming and taking out our feelings on each other. But we managed not to. In the middle of all this I lost off the front of my bike the little cycle computer that had recorded my entire journey since September. I immediately went into what my therapist calls 'eagle-eye mode', engaging Ben in a thinky conversation about the Buddhist concept of 'non-attachment' to things, which we both know a little about. Then I caught myself, and admitted I felt really sad and upset about the computer, and frustrated about the situation. In spite of his own discomfort, Ben said he empathised with my disappointment and asked 'would you like a hug?', and I accepted his offer. Much of the tension of the situation dissipated in that moment as we accepted what had happened was shit, that our feelings about it were OK, and that we'd have to go all the way back, minus the cycle computer.

[On our last day together another situation arose in which Ben didn't manage to not take my raw emotion personally (that time pure terror, as I couldn't find somewhere I'd feel safe to camp after seeing Ben onto his night bus) and - feeling triggered himself - he touched the red 'your emotions aren't OK' button. While debriefing from this second incident during dinner at a restaurant I, already in tears of frustration, somehow found the words to describe how the two situations encapsulated everything about the family pattern we're trying so hard to break free from: Tonight, I said, though I never once blamed you for my fear (and in fact verbally reassured you 'this is not about me vs. you, it's about me vs. terror'), you got triggered by it and told me my emotion was not acceptable. The other day in the reed bed you were able to know that my emotion had nothing to do with you, and to offer me that hug. And THAT, in our family, was what we ALL needed and none of us ever got. Suffice to say we must have made a pretty peculiar picture, in the middle of that restaurant, both crying into our tochitura.

Ben suggested I add: 'An inevitable consequences of growing up together is an interconnected set of triggers, responses, feelings, fears etc. There was a sense at times of a certain 'energy centre' switching on, relating to times of heightened emotion when we were kids. For Ben this was at times quite frightening and we have had some useful conversations about the dynamic, and how we could in future navigate such times even better, recognising each other's truth and providing needed support, while accepting the validity of the feelings as they arise in each of us. Tricky to do 'in the moment' perhaps, but something to reflect further on.'

Anyway, once out of the swamp we stopped to eat whatever we had with us, to guard against hanger, before returning to the nearest village to cheer ourselves up with ice creams. We made good speed that afternoon and made it to Jurilovca in time to choose a fabulous camping spot (Ben's favourite of the trip) overlooking birding mecca, before having a good supper and climbing over the gate of a brand new (not yet open) official campsite to order to wash our pants in the wash-basins.

BD I want to thank you all the risks you are taking in our relationship, and to tell you that this probably means more to me than anything else in the world. May we get lost in many more reed beds together during the next 40 years. I know we'll find our way out. <3