“So, Lola, have you been cutting up your arm?”
That was the comment from the Customs and Border Patrol guard at the USA/Canada border last Friday.
While my partner and I sat in our car and answered the usual questions, that one was unexpected. We were all set for the usual questions about her status as a permanent resident and her non-Canadian passport. All ready for the direction to park the car and head in for her to get the required entry document. All set for that. Standard procedure for crossing the border for her.
Not at all ready for the question directed at me regarding the scars on my arms.
I had no choice other than to answer his question though. So a simple answer of “yes” and I hoped that he was just a not-so-sensitive person who chose to make a not-very-appropriate comment and that would be that. No such luck.
It was followed up with, “Looks like those must have hurt”. Again, my measured and as-simple as-could-be response was provided.
“It was so long ago, I don’t recall”. Trying to hide that I am incredibly uncomfortable with this attention and line of questions. He, I’m sure, knows exactly how uncomfortable he is making me though. Which starts the feeling of anger that I know is not going to be helpful.
He flippantly hands back our documents and directs us, as expected, to park and head in for my partner to get her document.
As we park and walk, I try to pull myself back together from the shock of the two questions and my partner and I agree as we chat that it was out of line and inappropriate. But, we also agree, what can you do? They can ask what they want. There is a huge line up inside and it takes enough time to get to be seen that we have both calmed a bit.
We approach the guard to have the usual done. The standard questions of where are you going, what’s purpose of your trip,how long are you going? His demeanor is a quiet mix of boredom, annoyance and general irritation towards the entire process. He dismissively tells us to sit and he will get back to us. He keeps our passports and documents and the paper I had given him with the address of where we are heading for the weekend.
We expect the next step will be, as usual, my partner to be called back up for fingerprints and a picture and the paper slip to pay and then we will be on our way.
Not today though. After a few minutes, he calls me up.
“Lola, come here”. I look at my partner and we both are a little taken aback but I get up and go to the counter again. The questions come fast and bluntly.
“Tell me the story of what’s up with the cuts on your arms?”
There’s no story. They are scars from some cuts.
“You need to tell me more.”
I’m not sure what you mean. They’re old scars from cuts, that’s all.
“Were they self-inflicted”
“What medication are you on?”
*He looks up from where he is sitting and tilts his head*
“You expect me to believe you aren’t on any medication?”
Yes, I’m not on any medication.
By this point, my heart is pounding and I am doing my best to keep my voice level and my mannerisms as normal as possible. It is becoming very clear where he is going with his questions and my mind is racing along with my heart.
“What’s the name of your psychiatrist?”
I don’t have a psychiatrist
*again, he looks up at me and sighs*
“The name of the physician whose care you are under?”
I’m not under a doctor’s care
“Were they from suicide attempts?”
No *I briefly think of making a joke that if they were, I could win the prize for worst attempt ever for where I cut, but I think better of it and just go with the “no”*
“Then why did you cut yourself?”
It was a particularly rough time in my life and I just did
“Were they done more than 5 years ago?”
Yes *lying, it’s clear at this point that I am actually running a risk of not gaining entry is how it is starting to feel*
“If I check your permanent medical file, will I find records of suicide attempts that you have not told me about here?”
No. There aren’t any.
*He sighs loudly and asks me to read out loud the address where we are going that is printed on the paper we are heading* I do so and think the questions are done. No, they are not. He’s not giving this up that easily apparently.
“What do you do for a living?”
I manage a clinic. A paramedical clinic in Victoria BC
*He smirks a little* “You hold down a job huh?”
Now at this point I am seething with anger inside but trying to stay calm. He then starts asking again about medications in the car etc and brings my partner up. After some standard but still insulting questions, this time directed to her (“16 years in Canada and STILL not a citizen huh?”), she is fingerprinted, photographed, pays her fee and we are on our way.
There ends the most blatant example of judgement and what I took as a personal harassment.
When I try to take apart the layers of what exactly it is that I am so angry about in that interaction, I find that it is so many things.
The fact that two border patrol guards felt that they could openly and without any reason, interrogate me on something that has nothing to do with my legal request to enter the country is clear. They felt that they have every right to question me, or anyone, on anything – no matter how personal or applicable (or not) to the situation. The disgusting truth is that they can do just that. They hold the power to deny entry, to turn you away. Possibly for more than just that one time even. As my partner pointed out when I asked “who the hell does he think he is???” … he has the uniform and the gun and the power. It really is that simple. And it really isn’t right, but it is the way it works.
It was tears that I held back as we left the building and made our way towards the car to leave. As we walked past other guards I made a point of smiling and chatting and looking as unaffected as I could. Acting as opposite as I felt inside. The overwhelming sense was to just get as far away from there as I could, as quickly as we could. I felt embarrassed and I felt shame, but most of all anger was building up.
By the time we reached a rest stop two minutes away, the tears hadn’t come and they weren’t going to. Instead I had discovered just how furious I was over the questioning. Who were they to make a judgement about who I was based on my scars? Because the truth is, that is what they did. They saw scars that are clearly from self-inflicted cutting, and they made an immediate and decisive judgement that I need to be, essentially, screened. Screened for what? To determine if I am mentally ill? If so, how so? Am I going to be a danger to myself or others? Am I going to harm myself – or kill myself – while in their country? Is my mental health status something that should be a deciding factor in whether or not I can be given entry to go camping in their country? If I go by the questions that I was asked, then the answer to that is yes; and that is disturbing.
I have struggled with shame about my scars. I do hide them at work, and for reasons similar to this. I know people judge and assume when they see them. I know they are viewed as physical evidence of mental instability or weakness. So I keep them hidden when I am at work because I am in a position of management. I can’t be seen as weak or incapable or unstable. All things that we all are, from time to time, and all things that these scars are perceived as proving. My moments of weakness do not, in any way, diminish my strength. Ever. Yet that isn’t how our culture sees this.
So we drove away and I was angry and felt violated in a way. I was offended and indignant at how I was treated and questioned. I am a 44-year-old woman, I know and own my strength. I know what demons I fight and what road I walk every day and I am finally at a point where I hold my head high and rarely ever feel shame anymore. I have my moments but they are fleeting. What if I had been a young person though and had to face that? What if I was still very much in the midst of trying to not look at my scars because of the repulsion I felt towards myself when I saw them? What if I already was judging myself and feeling myself to be unstable, shameful, broken and wrong, like those guards tried to make me feel? What then? Who gives them the right to humiliate and belittle and almost casually decide to cause that kind of hurt to a person?
I could walk away and, while those feelings swirled and whispered, they were silenced and soothed by my resolve that I know I’m not those things. Even with that resolve though, I slipped on a long-sleeved shirt today to go into the store. Last week I wouldn’t have. And that makes me angry. Angry that no matter how I may see my scars and no matter how much I know I cannot be judged by what society says they mean – I still will be.
End the stigma of mental health concerns? Still looks like there is a hell of a long way to go.