Some years ago I was driving into the United States crossing the U.S.- Canadian border into Montana to drive on one of the world’s most spectacular and scenic drives, The Road of the Sun in Glacier National Park. I had been asked to play the piano at a friend’s wedding in Seattle, and so since I was teaching a course the weekend before in Saskatchewan, Canada, I decided to make a trip out of it and spend a leisurely week driving there.
Having taught a class, my car was pretty loaded up with a three by two feet whiteboard, an easel to support the whiteboard, a fold-up table, the stool I use when teaching, as well as other necessary teaching materials. So when I approached the customs booth at the border, the lady at the U.S. customs window took one look at the collection in the back of the car, asked me if I had intentions to work in the U.S. and if I did, what work was I intending to do. Then, disbelieving me when I said I was going to play for a wedding, she unceremoniously hauled me into the immigration building for further inspection.
For three hours I was questioned, my car was thoroughly searched, every credit card in my wallet was scrutinized, each receipt closely examined, particulars were taken down about who I was, what I did in life from work to play and hobbies, along with particulars about my wife and my movements over the previous months. I was thoroughly questioned. In addition, a guard was posted, sitting in a jeep outside of the building I was in with eyes fixed upon my car in case I attempted to make a run for it.
Now, although I have had my party moments and at times driven way over the speed limit, a criminal I was not, nor never was, nor will be. I was, however, made to feel like I was. Being in a situation in which there was not one ounce of compassion and only suspicion being held towards me not only started to make me feel very afraid, it also caused my mind to start imagining worst-case scenarios. What if these people found something on me that did somehow incriminate me? What if I was detained in jail? What if I was disallowed entrance into the country and couldn’t spend time with my friends and my American wife’s family? I imagined all sorts of outcomes, becoming more afraid and invested in them the more they questioned me and searched for evidence.
They did let me go – finally. And I was free to travel on. But it was a trauma, and one that has remained a trauma because I am still recovering from it. For a full day afterwards, I worried that it was not over, that some official was following me, tailing me to see if I was heading to where I claimed I was going. I looked with suspicion at every SUV driving behind me. I walked to restaurants in Montana towns with an eye over my shoulder, making sure someone somewhere wasn’t following me. By the second day, the paranoia had settled down. Though still somewhat shaky inside, I was able to enjoy my drive amongst superb scenery.
Having crossed into the United States on many occasions since, even as I approach the customs booth there is a twinge of anxiety within me, reflecting the worry that I may be subject to such scrutiny and suspicion again. I have never fully recovered from that experience as long as that anxiety remains within me. As long as I carry this anxiety, small as it is, it belongs on my list of traumas.
For someone who has faced police scrutiny on previous occasions such an event might have run off his back like water. His recovery may be so quick that life carries on as normal for him as soon as he drives away from the border. For this mythical person such an encounter would not be classed as a trauma, because he recovered from it, and, in this example, his recovery was instantaneous.
Trauma then is relative. One man’s trauma may be another man’s play. This is important to know. Without knowing or accepting that truth, we may make the mistake of downplaying another’s trauma, or indeed our own.