"WHAT exactly are you doing here?" The US customs officer barked at me seconds after she called my name and seconds before I'd even taken a seat in front of her. I was shocked into silence, unaccustomed to aggression with no apparent provocation.
"Um, well, I'm travelling, from a base in Los Angeles," I stumbled over the words. "I have a visa to do so."
"I don't care what you have!" She spat back.
"I'm sorry … I thought this was a visa stamping protocol formality? Have I done something wrong?" I whispered.
"Have you overstayed your visa?" She sneered.
"No!" I replied quickly, still affronted. "No! I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Not according to what I can see – you have definitely overstayed. TWICE!"
"I apologise but I really need you to tell me what you're referring to because I am completely in the dark here – when have I supposedly done this?"
This appeared to really set her off, she snarled and said tartly: "You're the journalist here, right, RIGHT? Why don't you tell me what you've done?"
I shrank, stunned. Flummoxed at how to respond to this nonsensically angry person, with no knowledge of the incident she was referring to and also why she appeared to have taken such offence to me but before I could say another word, I had been dismissed.
So here's my story at a glance: a few years ago, I had the fortune to turn my full-time gig as an editor into that of a freelance columnist: signalling the beginning of my "gypsy life". I headed straight to my cousin's house in the Hollywood Hills, making it my base for travelling the US as much as possible. I decided an ESTA visa waiver would suffice for starters. In truth, I found it extraordinarily difficult to glean any clear directive on which visas were available for the States, in direct contrast to other countries, from which you'll typically find all options listed and explained in one governmental website. While that may sound like a rather idiotic cop-out, given the amount other Australians and I spent discussing pertinent unanswered visa questions while travelling, I'm certain I wasn't the only one in that flimsy life raft.
I travelled as much as I could between bouts of surreal Hollywood life. In between, to satisfy ESTA visa stipulations, I spent time in Norway, Indonesia, Malaysia and back in Australia, of course. Each time, I keenly observed the date required for departure, stamped in my passport upon arrival in the US.
A while later, courtesy of a Facebook group, I discovered there did exist a visa I could apply for – a declaration of intent to stay longer as a tourist. I flew home to Australia almost immediately, applied and was granted a one-year visa. I headed to LA feeling better having declared my intention to travel within the country a little longer.
I left once again, four months after entering the US with this year-long visa, headed home for some contract work. It was mid-March 2016 when I jetted back into the US, oblivious to the hurricane about to rip through my life.
Fast forward and I was currently sat huddled on a grey plastic seat at 6.30am in some back room in LAX, almost rigid with fear, my mind racing with anxiety through the last year or so, trying to make sense of what I was being accused of. After what seemed an age, I was called back to her again.
"We've identified that you've overstayed by one day on two separate occasions – is that correct?"
"No," I replied, already feeling defeated by an accusation I had no means to fact check, given my passport was currently being held hostage by the US and my phone was off-limits. "That's simply not true. If you could maybe give me the dates you think this has happened?"
"We don't think it! We know it. It says right here on the system. And now you have a B1 visa, is that right?"
"Yes," I replied quietly, growing meeker by the minute.
"So when you applied for that, what was your answer to the question of whether you have ever overstayed in the USA?"
"Of course my answer was no. I don't believe I have ever overstayed."
"Really? Well, we can now call that misrepresentation and fraud. As of now, I am deeming you inadmissible to the United States and you will be detained for further questioning. I'll take your cellphone."
From there, things coiled into a nightmarish blur. I was led to a back room, stripped of shoelaces and jewellery, bags shoved in a corner and body searched by two female officers before finally being delivered to another small room lit by relentless fluorescent light, in which six men and one small girl were already huddled. There were two stretchers in each corner of the room, one covered with blankets that occasionally twitched in indication there was likely human life beneath them. Then there were the familiar rows of unforgiving plastic chairs from the front room. I slunk into the corner and folded into myself. I'd remain here for the next four hours, in and out of a fitful sort of sleep and when awake, overhearing stories of racist abuse being heaped upon the other detainees of Middle Eastern nationality.
One or more of us knocked multiple times and near-begged to be escorted to the bathroom, the same with requests for water and any food available throughout the long wait.
The only other solitary female in the room quietly asked me why I was being held and warned of being taken to downtown Los Angeles overnight to a holding cell: "Don't let them take you," she whispered, "It's very bad."
My fear had hit crescendos by now; this was obviously some kind of joke and would surely be over soon. White middle-class as it may be, my worst previous offence had resulted in a speeding ticket.
I was interrogated a third and fourth time by a different officer, one with less obvious anger issues but in possession of far more manipulative interrogation techniques. Following hours of circling around strange questions posed to trip me into admitting offences I hadn't committed, he boiled it down to this: "Look, it's late in the day now, if we keep arguing about the fact you've overstayed and your misrepresentation, I won't be able to get you on a plane back to Australia until tomorrow. Instead, I'm going to have to send you to downtown overnight and we can come back and argue tomorrow. Do you really want that?"
So here was my "choice": agree with them or keep disagreeing until I was defeated, resulting in finally giving them their way. There were no options for legal representation and an offer to call the Australian consulate went as follows: "We can call them for you, sure, but I can promise you there's nothing they will do for you."
I stared, trying to reach into the fuzzy corners of my mind to figure out what to do. I knew I was being coerced yet couldn't see any way out of it and I was reaching the limits of my sanity after 20 hours of flight followed by another 10 hours being detained. All I had left was: there's no reasoning with these people, they don't want the truth, they want their truth. The best thing that could surely happen is to be put back on a plane to a land where rationality prevails. And from there, fight this insane accusation with a lawyer.
Naive? Possibly. But it's always easy recognise your error in hindsight. I had absolutely no idea nor was I informed that anything I signed for them that day was binding, with no option for appeal or overturn, ever – as it would become clear was the case.
My defeated admission of an overstay, at which point he finally let me know which dates my alleged overstay referred to, was met with: "See, that wasn't so hard now, was it? Just go on home, get a proper visa in order and come back on over! You'll be fine."
Which was in stark contrast to what I heard from multiple lawyers upon my return home and resurfacing from a week-long cycle of being either dazed or hysterical; at times requiring sedation.
In the lawyers' opinion (I consulted no less than 10), I, indeed, had been coerced and my punishment was one of the harshest they'd seen. An immediate five-year ban, followed by a lifetime inadmission for the misrepresentation charge. "Basically, in the eyes of the US," one commented, "what you have done is worse than rape or murder."
"But I haven't done anything! This is ridiculous!"
I mostly couldn't come to grips with the fact I had been marched on to the plane, still sans shoelaces, phone and passport, held by two bullet-proof vested officers, who quipped I was "lucky" I wasn't handcuffed. I asked to stop on my way at a shop for tampons, as I had, you guessed it, enjoyed the extraordinary misfortune of being a woman while locked in that room for 15 hours. "No," one of them replied gruffly. "This is a straight escort, not a shopping trip."
At home, I kept up a jittery, manic version of life, fuelled by constant racing anxiety, minimal sleep and an inviolable anger at myself for caving in to the accusations. Friends who saw me worried and took me to forms of therapy they thought may help. Breathwork, meditation, kinesiology, hypnosis and even a few sessions with a psychologist followed on advice of a doctor.
Four weeks later, I reached the bottom of my being, doubling over sobbing morning to night. I'd lost 12 kilos since and barely ate. I drank relentlessly though. An emergency trip to a doctor followed, where I spent two hours giving a frenzied account of not wanting to exist throughout coming months, to which she responded with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and prescribed a round of anti-depressants. "This is situational: you'll come out the other side of this, I promise, but I need to make sure you're protected until then."
I was ridiculously grateful. I slept properly for the first time in what felt like forever and could make it through hours, even a day at a time without crying.
Still, I had no feelings about anything at all, really. Each day was something only to struggle through so I could sleep again and hopefully block everything out. About three months in, I decided to travel again. Partly to overcome my growing fear of customs but more due to my complete lack of enthusiasm for fitting back into "normal" life.
I travelled Europe for three months. France, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Morocco, Italy… packing up and moving regularly, essentially running away from any feelings, or the lack of them. I completed the tour in Iceland, a place so otherworldly, it feels like you might have exited planet earth. It was November 8, 2016, and I was driving to a national park called Thingvellir, the place the concept of democracy was first wrought by Vikings, when news headlines on the radio made me privy to the news of Donald Trump being elected president of the United States, an irony not lost.
As I trudged through Thingvellir in disbelief, the rain that had plagued this Icelandic visit suddenly stopped and a rainbow almost immediately arced through the sky before me. Most likely a coincidence, of course. But I tend toward believing a person should take from a situation what they need from it. And so it was in that moment, I realised I was truly OK again; I felt hopeful for carving out the next path through my life and also, maybe most importantly, that I no longer had any desire to return to the US. There's a colour and a shape to everything, if you look hard enough. Sometimes it just fills us in and fits around us in the strangest way possible.