Memoir

How Not to Smuggle Weed-Killer Into Canada

When carcinogenic lawn sprays were outlawed in Ontario, my father’s lawn obsession had me dallying in cross-border smuggling—and confronting my lifelong anxiety.

How Not to Smuggle Weed-Killer Into Canada

I’m in my therapist’s office in Downtown Toronto, and all I can talk about is weed killer, the magical elixir of pesticides and other carcinogenic wonders that transform brown rotten grass into velvety green carpets. Everything else that’s bothering me – my confusing love life, fruitless apartment hunt, an impossible job search – it can all wait. For whatever reason, it’s weed killer that’s on my mind, because it’s what makes me feel like there’s a rock lodged in my throat obstructing my ability to breathe.

I try to explain all of this to my therapist, a middle-aged man with a kind demeanor and a hippy-ish “let you be you” philosophy, when he asks the obvious stock-in-trade therapist question: “But why does weed killer make you feel this way?” And I didn’t know the answer.

I’ve always been one of those people who worries irrationally, a severe, all-encompassing kind of worry. But I could never put a term to the uncomfortable feeling that made me avoid the streetcar during rush hour or want to lay in bed all day – until a few years ago. Because a few years ago, my dad started asking me to smuggle weed killer over the border.

I grew up in a small town just north of Toronto, where swaths of lush green grass surround every home. Each spring, my dad would happily take Killex (his weapon of choice) out of the garage, attach the lime green canister to the garden hose and spray his weed-and-pest-infested lawn until the yellow patches disappeared. He would be out there every Sunday morning, long before the rest of the family was up, tending to the lawn. His diligent work ethic wasn’t about vanity or impressing the neighbors. I think keeping the lawn healthy was a simple, humble pleasure for him.

Then in April 2009, weed killer was banned in Ontario. Dubbed the Cosmetic Pesticides Ban, it is now illegal to sell or use weed killer because the chemical exposure can cause long-term health problems for children and pregnant women, according to the Ontario College of Family Physicians and the Canadian Cancer Society. Public health advocates and environmentalists like David Suzuki celebrated the landmark legislation, while people like my dad complained about the looming demise of their front lawns.

Coincidentally, around the same time the news broke, I was in a long-distance relationship with someone who went to school in Detroit. And my dad, devastated to have lost his miracle worker, saw an opportunity.

Whenever I went to visit my then boyfriend, my dad would send me a text: “Please get me weed killer.” When I travelled to New York City for the first time, my phone beeped and displayed just two words: “Weed killer.” Every time I crossed the border into the United States, my dad would send a gentle barrage of to-the-point texts about acquiring some of the strong stuff for him.

The idea of smuggling in weed killer induced a hyperbolic fear as my brain whirred with potential worst-case scenarios. I would get caught, charged, jailed, strip-searched or banned from entering the country. As I drove through the border, the Border Services agents would be able to sense that I had contraband hidden in the trunk. They would swipe my passport, see my hometown as Barrie, Ontario, the epicenter of chemically altered green lawns, and say, “Oh, I know your type.”

I would become like a Prohibition-era bootlegger. The neighbors, desperate for a fix, would discover that the Edwards girl had a connection down south, and I would be bombarded with demands that I couldn’t keep up with.

These fears – the looks on the agents’ faces, me stumbling over my words, my decline into a life as a full-time mule – would play over and over in my head. They were all irrational, of course, but I couldn’t escape them.

So every time he asked, I made up excuses as to why I couldn’t bring any back. “I don’t even know where to get weed killer!” and then, “I’ll be too busy to find a Home Depot!”

It wasn’t easy lying to him. My dad is the type of guy who asks for little and expects less – one Christmas I got him a giant garbage can and he was genuinely elated. I daydreamed about surprising him on Father’s Day with a Costco-sized bottle of Killex wrapped in a giant bow, a smile spreading across his face as he sprayed it over the lawn, just like the good old days. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized “by persistent, excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday things.”

Anxiety wasn’t a new feeling for me. My entire life I’d been neurotic and a worrier – a truly terrible combination. Not only was I hyperaware and critical of my surroundings at every waking moment, I also had to think through every worst-case scenario for every possible situation in excruciating analytical detail. It was a tiring discourse. For the most part, however, I could cope.

Then, in the spring of 2012, three years after since my dad had begun to pester me about weed killer, I started to experience “real adult problems.” I graduated from journalism school and was newly unemployed; I had recently broken up with my Detroit-based boyfriend; and in a month’s time I would be homeless. It was too much to handle. My doctor prescribed me an SSRI, a type of anti-depressant that quells generalized anxiety, to deal with the debilitating symptoms that I was experiencing: stomach pains that made me feel starved but also repulsed by the idea of eating; headaches that lasted for weeks; the inability to accomplish simple tasks like going to the grocery store. And on the recommendation of my doctor, I started seeing a therapist.

So, I’m in my therapist’s office, sunken into a burnt-red armchair. I tell him about my boy troubles and career worries. And I also tell him about weed killer. How my dad really needs it for the lawn, how I should just get it the next time I’m in the United States, how I don’t want to disappoint him, how it brings waves of discomfort every time I think about it. Public speaking, large crowds, attending parties alone – these are all normal triggers for anxiety, but weed killer? This issue seemed so benign, and yet it carried a surprising weight. It consumed my thoughts with the same relentless vigor as the bigger, more critical issues in my life.

Then in a moment, it all clicked. Slouched in that burnt-red armchair, my therapist sitting across from me, legs outstretched and crossed, bushy eyebrows raised knowingly, I finally understood something he had been trying to help me grasp since my very first session two months earlier. I realized that the most difficult aspect of anxiety is understanding that it’s completely baffling and unexplainable, and that irrationality is the most fertile soil for worries to grow in and fester. It doesn’t matter if the trigger is serious or goofy; anxiety finds a way to worm its way into your psyche and leave you paralyzed. Over time, unexpected triggers intricately layer over one another until you’re smothered. It’s like the worst kind of armor – it protects you from the world, but at the expense of actually experiencing it.

It was sitting in therapy, talking about weed killer, that I realized in order to be happy and healthy, I had to manage all my anxieties equally – no matter how big or small the source.

And the first thing I wanted to tackle? Weed killer.

It was a challenge admitting to my parents that I was struggling with anxiety, and even harder to initiate a conversation with them about something that was so uncomfortable for me. And yet, I gathered the courage to tell my dad directly, just like his texting style, that I would never get him weed killer because it gave me anxiety, and I’d really appreciate it if he no longer asked me to.

And he never asked me again. He probably doesn’t even remember this conversation as being some milestone in our relationship. But for me, it marked a pivotal stage in confronting my own anxiety, and for that I’m incredibly grateful.

Ironically, when I was deep inside my pesticide saga, freaking out over visions of perilous border crossings, I never actually looked up the law myself. As it turns out, the Canadian Border Services Agency officials cannot confiscate weed killer coming into the province even if they do find it. They will only take it away if it contains chemicals that are illegal under the federal Fertilizers Act, which is much more lenient than Ontario’s. So all along, I could have been bringing weed killer into the province with zero repercussions. My dad may have been saying this the whole time, but I was too caught up in my own world to even comprehend it.

I still notice daily triggers for my anxiety, like not knowing every single vegetarian option on a menu prior to eating at a new restaurant, or whether or not I should offer up my seat to the passenger who looks like a senior citizen but could be deeply offended if it turns out they’re only forty-five. One thing I don’t need to get nervous about though, is weed killer.