Reprinted from "Men's" issue of Visions Journal, 2005, 2(5), p. 25
Although I have no means to be sure, I believe that Dad’s mental illness was probably within him, or at least dormant, for many years; at least for as far back as I can recall. I was the most affected among us kids—I had a brother and two sisters—for I spent the most time with Dad, usually for long periods on fishing trips. He was a gill-net fisherman; I was the youngest boy.
“Hey, Dad, there’s a sea lion in the net!” I exclaimed to my father, one day out on the boat. I was only a preteen boy, but I could tell a sea lion’s head when I spotted it. “Should I pull out the shot gun?” Fishermen often carried guns to scare or stop seals and sea lions from destroying their nets and catch.
“No,” he replied, passively watching the sea lion’s head bob up and down as it tore salmon from the net, causing hours of damage to the net, not to mention the loss of salmon revenue. At just age 12, I knew this was a serious loss. But even with the only two boats in sight sitting way off in the distance, and neither directly behind the sea lion’s head, my dad wouldn’t touch the gun.
Dad didn’t like guns, and I think I know why. When, as a 19-year-old, he escaped from the strictly Communist former Yugoslavia following WWII, he had to shoot at a border guard, who was more than willing to shoot him. Five years before my dad died (in 2002 at age 72), he travelled back to Slovenia, where he found out that he had only wounded the guard, as he said he’d tried to do. It was a great relief to my dad to learn this after almost 50 years.
After escaping to Trieste, Italy, Dad made his way to BC and took up jobs in mining and forestry. It was all a trying time for Dad, from what he told me—leaving his loved ones back in the “Old Place,” as he’d refer to his village and place of birth.
He was a very honest man—one who would sooner give away $100 that belonged to him than take $50 that was not his. Indeed, it was quite ironic that a man, who was being abused by fellow Canadians, remained so honest. It was bad enough that Dad had to move halfway across the world and reside with strangers, but he also had to endure bigotry from fluently English-speaking fellow employees—Canadians who didn’t care much for Dad’s accent and broken English. They called him a “f——g DP” (i.e., displaced person). One police detective, who my dad was making inquiries to about a legal matter, told my father that people of Dad’s ethnicity were “all the same bad sort.”
I believe all of this contributed to the culture shock endured by Dad, which made him into a cynic who eventually succumbed to mental illness. Dad worried excessively; for example, he was afraid to invest in this or that, even when there was little chance of financial loss. And he was very negative towards many other people—mostly not in front of them, but in front of us kids. He disparaged people the same way people were mean-spirited toward him.
There were indications he may have had some obsessive-compulsive disorder: for a number of years, each time Dad returned from fishing he would inevitably make numerous trips back to his locked, docked boat to make sure it was securely padlocked.
Additionally, Dad had a hearing loss from exposure to a large diesel engine during years of fishing-boat travel, which exacerbated his often obnoxious attitude. He got himself a hearing aid that worked great; however, he refused to wear it. Dad never explained why, and we assumed that he was afraid of sudden loud sounds blasting his hearing-aided ears, or that he was too embarrassed to wear it, or both.
As dad aged, his cynicism and very worry-prone nature grew worse. He’d get agitated at almost anything. He complained a lot that we were not speaking correctly or loud enough, when it was his own hearing damage to blame.
My dad was also extremely cautious about taking medications, So we, in effect, had to deal with Dad, as his ‘psychiatrists’ of sorts, observing and occasionally throwing a dose of reality to the ‘patient’ who was usually reluctant to accept it.
We all still, at least to some extent, love Dad, but everybody in the family chose to spend as much time away from Dad as possible. We were all very negatively affected by Dad’s refusal to admit to his illness. His pride was at stake. This was, indeed, a sad reality, which could likely have been avoided if Dad had swallowed some of that pride.
About the author
Frank edits two community newsletters: Community Connection, published by the South Surrey branch of Canadian Mental Health Association. and Whale Tales, put out by Whale House, a clubhouse operated by OPTIONS: Services to Communities. Frank lives in White Rock, BC.