Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shades of Sadness

On Monday of last week I left Fresno at 6 a.m. to drive up to Huntington Lake to meet representatives from Southern California Edison and the U.S. Forest Service about taking down some hazard trees to which SCE has attached their power lines. When I hit the country roads north of Fresno with a good view of the mountains it was still dark in the valley, but a pale white light -- what we fisherman call "first light" --was creeping up behind the mountains to the east. The mountains were black, and the only thing ascertainable was the ridge line behind which, slowly, the white light began to illuminate the landscape; First giving gray form to mountains and trees previously hidden in darkness, then, by degrees, giving up details.

As I got up to Pine Ridge, about 4,500 feet in elevation, I had a good view of the foothills and valley below. Low-lying fog filled the areas between the foothills and spilled out in thin sheets across the valley. As the sun rose and the light intensified; it changed the hues of the fog from gray to white to pink to orange, giving the foggy landscape below a melancholy, soft-edged watercolor-painting look.

The temperature at Shaver Lake was 30F, and steam was rising off the surface of the water as if the lake was a huge simmering cauldron. By the time I got up to Tamarack Ridge the outside temperatures had dropped to 20F. There was a fair amount of ice on the road. Icy mountain roads can be dangerous. I slowed way down so as not to become a statistic.

Fog and cold are two things that can slow you down. And while they have the capacity to invigorate, fog and cold also have the capacity to lock you up in unmoving, frozen gridlock. Let's be dead-on honest -- fog and cold can depress you, and if you aren't careful, they can kill you.

Sue was diagnosed with her cancer around May 1, following four months of increasingly debilitating pain. She is now in her fifth month of grinding medical treatment, so this whole process of having cancer, being diagnosed and being treated is coming up on a year now. And while she has, for the most part, maintained an amazingly good attitude throughout the whole ordeal, there have been times when sadness has settled over her like a cold fog. It's understandable. It's almost inevitable, or anyway, it's common.

In Sue's case, the neuropathy has been a constant source of physical pain. At one of her recent appointments with the local oncology doctor, the doctor told Sue that her neuropathy should have resolved by now and, since it hasn't yet resolved, maybe it won't. My mom always told us kids that "honesty is the best policy," but I'm not sure that's always the case. After Sue had that appointment with her doctor, I thought I noticed more sadness than usual.

I've been depressed myself at times, and I was worried that depression may have set in on Sue. True depression is different than just being sad, and, unaddressed, it can be as dangerous as an icy mountain road. Sue denied being clinically depressed, but at my urging she did consult her doctor about it. The doctor thought her sadness was normal and didn't seem overly concerned. I don't know clinical depression from tropical depression. But I know a sad person when I see one.

People often misuse the phrase "I'm depressed" to mean they are sad about something. It's used kind of fliply. But no one wants to cop to really being depressed in the clinical sense. It seems that people are stigmatized by the idea of depression, like it is some kind of a bad thing that you have done or you are somehow defective if you get it. Recently (August 25, 2009) Scientific American ran an article titled "Depression's Evolutionary Roots" suggesting that depression is not a malfunction of the brain, but that it is actually a useful survival adaptation of the human species. The authors of the article cite research which indicates somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of people in the U.S. have at some time met the current definition of "major depressive disorder." The authors conclude: "When one considers all the evidence, depression seems less like a disorder where the brain is operating in a haphazard way, or malfunctioning. Instead, depression seems more like the vertebrate eye—an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function."

On this sadness versus depression question as it pertains to Sue, and even to me, I am in a bit of a dark fog. I can see some outlines in black against the first light. And as the light is beginning to intensify, the hues of the fog we're in are changing from gray to white to pink to orange, giving the foggy situation a melancholy soft-edged watercolor-painting look.


  1. Lots to think about. I loved the imagery, both as it relates to Huntington and Shaver, but also our thoughts and feelings of sadness and depression.


  2. We had fog in Fresno last week - very unexpected this time of year. Sometimes fog, and depression, seem to come out of nowhere. Depression can be debilitating and oh-so-hard to come out of. When I have been depressed, I often don't know I am "gone" until I "get back." Explaining the depths to which depression or anxiety can impact the self and life is nearly impossible, words don't capture it. The more depressed I am, the less likely I am to let anyone else see that side of me (wouldn't it be nice if I could just reach out to my friends and ask for help? but I don't). Since it takes enormous effort to hide, I become quite a hermit when depressed. Depression is not a dirty word, it is not shameful (so why do I hide depression?). I'm glad you blogged about your struggles with depression. Your beautiful imagery made depression sound dreamier than it is in real life. You're a gifted writer.

  3. There is always a lite at the end of the tunnel, or it would be a cave. Your family is in a tunnel and the lite will appear again soon.
    The Needler