Today, I live near the coast of southern Virginia, but for several years, I rented a small house a few miles north of Bodega Bay, California, directly across State Route 1 from the Pacific Ocean, and it was there I became acquainted with the fog and my Depression.
In the evenings, I dressed warmly, walked across the highway, navigated the steep stairs down to the rocky beach, wrapped myself in the blanket that was usually necessary even over my heavy jacket, and waited for the sunset. It never disappointed nor did I ever quite get used to the sight of the sun, so close, melting into the ocean on this far side of the continent. Some evenings, I built a fire and stayed for a long time after dark.
One night I fell asleep and woke near dawn, shivering and miserable. I could barely limp home. My little house had no heat, and I brought in wood and got a fire going in the unreliable wood stove. It took a while before my teeth stopped chattering. My father, who died when I was sixteen, was an expert at laying a fire, but I couldn’t help thinking he had never met this stove.
My sofa in Virginia faces into the living room, its back to the kitchen door. It’s where I sit to wait for the Depression. It is warmer than the stretch of beach below my house in California, but there are days I miss the stark discomfort. Not long ago, I realized I wanted to write about those California years. This is a short section of what I wrote about Bodega Bay.
I had come to Bodega Bay because I was asked to leave another job—the second since I had arrived in California–and could no longer afford the apartment in Berkeley.
Friends told me it was still possible to rent a tiny house, in bad condition, up the coast, and I set out gamely to look. I stopped at the first Realtor in Bodega Bay, explained what I wanted, and was handed the key to a house, several miles up the iconic Highway One.
Even before I unlocked the door, I knew I would take it. I spent only a few minutes inside, but I sat for an hour in my car, watching the waves and one boat on the horizon and all I could think was, “I will see this every day. I will wake up and this is what I will see. This is the last thing I will see before I go to sleep.” As I turned around to head back to Bodega Bay, I spotted a deer just behind the house. He seemed to feel at home there. “When I look out my kitchen window, this young deer is what I will see.”
As I read over this description of my small life on the coast of Northern California somewhere around 1975, I realize how typical a story it is. A California story, a 1970’s story, a story that could only be told by someone who had arrived from somewhere else. Every mundane chore was an exotic adventure.
Once a week, I drove inland to Sebastopol to do my laundry. The primitive laundromat sat on a dirt lot that it shared with a bar. The bar was a shack with the neon image of a mermaid in the window, and I could hear the country music of my childhood through the open door. While my clothes were washing, I would wander over to the bar and shoot pool with the three guys who I suspected could seldom be found anywhere else. They looked like they lived there. It wasn’t possible to determine their ages. I spent an hour every week for nearly a year with those men, and I cannot remember even one of their names.
This story of the laundromat, and the three mysterious men, is one of my favorites. I love repeating it to friends in the South, watching them smile and shake their heads in disbelief. They are impressed by the tale of my laundry and the old bar because it is almost, but–teasingly–not quite, unbelievable. It is an experience that would never happen in Georgia, but just close enough, and involving someone they know, that they can imagine it. The best kind of story.
I worked hard to make a nest there, and the little house’s two rooms look inviting in the photographs I have kept. I can’t help counting the surprisingly large collection of wine bottles. I don’t recall drinking that much, but there they stand. A cloud of witnesses.
I have darkened this photograph of the room with the windows and you can see more clearly the ocean and beach just across the highway.
On my laundry days, I started early, driving up a steep hill from the highway in my ancient Volvo station wagon. I never had any confidence that the car would make it up that hill and had nightmares for years about stalling out and rolling backward, picking up speed, disappearing into the gaping maw of the fog.
I always left home nearly blinded by the deep fog that shrouded the highway and it always seemed like a rebirth to crest the hill and drive straight out of that fog into bright sunlight. An everyday miracle of climate sixty miles north of the city. It was entirely different to be driving into the fog, on the days I had been careless enough to stay in Berkeley or San Francisco too late and found myself racing to get home while I could still see the road. More than once, my timing was off.
The fog on that coast is a living thing and, when you have pitted yourself against it, your chances aren’t good. I still remember the shortness of breath that is the beginning of panic, when I drove into Bodega Bay, looked left, and saw the great fog bank. From that moment, I had lost the race. I would be navigating that winding road without benefit of sight. But I always made it.
At about the time the sun started its descent into the Pacific, the fog curled up out at the far horizon and headed toward shore. It is a phenomenon I can’t analyze, even with all the data at hand. There is no shortage of information about the coastal fog and, while I understand the basic concept that cold ocean water cools the air right above it, and that the cooler air can’t hold moisture, I just can’t get beyond that. That’s always where I stop. Somehow, in all this cooling and warming, moisture is shed and that moisture is what forms fog.
And none of that has helped me to understand, or to convey to anyone else, the paralysis, the absolute terror of seeing that rolling, moving, relentless entity coming toward you. It is like a huge wave, except water, even the highest, most threatening wave, looks like water. A fogbank looks like a wall, solid and inescapable. Try to imagine it. It stretches as far as you can see in either direction and, although it moves slowly, it is clearly moving. I remember my heart beating faster on the afternoons when I sat in front of my house or, later and more courageously, down on the beach, and watched it, knowing the end of the story. The fog would arrive, nothing could stop it, would arrive, cover me, the highway, the house, and everything would be invisible until late in the morning the next day. Some days, right on the coast, the fog never lifted all day.
In later years, I have suffered from depression, and I have always likened its onset to that fog. I can be sitting on my sofa, reading, and suddenly I will feel it behind me, rolling up to lay its icy weight on my shoulders. And yet, to this day, it remains one of my favorite memories of Northern California. I fell in love with that fog.
But, I have made the connection and it is on that fog that my captor rides in. Depression, of course. Depression with a capital D, Clinical Depression, Depression that people who don’t have it mistake for sadness or moodiness or self-pity. Depression, for which those same people recommend getting out for some sunshine, or a walk, or a movie, or “Call up a friend and go out for coffee. If you do something, anything, you’ll feel better.”
People who, in the worst case, seem to think we are lying in bed or sitting and staring at the wall or the television, on purpose. Who think we just aren’t trying hard enough.
People who shy away because they’re afraid we might be contagious.
Those of us who are visited by this malady already know the list of possible remedies–sun, exercise, friends, distractions–and most of them would at least alleviate the suffering were it not for one very large problem. Once you are in the grip of it, those are the very things you cannot do. You are paralyzed, often unable to walk from room to room.
Of course, depression–with a lower case ‘d’– can be situational, an unbearable sadness because life has become too much and for a while overwhelms us, or a pet dies, a relationship ends. That kind of depression diminishes, drifts away, eventually is gone, leaving only a trace of sorrow or regret. It is not what I am talking about here. It is different not just in degree, but in kind.
For those of us who are acquainted with what Winston Churchill is said to have called “the black dog,” the moment comes when the sensations tick over into something else, something larger, something physical, like a great rock on the chest. Then we are lost. Then we cannot get up, go out, take a walk, or call a friend.
But I am either wise or a coward. I believe in modern medicine. I have taken various anti-depressants, many of which don’t work, on and off for decades. Six years ago, I got lucky. I found a psychiatrist who knew what he was doing and he prescribed a medication that has worked so far. A good run for one of these drugs.
And I have gained the freedom of a few seconds, maybe a few minutes, provided by the simple efficacy of a chemical in my bloodstream, a few seconds in which I can take a deep breath, lurch up off the sofa, open the door for a walk or lift the phone to call a friend for coffee.