Personal Essay

Where depression begins (Or, Spikes!)

By Scott Ross

I’ve been ruminating on this subject as essay-fodder for some time. The recent “apparent” suicide, as they say in criminological circles, of Robin Williams is coincidental but not, I don’t think, incidental. The single most concise (and most heartbreakingly apt) description of chronic depression I’ve ever come across is Dick Cavett’s:

“[…] when you’re downed by this affliction, if there were a curative magic wand on the table eight feet away, it would be too much trouble to go over and pick it up.”

The roots of depression are, of course, not yet firmly fixed. That its presence indicates a chemical imbalance seems assured, but is the condition genetic, or in any case, purely genetic? At this point in my life, I feel as certain that my own chronic major depression, which has blighted most of my adult life, and indeed much of my adolescence, is a function of my father’s DNA. His father, whom he loathed, was an angry, violent man and one, I believe, who bequeathed that genetic curse to at least two of his children. Dad’s sister, my Aunt Peg, committed suicide when I was very young, and I recognize many of the behavioral symptoms of depression in myself as reflections of Dad’s own persona. My mother always resisted any such conclusions on my part (“He’s not depressed.”) but at my worst I see far too many similarities between us. (The high anxiety I also contend with comes from her side of the family, or at least from her mother’s.) It was in fact my screaming—literally screaming—at other drivers on the road that finally convinced me to seek a diagnosis. That rage was not the sole manifestation of my depressive symptoms, but it was the decisive one.

Riding in a car with my father was a test of nerve. Every other drive was an idiot, and at fault, and he could also be vindictive. More than once I clung to the armrest, terror-stricken, expecting to die at any moment while he passed a driver in a no-passing zone or even, memorably, while crossing a two-lane bridge. Interestingly, to me, while Dad despised his father for his bullying, he was incapable of seeing the ways in which his own behavior often mirrored that of my grandfather. Like the man we referred to as Grant, Dad’s temper was quick, and never far from the surface. And while he at least attempted to govern his hands, he did not always succeed. At least, not with his son. A cousin recently reminded me of just such an incident, one I’d completely forgotten but which made her extremely leery of him. Like Grant, Dad had always to be right. He could not seem to locate the proper angle at which to view himself as others saw him—a common enough failing but one which, I believe, inhibits one’s making the changes to one’s own personality necessary for self-improvement. My ex shared that blind-spot and, if confronted, made the excuse that people had to take him as he was. Everyone has to adjust to the man who will not adjust himself.

My passivity in the face of brutality, psychic or physical, is, I suspect, a result of the dictum handed down to my father by his. More than once in my pubescence and adolescence I heard the “Fight your own battles. Don’t come crying to us” speech. As a result, and because I was unable to fight, I held my torments inside. I vividly remember one pleasant autumn evening at around 14 or 15, sitting with my mother on the front stoop, and her saying, the previous two years had been a waking nightmare, that screaming hell we once called junior high school. “You used to be such a happy-go-lucky kid,” Mom observed sadly. “I don’t understand what’s happened. Why you’ve changed.” I was, as always, silent. How could I tell her, even if I’d had the words then, which I surely did not, that living in hell, and being told not to whine about it, can turn the happiest child into a diffident, interior-dwelling emotional recluse?

Depression becomes manifest, we’re told, following a trauma. It may be physical or emotional. In my own case, I date the onset of my depression from the age of six or seven, when I broke my wrist in a fall from a tree. (Well, from a tree limb, to be more precise; it was a dumb stunt, and a disaster waiting to happen. Had it not been me, it would have been my sister, or one of my cousins.) In any case, I can recall sitting in a dark Canton, Ohio hospital corridor after my near-compound fracture had been X-rayed, waiting to have it placed in a cast. Was my mother with me, or had she gone off to look for a nurse, or a doctor? I no longer recall anyone near me, only the dark pall, the body-size net that cocooned me with almost as rapid a descent as the fall from that tree branch. The ensuing days are shrouded by that caul. Each time it recurred as I grew older, it was always with that same, terrible, all-encompassing swiftness. The climb back up, as anyone who’s ever been depressed, let alone depressive, can tell you, is nowhere near as swift.

Far too many people, even well-meaning people, mistake “sadness” for depression. Everyone has known sadness. Almost everyone has experienced depression, even if only for a day. And “sad” is to chronic depression as “happy” is to acute mania. I liken my depression to walking under water, every moment of every day. I smile at times, I even laugh, on occasion. But what a friend describes as feeling like a weight that will not leave her, remains. I rise, although never easily, and never with the sensation of sleep having refreshed me. I go to work. I function. But if I gave in to impulse, I would not rise. I could not function. Those who refuse to “believe there’s such a thing as depression” (and there is a shocking number of such people, most of them, in my experience, highly educated and otherwise intelligent) should take up residence in my skin for an hour. If they did not instantly change their thinking (and I ennoble such purblind obtuseness with the positive noun) I should be amazed. A co-worker, whose anxieties and attendant neuroses make mine look like the proverbial walk in the woods, says that he wishes he could touch such doubters on the shoulder and transfer how he feels to them for 24 hours. Because, outwardly, we do not appear to be suffering, our illness is not generally perceived, even when we give every indication of it. We’re “difficult.” We’re “self-involved.” We’re “unpleasant.” “Unproductive.” More than one friend has told me I have “an edge,” never quite understanding that it might be because all of my interior edges have been ground to the nub.

For far too many of us as well, the combinations of therapy and medication simply do not work. When I was first diagnosed, in the mid-1990s, I was placed on Prozac, the “miracle” of the moment. Within six weeks, I had regained that “happy-go-lucky kid.” I felt as I hadn’t since the age of 12. But one-third of Prozac users will cease to respond to the drug over time, and I, unhappily, was in that statistic. Within six months, the pall was back, and blacker than before. Because I knew then that it was possible for me to feel better. In this way, that experience is almost worse than the disease itself: I’ve been through a veritable pharmacopeia since then, and nothing I’ve taken since has had the slightest positive effect. Ketamine, if and when it is ever placed on the market, might be the answer. It has the virtue of taking effect, not in weeks, but in hours or even minutes. If all else fails, there is always electroconvulsive therapy, but that is extreme, and requires so lengthy a procedure I’m not sure my medical insurance even covers it, or even if I could take the necessary time away from the office to effect it.

Severe depressive episodes are known as “spikes.” I was trying to remember when my depression mutated from occasional spikes to a chronic condition. I’m not sure, but I suspect it was in my late 20s; before that, I endured the spikes but had the wherewithal to work both full-time and part-time jobs simultaneously, and (at an age very close to 25) to enroll myself in college, arrange for Pell Grants, and drive myself from North Carolina to Vermont. Further, after that particular disaster, to arrange for a transfer to a different school, come back home, work for a year and a half, take on the editorship of an Arts Council newsletter to pay for my matriculation, and somehow, get myself to Amherst, Massachusetts. The slowly accumulating exhaustion, the sense of someone constantly twisting a rubber band around my temples, the increasing incidents of emotional spikes… all of that came some time during my otherwise rather happy years at Hampshire College. So it was after my return, at 29, that the condition gradually became so debilitating it forced me to seek diagnosis, and therapy.

The spikes, however, remain.

Worse, they come with increasing frequency. And each subsequent plunge into the abyss takes longer to climb out of, requires a greater pull on my diminished—and diminishing—reserves. The recent death of my mother after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s, notwithstanding its being in a way a relief, for her and for her family, especially my sister, who cared for her the last three years of her life, still served to spike my depression in unexpected ways, and with astonishing swiftness; I could feel it wrapping me in its insidious embrace on the drive back from seeing Mom the last time, and only in the last few days has it retreated sufficiently to take me from deep slough of despond to what I am accustomed to: My usual, plodding, exhausting, “norm” of chronic depression.

Some know-nothings and professional reactionaries have, typically, taken the occasion of Williams’ suicide to bloviate upon the matter of courage versus cowardice. And while I hold suicide as a perfectly reasonable response to insupportable pain, and reserve the right myself to exit at a time of my choosing should my depression prove endless and intractable, I would also say this: No one who survives, day after weary day of this condition can remotely be called a coward. As Seneca noted, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” So is reserving judgment, or at least, governing one’s tongue when one is a smug ignoramus.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

All Politics is Local, History

And then you destroy yourself: Nixon resigns, +40

By Scott Ross

I did not start out a Nixon-hater. But as familiarity breeds contempt, the more you know about Richard Milhous Nixon, the more there is to loathe.

Admittedly, I was too young to fully comprehend the man his growing legion of enemies were wont to call “Tricky Dick” (or, to save time, as Philip Roth discovered, just plain “Tricky”) during his Presidency, and certainly prior to it. As a politically naïve pre-adolescent I had even, in sixth grade, been tasked with presenting Nixon’s candidacy in the best possible light for our classroom debate. Diligent if not exactly percipient, I attacked the project with limited gusto, which largely meant committing to memory as much of the President’s numerous campaign brochures — including the flyer that, infamously, depicted him walking the beach at San Clemente in his suit and tie; I wish I’d saved that one—as I could cram into my head and regurgitating it during the event. I threw in some jowl-wagging and Tricky’s patented “Vee” sign for good measure, along with a direct steal from Dickie Goodman’s then-current, now-forgotten, comedy 45, “Convention ’72”: Asked what I thought of my opponent, I intoned, “Well, as the song says, I don’t know how to love him.” It brought down the house.

Interestingly, the opposing statement by the boy who had been assigned McGovern seems, in retrospect, unconsciously yet almost eerily to parallel the actual candidate’s entire run. He trotted out a few, largely negative, comments, refuting me, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it. And in our class, as indeed throughout the school itself, Nixon’s win in the eventual polling was predictive; it was a slaughter.

I did become aware, from late 1972 on, of a thing called Watergate. As 1973 began and the re-election landslide receded I, like the rest of the country, heard more and more about the scandal, even as I understood less and less. And as with so many Americans of the time, the thing began to pall; would it never end? The revelations, the testimony, the hearings, the court decisions… for a largely ignorant — or at least, politically uninformed — adolescent, the weekly parade of Time magazines that littered my 7th grade social studies teacher’s back wall cabinets and whose covers were a seemingly limitless recitation of this or that aspect either of Watergate or of the President himself (those steely, unknowable eyes… that determined grimace… those unmistakable jowls) began to take on the aspect of a fad that had long since reached its zenith but that kept on going, replicating itself ad infinitum.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I'd saved.

The headline in the Raleigh paper, which I now wish I’d saved.

The end, when finally it came, felt almost anti-climactic. Even intrusive, as Nixon’s resignation interrupted my family’s annual August trek to the coast that summer. I vividly recall watching the speech on the hotel room television, but the emotional component, for me, was nearly nil. Yet even I (later, whenever the subject came up) found myself parroting my parents’ cries of, “Why can’t they leave the poor man alone?” Archie Bunker was alive and well and living in suburbia. And then like so many Americans, I tried my damnedest to forget.


Nixon and HUAC investigator Robert Stripling pretend to pore intently over the contents of a rancid pumpkin.

Only as I became more interested in recent history, around the age of 15 or 16, did I begin to put together Nixon’s personal and political biography, and to be appalled at the absolute shoddiness of it. Watergate was as nothing, I slowly recognized, when compared to the squalid, reeking “accomplishments” of this professional serial criminal. From his earliest campaigns onward, the rehearsal of sleazy lies about his opponents (“Even Helen Gahagan Douglas’ panties are Red!”), the hitching of his political wagon to the comet-trains of the rankest anti-democracy fascists (J. Parnell Thomas, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn), the infamous “Checkers” speech (Pat looking to the middle distance, fervently wishing she was anywhere else) … the petulant, premature farewell (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…”)



Why, as Esquire used to ask, repeatedly, was this man laughing?

This was the True Nixon. The New Nixon was the Old Nixon, re-packaged, re-branded, and rotten to its core. (As a well-known American magazine used, repeatedly, to ask, “Why is this man laughing?”) And the rot would spread. My, how it would spread!

The uni-ndicted war criminal outlines the "Menu" for Cambodia.

The un-indicted war criminal outlines his “Menu” for Cambodia.

The self-described “Peacemaker” who would end the Viet Nam conflict, spouting his catch-phrase “Peace with honor… Peace with honor…” like a berserk mynah bird, on attaining the White House in 1968 instead deliberately ratcheted it up. Yet all of this, and most of what followed, was as nothing compared to what this man, aided — if not indeed cattle-prodded — by his self-adoring, overweening NSA Advisor, Henry Kissinger, would unleash in the first Nixon Administration: Nothing less than the achievement of instigating the worst genocidal madness of the post-war era. Under the nauseating, and cynical, rubric “Operation Menu,” Nixon and his happy war-mongers (a brace of whom would resurface 20 years later to present the world with “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the gift that keeps on taking) invaded, and bombed, a sovereign, neutral nation, with such ferocity that, ultimately, the mad Cambodian revolutionary Pol Pot would become completely un-hinged, brutally murdering fully one-quarter of his own countrymen and women. It is an atrocity that stands un-rivaled since the Holocaust, and one wholly, obscenely, un-punished.

"John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard." (Wikipedia caption.)

“John Filo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard.” (Wikipedia caption.)

What many of us forget, or never understood, was that the massacre of four students at Kent State in May, 1970, was an equally direct result of the then-secret Cambodian bombings. And most of them were not even protesting that evil event, merely standing in a parking area where the Ohio National Guardsmen had just told them to assemble, when they were cold-bloodedly murdered, by trigger-happy paramilitary thugs, none of whom was ever convicted. (One of the nine wounded, Dean R. Kahle, was paralyzed from the chest down.) Tricky, of course, instantly sprang to what passed for life, inveighing against the kids and warming to his perennial theme of “Us” (the illogically-named “Silent Majority”) against “Them” (dirty, foul-mouthed, violent, privileged, ungrateful little snots who got what they asked for.) In this parade of related obscenities, Nixon’s response to Kent State, via his speechwriter Ray Price, locating sympathy only for the Guardsmen (“a bunch of scared kids with guns”), rises to the top of the stinking heap.

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein's imagined interview in which the President's secretary admits to a circus family background as one of "The Flying Woods.")

Rosemary Woods, demonstrating (at White House insistence) how she might have erased five minutes of a certain Oval Office tape. (cf Robert Klein’s imagined interview in which the President’s secretary admits to a circus family background as one of “The Flying Woods.”

Nixon is recorded — in Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, among other sources — as expressing complete dismay that what he deemed “a third-rate burglary” could take down a President. The break-in itself, whose locale — the Watergate Complex — inadvertently, and tiresomely, gave us a new suffix, instantly appended to all political (and even some religious) scandals, was indeed a paltry affair, engineered, with almost hilarious incompetence, by that functioning nut-case Gordon Liddy. But ’twasn’t Beauty killed the Beast this time; it was the President’s own paranoia, his form-fitted suit of impregnable personal armor and his pathological inability to tell the truth when a lie would serve. Another President, Harry S (for nothing, as Gore Vidal used, gleefully, to note) Truman, famously said of his successor, “Richard Nixon is a no good, lying bastard. He can lie out of both sides of his mouth at the same time, and if he ever caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in.” And, as Jonathan Schell observed in his staggeringly apt treatise on the Nixon years, The Time of Illusion, by the end the man’s infamous enemies list had grown to include the entirety of the American electorate. Even without the much-speculated-upon eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in those foolishly vouchsafed reel-to-reel wonders, the evidence was there, plain and unequivocal, if to everyone else except Richard (“When the President does it, that means it is not illegal”) Nixon.

The infamous "I am not a crook" press conference of November, 1973.

The infamous “I am not a crook” press conference of November, 1973.

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived "Stennis Compromise."*

Senator John Stennis, of the hilariously-conceived “Stennis Compromise.”*


Conrad’s brilliant cartoon sums up everything about Nixon and his self-destroying approach to Watergate.

And he nearly got away with all of it, this lawyer who precipitated the gravest Constitutional crisis since the Civil War (and before the Presidential Selection of 2000.) Thanks almost entirely to the instincts, courage and dogged perseverance of “Woodstein” and the Washington Post, even “Tricky Dick” could not escape, if not the criminal court, the judgment of his peers, and of history. Even as he labored without surcease throughout the remainder of his mean, petty, resolutely un-comprehending life to re-position himself to the nation he betrayed so cynically, callously and, it would appear, reflexively, as a vaunted eminence gris, an elder statesman of incomparable worth, and even as those efforts began, against all odds and sanity, to bear fruit… Even as, now, many Americans seem willing, on the one hand, to shrug and forgive and on, the other, to cheer and encase in nostalgic amber… Despite the Fordian pardon… Despite the annual release of yet more (and more ugly, and incriminating) tapes and transcripts… Despite it all… History still accords Richard Milhous Nixon his most fitting legacy: The only sitting President in the history of the Republic to resign the office. The Nixon Library can perform its white-wash, right-wing bloviators near and far can proclaim his nobility, and his greatness. But the facts remain. In spite of all that effort on his behalf, and the complicity of an ever-shrinking national memory, that shameful, and wholly deserved, footnote, will remain, forever attached to the man, and to his Presidency. Nothing so became his office as the leaving of it.

Astonishingly, at his televised farewell to the White House staff, Richard Nixon did, in a jaw-dropping display of seemingly unconscious self-assessment, reveal more than he knew when he advised his loyalists. (This was above and beyond the tired invocation of his father’s lemon ranch and the singularly telling re-statement, “My mother was a saint.” Kissinger observed of Nixon, “Can you imagine what he could have been if he had ever been loved?” Can you further imagine what being that woman’s child did to the boy Nixon was?) His advice to the troops? “Always remember, others may hate you. But those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Scant wonder, then, that some regard RMN as the most Shakespearean of Presidents: Richard III, invariably, telling us the truth about himself even as he obfuscates to everyone around him. But as Shakespeare, through the mouth of another political dissembler noted, the evil that men do live after them.

To evoke Santayana is by now both wearying, and a little suspect, particularly since so few ever heed his warning. Let’s say instead, “Long live the memory of that evil.” Or should I, in deference to Nixon’s long and nearly peerless, putrid history, amend that to “those evils”?


*Robert Klein: “The Court can’t hear the tapes, the people can’t hear the tapes, the Congress can’t hear the tapes, the judge can’t hear the tapes… But John Stennis can hear the tapes! He’s got the perfect credentials; he’s a 73-year old Senator from Mississippi. He’s just spent six months in a hospital, a veritable Rip Van Winkle… He can’t hear the dinner bell!… The black servants in his house do bits: ‘Hey, Senator Stennis, you can’t hear shit!‘ Perfect man to hear the tapes… Why couldn’t the tapes record that, when President Nixon said to Alexander Haig, ‘Al, get me a deaf senator, I’ll do the rest!'” (From “Wallowing in Watergate” on the Mind Over Matter LP.)

All other text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross