'It's like you're in a black hole'

Nina Ross, likely familiar to many who drive past Second and Chestnut, struggles with PTSD, depression and anxiety.

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Carrying the small handmade sign seeking assistance, Nina Ross walks from her family's only home, a Dodge Ram with a camper, to the corner of South Second Avenue and Chestnut Street to panhandle for enough money to buy propane and food for the night. Ross lives with her partner Shannon (background) and their daughter and her fiancee along with three dogs and a cat in the camper. Thrusday, April 5, 2012

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Attempting to draw drivers out of their glass and metal bubbles and notice her, Nina Ross stands at the corner of South Second Avnue and Chestnut Street with a sign asking for money or work Thursday afternoon so she, her partner Shannon and their daughter and her fiancee have enough money to buy propane and food to survive the night in their camper with the four of them, three dogs and a cat. Thrusday, April 5, 2012

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While drinking her morning coffee to wash the night away, Nina Ross reacts to conversation at the Rising Sun Clubhouse after she and her partner Shannon returned from a trip to Idaho to pick up their daughter and her finacee. Now the four of them, along with three dogs and a cat live in a camper trailer. Thrusday, April 5, 2012

WALLA WALLA -- Nina Ross knows what the two teens are doing when they park themselves down the block.

Ross, 45, is a familiar face to many. From her station on the west sidewalk of Second Avenue, she holds the sign that is hard to ignore: "DISABLED. FAMILY OF 4 LIVING IN CAMPER. NEED HELP. WILLING TO WORK."

"They're about 14, 15," she said of the girls. "They get about two houses away from me and start snickering. Yesterday they threw a hard, plastic ball at me."

There is one little girl, however, who counteracts such ridicule every day, Ross said. "When she's on her way home from school she always wishes me good luck."

Ross can use it.

She's lived with depression most of her life. Events two years ago kicked everything up a notch, adding in diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and extreme anxiety, she said.

"I had a miscarriage, at work at Walmart. It was right at the halfway point. We had just found out it was a boy and had named him Arthur."

The baby would have been her fourth child. Her youngest just turned 20 years old, Ross said.

The event knocked her and her boyfriend to their knees. Ross responded by shutting down. "I couldn't function. I couldn't go anywhere, I couldn't do anything ... I couldn't even drive by Walmart for seven months."

Ross had already lost her three kids -- the first adopted at birth, the second at age 2, "because someone hit him."

Her youngest was taken away a decade ago. "We were living in a camper, we were homeless. We had no running water, but we were taking showers at our friend's, so she was always clean."

Someone alerted child welfare authorities and her daughter was taken to Ross' brother's house. Mother and child only had occasional contact through Facebook, she said.

Recently, however, her daughter moved to Walla Walla with her boyfriend and everyone is learning how to be a family with each other.

Ross speaks with a confident voice. Her green-eyed gaze is direct and conceals the low self-esteem she says still plagues her.

"Looking back, we didn't have information about depression when I was younger. It's like you're in a black hole. I don't do anything." Some episodes last a few hours, some more than a week, Ross added. "It's instantaneous and I'm not always sure of the triggers."

At Rising Sun Clubhouse, on this day and others, she tries to function, she said, nodding her head adorned with straight brown hair cut in a bob and pushed behind her ears.

"I usually do the cooking here. That helps. I can't be around a lot of people, in general, anymore. The thought of going back to cashiering scares the tar out of me. If I'm in a room with more than four people, I have to leave."

The best medicine she's ever had is "Chunk," her emotional-support Chihuahua. The tiny dog is Ross' ambassador in the world she hardly bear to navigate, she said, her eyes lighting up.

"I was extremely nonfunctional and couldn't leave the house before Chunk," Ross added. "I could only get dressed once in awhile."

Ross, Chunk, and her partner of 27 years spend days inside the clubhouse and nights in their small camper, along with a few more pets. Three times a week, she becomes the "annoying " person with the sign asking for help, she said.

Sometimes she gets a handout, sometimes she gets called a slut, Ross said. There is the occasional offer of work, raking leaves or housekeeping. "As long as I can do it solitary, I'm fine."

Others have taken her grocery shopping, where she lets them take the lead in establishing the limits of the generous gesture.

Presently Ross has no income. She's fighting a Social Security claim denial -- "If I get that, it's about $690 a month. That will make a tremendous difference."

She has help with medical expenses and food stamps, she said. "But those don't buy anything."

Ross wants what a lot of Americans want -- to live in a "stable" house, she said. "I haven't had that in a very long time."

Next on the list will be giving back to the clubhouse, Ross noted. "It's been here to support me."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

about this series

This is the second in a series of profiles of people in the Walla Walla area living with mental illness. Watch Health & Fitness for further installments.

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