A Bipolar Child by Pamela Carter

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, March 23rd, 2018

"I was seen as an exceptionally bright but difficult child rather than one with a treatable mental illness..."

Pamela Carter Essay NAILED Magazine
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A personal essay by Pamela Carter.

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I grew up in the 1950s in a small log cabin located in an intermountain valley west of Denver. Our lives were primitive; all our water had to be hauled in five-gallon cans from the community well three miles away, and we bathed once a week in an aluminum tub filled with water warmed atop the wood-burning stove that took up most of our kitchen. We had no central heating, even though temperatures frequently dropped below zero in the winter, so the house was drafty and cold much of the year. Still, it was heaven to me. Ranches and open spaces surrounded our cabin, and the natural beauty and abundant wildlife fired my already active imagination.

In the summer I often rose in the dusky dawn light and climbed out my bedroom window before anyone else in the household was awake. I would catch my horse, Tammy, grab a hank of her mane, and swing myself onto her bare back. Tammy had been badly abused as a filly, and it left her more feral than tame—one of the reasons I loved her so much. But she had come to trust me and, unencumbered by saddle or bridle, was responsive and well behaved. I could guide her by pressing my knees against her sides, and together we would make our way in the hazy morning light, the air filled with birdsong, to a saddle of land on the Falcon Wing Ranch. The memory of the piercingly fresh air remains clear even now, almost sixty years later. From the rise of the saddle, I’d watch the sun rise over the sleeping city below.

When the air warmed up some, I’d ride Tammy to a small pond on the ranch, strip off my clothes, and urge her into the still-cold water, then hang onto her mane as she pulled me to the other side. Later, I’d climb out into the high grass growing at the edge of the pond and let the morning sun dry my naked body. I loved the sense of freedom I felt lying naked in the grass. I loved being naked, period, and wore clothes as little as possible. Other days I’d ride Tammy to an outcropping of rocks on the Holland Ranch and lie shirtless (free as a boy) as I made nooses of grass to try to catch the blue-tailed skinks that slithered across the rocks. I never caught any, but I loved the feel of the sun-warmed roughness of the sandstone against my chest and belly. Maybe my father’s worry over my “wildness” was a reasonable thing after all.

The best days were those when I led Tammy around the edge of the cattle guard on the Tall Timbers Ranch, where a herd of Black Angus grazed in the woodland meadows. There was an old house built of sun-dried mud bricks where I kept my Big Chief tablet and No. 2 pencils from my mother’s prying eyes. She disapproved of my writing and would tear up any story she found, so I wrote in secret here on the ranch. I loved these days when I didn’t see or speak to another person.

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I was born in 1948, half a century before Dmitri and Janice Papolos published their seminal work on childhood-onset bipolar disorder, The Bipolar Child, so I was seen as an exceptionally bright but difficult child rather than one with a treatable mental illness. In our small community I was known for my oppositional, defiant behavior, explosive temper, and love of risky adventures. Many mothers felt I’d be a bad influence on their daughters, and I received few invitations to birthday parties or sleepovers. Luckily my mother’s best friend, Nigel, took me as I was, and she had four sons who I counted as friends.

The year I was twelve, Nigel took me, her sons, and my two younger brothers on a four-day camping trip that gave rise to the most memorable escapade of my childhood. The last night of the trip, Guy—Nigel’s eldest, who was my age and a good friend—and I were fishing in the river that ran through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison when we saw an enormous bird float through the air and disappear into a crack in the cliff on the opposite side of the canyon.

“That’s a great horned owl, and I bet she’s got some owlets up there,” Guy said. “You don’t see many of them.”

I knew immediately I had to have one of the owlets to rear; they were uncommon and would grow to be so huge. It took me a while to talk Guy into capturing one of the young birds, but I finally persuaded him. The next morning we crawled out of our sleeping bags just after sunrise and set off for the place we thought we’d seen the mother owl disappear into the cliff. Guy handed me a large stick. “The mother’s going to attack if we take one of her babies, so you beat her off me before she can tear me to pieces.” Guy had a rope slung over one shoulder to use to capture the young owl. We started climbing. It was hard going, having only one hand to grasp the rock and pull ourselves upward. We finally reached the aerie a hundred feet above the river. Inside were three fledgling owlets, but we didn’t see the mother. It smelled musty inside, and the owlets backed away from the opening when we stuck our heads inside. The young owls were much bigger than I expected, maybe two feet tall. They clicked their beaks at us but made no other noise. Guy was a ranch kid with excellent roping skills. He unwound the rope and snaked it out over the branches and bones that filled the aerie and snagged the owlet nearest us around its legs and dragged it to us. The owlet continued to click its beak as we started back down the cliff. I watched out for the mother, but she floated up silently behind us and grabbed Guy by the small of his back with her talons before I had any idea she was close. I tried to hit her, but almost knocked Guy off the cliff instead. Going down was much harder than climbing up. I kept swinging my stick at the mother without much success, and within minutes Guy’s shirt was blood-soaked and in tatters. I began to wonder what I’d gotten us into. Finally the mother flew back into the aerie, and we were free to climb down to the river, holding the owlet upside down and trying to avoid his clicking beak. I began to worry about what Nigel would say when she saw Guy’s back and shirt; she’d know the idea to climb the cliff had been mine.

But all she said when we came into camp was “I don’t want to hear one word about how you got that owl.” And she never did. We named the owl Al and fed him ground beef and mashed bananas, a diet that seemed to agree with him. Of course my mother wouldn’t let me keep him, so Al went back to Nigel’s ranch when they left near the end of summer. He never became fully wild. Guy told me in one of his rare letters that every night Al flew to Guy’s bedroom window and sat on the sill, clicking his beak.

I didn’t begin treatment for bipolar until the age of thirty, and as I approach seventy, I realize I have never become fully “tame.”

I’m not sure I regret it.

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Header image courtesy of Valerie Usui. To see more of her work, go here.

 

Pamela Carter Essay NAILED MagazinePamela Carter graduated with honors from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law and practiced briefly after graduation. Her work has appeared in Midway JournalPamplemousseTucumsus, and now NAILED.

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.