By Brendan McLean
Paul Dalio’s new film, Touched with Fire, walks a tightrope. A tightrope strung between two platforms 50 feet in the air. And on that tightrope, there are two characters: Carla and Marco. Sometimes they work with one another to reach the platform at the end. At other times, it seems as though each is trying to throw the other off. Set to be released on Feb. 12, Touched with Fire takes Dalio’s personal experiences with bipolar disorder and uses Carla, played by Katie Holmes, and Marco, played by Luke Kirby, as muses to contrast the different emotions he has felt toward bipolar in his life. The tightrope is figurative, but the life-and death nature of balancing the extreme emotions of bipolar is not.
The movie itself put me on edge as I watched; it made me uneasy. At times, it seemed as though bipolar was being romanticized, only to have that person ultimately come crashing down. For example, there is one scene in the film related to the threat of suicide that may trigger some viewers.
One of the biggest themes throughout the film is the relationship that the two main characters must manage with their parents. Not-so-spoiler spoiler: Neither is able to navigate their relationship perfectly. The glimpses into each person’s actions are what I ultimately found most captivating and thought provoking. I spoke with the director of the film to shine some light onto his story and the film’s story.
You have a personal experience with mental health, whereas the actors in the film might not have. How did you work with them to create something that you feel was ultimately a true representation?
The love story between these two characters was definitely a metaphor for my love-and-hate relationship with bipolar: the way they bring out the romance in each other, but also the devastation in each other, and the way they have to reconcile those two things. The journey that I went through that I think a lot of people with bipolar go through is that you get it and you’re lost, but then you easily romanticize that fire ultimately to your own destruction. It ultimately takes most people repeated devastations to let go of the mania. What I wanted to do was have that journey of how they learned that they can have real meaningful emotions and sustain them. My hope is that people are able to watch the film and see where Marco and Carla make mistakes and know that they don’t have to make them themselves.
How has your family played a role in helping you maintain balance in your life?
The biggest thing that my family did—and it’s one of the hardest things—is the constantly talking me out of suicide when I was in a depression. It was very draining on them, but they really struggled to try and give me hope.
The best a family can do is to give hope to their family member, but ultimately it has to come down to the individual. The loss of hope—in my own experience—was the only time I had thoughts of suicide. If I had any hope at all that there was any chance, any possibility that I could be happy and full of creativity, and even better than I was before, which now is the case, I would fight.
What was your goal with the film?
The biggest thing I was trying to do with the film—for the family members and the main characters—is show a truthful situation where there are well-intentioned parents. And the truth is, even well intentioned parents, they don’t always know what to do. They are dealing with a situation that there is no perfect guidebook for. My hope was to create characters that the audience could see themselves in. If there were any well intentioned parents in the audience, that they could not only see themselves in the parents, but also through their children’s eyes. That they could at least be able to understand their children enough so they could understand where they are coming from so that they can communicate with them.
The title of your film is taken from Kay Refield Jamison’s 1996 book, Touched with Fire , which explained how many of the greatest artistic minds in history had bipolar disorder. Can you tell me about how she inspired you?
It’s easy to be ashamed of something that you’re told is a genetic defect. You feel like you’re a mistake. That’s a hard thing to swallow for someone who’s found a place based on how they’ve come to view themselves. For me, when I came across the book Touched with Fire by Kay Jamison, it completely changed my whole perception of myself. Maybe this isn’t just a defect; it could be a gift that has devastating consequences if you don’t handle it right, but maybe there is something purposeful in this.
How does being labeled bipolar affect the way you view yourself?
Bipolar wasn’t always seen as a defect; it was often seen as a gift because it tapped into something that most people couldn’t tap into. Framing it that way creates a very different story.
There can be a fear in doctors and in people to romanticize it because they are afraid people will say, “I can go off my meds.” That’s a legitimate fear, but I don’t think you have to have that fear, if it can be conveyed in the right way.
If people can understand that you can have all the magic of your gift and you can have it in a more potent and rich, powerful way if you find a balance with your medication and other healthy habits, then it’s something you can fight for. If the story can change, it would be much more helpful.
In addition to medication, what else do you do to keep yourself in control?
That took a lot of time, and that’s important for people to know so that they don’t feel like they can rush it and get there. Bipolar is like a pendulum: The more recent the swing, the more quickly it wants to swing again, and the consequences of that swing are devastating.
I used to smoke weed, I used to drink. Now I won’t even take a sip of alcohol to make a toast. I go to bed at 10 p.m. every night. I go for a 2-hour walk to clear my head and get exercise. I meditate without fail twice a day. I’m also careful about what I eat with things like the amount of sugar I have.
Transcendental meditation, for instance, has really helped me. I met a guy who had been meditating for 20 years, and he said that for that 20 years he had been happy 80% of the time. I couldn’t believe it. I had never conceived of that. So I started meditating without fail.
So what does it mean to be happy? What does the word “happy” mean to you?
“Happy” has a completely different connotation than before bipolar. Before bipolar, happiness meant positive emotions that you would experience watching a comedy. It was just anything that was not negative, but it was actually since my experience with bipolar and coming out of it that now, happiness is feeling the full range of meaningful emotions, including the pain and the bliss and the appreciation of the contrast between them. When you go through extreme pain, you’re almost forced to bring some sort beauty to it, some sort of meaning that’s aesthetically pleasing. Your appreciation of emotion is much deeper and richer. My sense of happiness feels much richer and deeper than before.
I look back at my previous self, and that sense of happiness was so shallow. True happiness is having an appreciation of the darkest and brightest emotions and being able to experience both of them equally.
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