“Touched With Fire”
by Paul Dalio
“My name is Paul Dalio. I’m a filmmaker, husband of my NYU film school classmate, father of two children and bipolar. Of these labels, the one I’m certain stands out in your mind is bipolar - and not in a good way. That’s no fault of your own, since you probably don’t know much about it other than what you’ve heard. I’m either right about this assumption or wrong about it. But either way, I’m certain of it because of my past experiences with the stigma that surrounds it.
So how do I deal with this label? I could remove the “I am” part to avoid it defining me and just say “I have” in which case I would have to add the word “disorder” to “bipolar,” which isn’t exactly the ideal fix. I could say I have a mental illness or am manic-depressive. But other than that, what label do I have to choose from that’s not a disorder, disease, illness or defect in my humanity?
The recent attempts to fight stigma have been to say “you are not your illness,” but I and others of my kind can’t swallow that because we can’t get around the fact that God weaved that illness into the fabric of our DNA, since bipolar is genetic and has been running through our family trees since the origin of our being.
I remember when I received the label at age 24. It was just after I could have sworn I saw God lift the veil and unfold the entire miracle of the universe before my eyes. I was thrown into a hospital, pumped full of drugs and came down only to be told that I wasn’t experiencing anything divine; I just triggered a lifelong illness that would swing me from psychotic manias to suicidal depressions with progressive intensity until I would most likely fall into the 1-in-4 suicide statistic - unless I took my meds, which made me feel no emotion.
If you can imagine missing feeling sad, it’s the only thing worse than pain. All every medical book had to offer was that if I stayed on these meds, I could live a “reasonably normal life.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was pretty sure it sounded like “just get by.” So I stepped out of the hospital, knowing I wouldn’t be the sane person I used to be and not wanting to be this new human diseased me.
Six months later, I came across a book, "Touched with Fire", by Kay Jamison. It was the first medical text showing a tangible correlation between bipolar and artistic genius, profiling some of the greatest artists in history. Kay Jamison is a psychologist who in the middle of her time at UCLA went manic. She was going to hide it at first, afraid of how her psychiatric community would react, but she decided to be open about it and write books about it, one of which was "Touched with Fire."
For the first time, I heard words, shining right through every medical book’s thick printed clinical ink, describing something I could be proud to be. I was like, Yeah, that’s what I am. I’m “touched with fire.”
It would be destructive for me to deny all four seasons of the bipolar fire. When summer’s mania exceeds its stay and the fall shadows grab hold of your brain, you can feel your will within each withering leaf clinging to the trees of the entire forest surrounding you slipping as they fall down on you. When winter rolls around and your soul retreats deep beneath the frozen ground, and it’s calling your body down, it feels like your ashes are fighting gravity. And when spring comes again, it extends a warm invitation to rise too high and repeat the bipolar cycle that will lay waste to your lives.
Likewise, it would be unwise for a doctor to deny that on those manic summer nights, when we look out our hospital windows, we can see the stars pulsing spirals of fire across the sky, as God lifts the veil and unfolds the entire universe before our eyes. We know that humanity’s most beloved image of the sky was seen through a sanitarium window with Van Gogh’s manic eyes, and that scientists have recently discovered a phenomenon in nature that occurs in the sky called turbulence which, while painted perfectly in Van Gogh’s manic sky, is invisible to the human eye.
The reasons why it would be unwise for a doctor to deny this is because if the doctor acknowledged that maybe there was something to it, that maybe it wasn’t just some misfiring synapsis flashing through a crack in our minds, maybe we saw something that was just too beautiful to prove, he would also be able to remind the patient that while Van Gogh may have seen that sky through manic eyes, he didn’t paint it when he was manic, because he didn’t need the mania to have the fire.
And that doctor would then be able to assure the patient that he doesn’t want to stomp out that fire, that over time with gradual adjustments in medications they would work together to make sure the patient keeps that fire, and sustains it without letting it get out of control and burn down his mind, leaving his life in ashes.
How much more receptive would a patient be to treatment if the patient was told that the treatment was to nurture a gift they had, instead of terminate a disease they had? When out of all the poets who received the Pulitzer - the prize awarded to those who made the biggest contributions to the human spirit - 38 percent of them were bipolar, how can we simply label it a human disorder? Think how much more they could contribute to the human spirit if they knew it could be used as a gift to humanity, instead of something to hide from humanity?
However, in order for this to work, the doctor has to be able to trust the patient just as much as the patient has to be able to trust the doctor. My doctor trusted me, since he saw I was impeccable with my health habits, I was patient, willing to wait years before finally feeling full rich emotion, and that I would be satisfied without mania. So in return, he was never satisfied until I felt I had full rich emotion. I now feel deeper, richer emotion and more creativity than I ever did before bipolar, to the point where I can call it a gift, so much that given the opportunity I wouldn’t want a “cure.”
Still, I know I’ll always be walking a tightrope, but you get better at it over time, and like the guy who crossed the twin towers, you learn not to fall. And the higher the stakes and tighter the wire, the stronger and more disciplined you’re forced to become in order to survive. It’s only when things are so dark you can’t see hope one inch in front of your eyelids and it’s so cold, your soul is so numb, you don’t even know if it still exists, when just as your dim glow is this close to being blown out by your own lips a sudden spark of grit and will to live breaks into a flame of desperation, raging to blaze its way into the light of day again. So by the time you finally rise, the light in all those sunbathing souls combined couldn’t hold a candle to the fire in just one of your eyes. And when you combine that with the bipolar fire, no matter what anyone labels you, that’s something they can’t deny.
Van Gogh said, “What am I in the eyes of most people? - a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person - somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then - even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.”
I’m sure what he meant is, if you step out of the MoMA after seeing “Starry Night” and you walk by a crazy man gazing up at the sky with wide crazy eyes, before you cross the street to avoid walking past him, maybe you’ll see him differently now that you saw through his eyes. And instead of saying “he’s bipolar,” maybe you’ll say, or at least think, “Oh, he’s touched with fire.”