Filmmaker Paul Dalio has experienced many ups and downs with bipolar disorder. Diagnosed at age 24, Dalio spent five years in and out of psychiatric facilities and was despondent over his situation until he read psychiatrist Kay Jamison’s book Touched with Fire, in which Jamison discusses the links between manic depression and creativity. It was a refreshing change from the clinical books he had found.
A meeting with Jamison at one of the hospital cafeterias further inspired him to get healthy.
“She told me she didn’t know one artist who wasn’t more creative after having bipolar than before, as long as they’re on meds,” Dalio says. “She told me I would feel certain things I didn’t think I would feel, like exuberance. It was life-changing because it gave me hope for the first time that I didn’t have to kill myself and go through hell or just wait around lifelessly waiting to die. I could find something that was in between. And that was what launched me on the change in my journey.”
Now stable on medication for years, Dalio, son of New York investor Ray Dalio, a donor to the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, wanted to chronicle the experience of bipolar disorder in a film. In an ode to Jamison, it, too, is called Touched with Fire.
The movie, released in limited theatres nationwide last February, features actors Luke Kirby and Katie Holmes as two poets with bipolar disorder who meet in a psychiatric facility and start a relationship. The film takes the audience on a journey through the highs and lows of bipolar disorder and how it affects not only individuals but their friends, families and work life. Jamison’s book is featured prominently, and she makes a cameo appearance as herself, advising the protagonists in her own words. Spike Lee, Dalio’s professor at New York University Film School, served as executive producer.
Dalio screened the film at Baltimore’s Charles Theatre in December as part of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Psychiatry and the Arts Series. The showing was followed by a discussion featuring Dalio, Jamison and psychiatry Director J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., Dalio’s physician during his last hospitalization in 2007.
The movie is “so authentic as to be a bit disturbing to some people,” DePaulo says, including a rarely seen but accurate portrayal of “the angst and desperation of parents that I see all the time. That was very compelling.”
Several attendees at the screening told DePaulo that they hoped for a storybook ending, which he says he got from seeing Dalio: “He looked anything but manic—he was calm, he was thoughtful, he spoke carefully. He was generous and also very humble. People really got it—that this was a really unbelievable transition that occurred over several years. For a psychiatrist, there’s nothing that gives you such deep gratification as seeing a recovery of a full life, far beyond symptom resolution.”
Dalio has never been more creative, DePaulo says. He not only wrote and directed the film but also wrote the musical score.
Says Dalio, “I hope [the movie] allows people to appreciate something other than a clinical illness, so that instead of pitying people or turning away from them—which only makes people with mood disorders want to hide in shame and adds to stigma—[they will] see something beautiful and redeeming and even be able to admire them for their gifts.”
Dalio returned to Johns Hopkins on April 19 with his wife, Kristina Nikolova (a cinematographer on the film), to discuss a patient’s perspective of mood disorders at the 30th Annual Mood Disorders Research/Education Symposium.