Touched with Fire, Paul Dalio, and the Huffington Post

Recently, a friend shared a Huffington Post video on Facebook and asked for my thoughts. The video is an interview with filmmaker Paul Dalio, director of “Touched With Fire.”


Filmmaker Paul Dalio is Gifted With Bipolar DisorderFilmmaker Paul Dalio considers bipolar disorder more of a blessing than a curse.

Posted by The Huffington Post on Friday, March 11, 2016

If that embedded video doesn’t show up for you, here’s a link to watch filmmaker Paul Dalio on

My Thoughts

I like the concept behind the title “Touched with Fire.” I am bipolar (type II) and completely agree that many (if not all) of us are “touched with fire”—that is, we are instilled with a burning creativity and feel, not just a desire, but a need to create. I would extend that circle to include all kinds of crazy (not just bipolar disorder). As we say in This Is Your Brain, “Crazy people can do some crazy awesome things.”

I also like Dalio. He seems like a really cool guy, a passionate artist, and an articulate spokesperson for the cause.

But I didn’t like this video. After reading Dalio’s blog post on The Huffington Post website, I believe the editing and presentation of his interview in this video is poorly done. It is not a good representation of Dalio’s perspective on an admittedly nuanced situation. I get that they wanted to simplify it for the video, but the way they simplify his message ultimately misrepresents his message.

What the video said

The video begins with Dalio talking about the extremes you experience with bipolar disorder, and how you have no choice but to bring meaning to such hell. Paul Dalio’s way of bringing meaning to it is the film he made, “Touched with Fire.” We then see two clips from the movie.

The first is Katie Holmes, angry because she is not allowed to leave the hospital even though she checked herself in voluntarily.

The second is Luke Kirby, explaining that he isn’t sick so he shouldn’t be in the hospital (unlike the doctor with her lifeless face).

So here are two people, being kept in the hospital against their will. That seems pretty unjust. Katie had the good sense to check herself in, she should be able to leave when she feels better. And Luke has a sense of humor and a zest for life that is totally out-of-place there. Who’s to say he is the “sick” one and the doctor is well?

Is this what the movie is about? Sensible, witty, vivacious people who are unjustly imprisoned? Is that what it’s like to be bipolar in our society? That does sound like hell! No wonder they have to bring some kind of meaning to their situation.

They follow up with Dalio’s own experience after his first psychotic break, where he was thrown into one of the ten worst prisons in the United States, surrounded by the criminally insane. A montage of prison images come up on the screen: shackles, reinforced steel doors, surveillance cameras, bright yellow jumpsuits with “LA COUNTY JAIL” across the back…all of them things that restrict your freedom and violate your autonomy as a human being.

This has got to end! Let’s hope this movie sheds some light on this awful system.

(The next bit, about Bipolar I and psychosis, simply refers to the diagnostic criteria. Bipolar I doesn’t necessarily include psychosis, but the presence of psychotic features rules out Bipolar II. It’s a noteworthy distinction, but I’m not sure why they included it here.)

Then Dalio talks about the hypothetical doctor who tells you that you didn’t experience anything special and you need to take these drugs that make you feel nothing so you don’t end up killing yourself like 1 in 4 people do.

But who is he to say you didn’t see anything special? And why is he trying to use the risk of death by suicide to push drugs on you that make you feel nothing? Wouldn’t it be better if that doctor acknowledged that you had seen something beautiful, like Van Gogh, and that it was a miracle?

Then Dalio says “you don’t have to die from it,” adding that you can have a great life, a family, a passion for your career. The only mention of death so far came from the doctor who said you have a 1 in 4 chance of dying if you don’t take his pills, so it sounds like this is Dalio saying “don’t be scared into taking the drugs!”

The only confusing moment, the time he seems to go off message, comes next when he says “you don’t have to go off the meds, there is a treatment, there is a way to find a balance.” Then he talks about applying “the fire” of mania to your wife, your family, your career, basically channeling it into a force for good. He acknowledges that the down is awful, but when you come back up you’ve developed a richer sense of happiness and better understand the beauty of life.

If you toss out the one phrase “you don’t have to go off the meds,” you could come away from this entire video believing that Dalio doesn’t believe in modern psychiatry, that meds are bad, and that bipolar people are better off just riding it out on their own. Between the hypothetical doctor who encourages the psychotic inspiration and the richer understanding of happiness you get from depression, it sounds like the whole up/down cycle can be pretty positive. Especially if you channel your manic fire into loving your wife and family and stuff. It all boils down to a live-and-let-live kind of enlightenment with an overtone of follow-your-dreams-and-it-will-all-work-out.

Is that the impression you got from this video? I think that’s the intended message.

What the video didn’t say

But I don’t think it’s Dalio’s message. Compare the picture the video created to Dalio’s words from his blog post. Here he is talking about that second hypothetical doctor in the context of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

…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.

I plan on quoting that last sentence in the future as the perfect description of the doctor-patient relationship in the bipolar recovery process. Amen, Paul Dalio. I completely agree. I just wish the folks who edited the video had let your voice be heard.

Van Gogh and The Starry Night are very near and dear to my own heart, so I’ll include this video as a sign off. Thanks for reading.

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