Touched With Fire: Chronicles on the Poetry of Madness - Part 1

First sunlight reflecting from the mist on a road.
First sunlight reflecting from the mist on a road.

I remember the exact second I first went crazy. I was sitting in my room at the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood and lit up a joint. I had discovered two years before at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts dramatic writing program that when I smoked and wrote, my mind would start shooting off ideas so fast that my fingers couldn't keep up and I had to spit out fragments of sentences into a voice recorder. Then when the thoughts started overlapping and my mind couldn't keep up with them, I started going for runs with the voice recorder to speed up my mind.

When I'd get home from the run, I'd write what I had recorded on my computer until the next tidal wave of thoughts would pull me away and send me out the door for another voice recorded run until at some point I'd step outside to see the sun rising over the horizon and realize another day had gone by in which I hadn't captured the full brilliance within each minute because I couldn't keep up with my mind. So I'd crash just long enough to be able to once again rise and race the sun to the horizon, pushing my mind harder and harder each time. And each time I'd step outside to see the sun rise it seemed to blaze brighter and my eyes gazed wider, and I could see deep within its fire the face of God beginning to crystallize.

As I kept rising on that high, my writing was received by my peers and professors at school better than ever, my professors even using the word "brilliant," which they never did before. But I also started isolating myself from my community of friends, wanting to spend more time on my own, diving into what I thought was some path to enlightenment. I finally graduated from NYU. I didn't have a job yet so I had to move in with my parents. During college I had spent my spring breaks going to China to shoot documentary footage of my brother running his foundation, which took Chinese orphans with deformities, got them surgery and adopted them into American families. I had been cutting together short fundraising videos but had accumulated 300 hours of footage over the four years. I met a TV producer who wanted to help me edit it all into a feature-length documentary that he said he could help me sell and distribute. He told me to go through the footage and take 300 still frames from them, print them out, post them on boards and write at the bottom of the boards the story in sequence. I thought, "no problem."

I smoked and worked and ran, smoked and worked and ran, but my mind started to fall into a downward spiral. The marijuana wasn't working like before; instead it dragged me into a dark haze, as the creative insights took shape in the form of a demon laughing at my mistakes as the project started unraveling with my brain. Each day the producer would check in on me, there was less space for him to walk because of the growing layers of printed pages scattering all over the place, there was less enthusiasm on his face and more whispers from the demon growing with the guilt in my brain. I started working nonstop, all night, all day. My fatigue was building each day, but I wouldn't cease my four hours a night of sleep so my will power started to break down my brain as I pushed myself harder, trying more bizarre exercises, like long meditations in freezing cold showers to sharpen my mind and open my senses.

I finally started to collapse in naps on the floor pages in a bed of pages of deformed orphans' faces as they slipped into my dreams with images of the abusive conditions they were living in. I'd wake and pray to God, "Please, I'm doing my best, I don't know why I'm failing you and failing them." But God didn't respond, and the demon responded louder until he became the devil himself, gazing at me from the other side of my mirror with his sinister smile written all over my face, as he spoke to me through my lips, "Look at you trying to save God's children, failing his mission."

I'd turn away from the mirror and go seek a shamanistic healer who told me to fast in order to get the devil out of me, so I started going on seven day green juice fasts, but they didn't do anything, they only made me weaker. I saw a fortuneteller who tried to manipulate me, telling me I had to keep seeing her to keep the evil spirit at bay. I started to feel abandoned by God, disowned for my failure. The sun that once shined on me, I now despised. The only light I could bear to look at was from the moon's beams; the only humor I found was in laughing back at the devil to keep my pride while he was laughing at me. My brother told me he thought I was going crazy. I laughed at him and told him I thought he was right. The producer's face turned from disappointment to concern. He and my parents finally sat me down and told me they were going to have to pull me off the project.

I was finally forced to face the outside world in my introverted haze. I went to see my friends after two months of alienating from them, and found that I couldn't comprehend any of the words they were saying. I would have to pretend I knew what they were talking about. As I'd try to keep up my guise with a smile, I would slowly start to see their faces change from a smile, to a forced smile, to an eagerness to leave, as one by one the people who I thought were friends slipped out of my life. I went to see a brain doctor and told him that I think I broke my mind smoking marijuana and pushing myself. He said I was just exhausted and needed to heal and live with healthy habits. I took his advice and sure enough after a month or two went by, I started to reemerge. At first I felt like myself again, and then I felt sharper and stronger than I ever was in my life. I went to get intelligence testing from someone who had evaluated me before to see if I had done any damage. She said my IQ had gone up abnormally, but she also said that I almost went off the edge. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew that I was tapping into something she didn't understand or was too afraid to understand. I was desperate at that point to find a job and get out of my parents' house.

I decided I wanted to get a job out in Hollywood, anything in the film industry that could help me get a start. My first goal was to be a TV writer's assistant, which I would need spec scripts for. I started writing frantically and wrote a 30-page script in a week, and then two 60-page scripts in the next two weeks. I went to everyone I knew who knew anyone in the film industry, submitted my work, took a bunch of meetings and finally landed a job with a big film producer who shall remain nameless. I went out to LA to set up my apartment and was sitting in the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood when I decided to do something I hadn't done since my break down -- light up a joint, not knowing that I was about to trigger a lifelong mental illness. Bipolar symptoms aren't something that just happens. They can be triggered, often by the mind being pushed to the extremes. But bipolar is also in the genes, in the very nature of our being, like a dormant seed of emotional extremes craving to be released.

For years I would rewind in my mind to that moment, when anyone else would have turned away from that joint, and I'd punish myself by repeating over and over, "Why didn't I? Why didn't I?" If only I hadn't lit up that joint one more time. If only I had stopped those runs to the sunrise, and stopped gazing at them with wide sleep deprived eyes. But like Icarus who was told not to fly too close to the sun that was itching his wings and like a moth with a burning thirst for a flame that can only be quenched in its own ashes, it was my fate, with no place for regret or self blame. I may be wrong, but I tell myself it wasn't a mistake and it wasn't God's punishment. It was God's plan, because all I can do is take that story and make something of it, to clear all the "What ifs" and "Whys" out of my mind and replace it with "What purpose can this serve?" and "What did God have in mind?" It makes me laugh very hard now that I thought what I had gone through at the time was hell. My bipolar journey hadn't even begun. What I had gone through was like the bunny slope of what was about to become Mount Everest, with that one long inhale from a joint.

This story will continue Friday on the "Touched with Fire" blog.

Inspired by his own experience of being bipolar, Paul Dalio wrote, directed, edited and scored Touched with Fire, his feature-film debut starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby. Touched with Fire will be released theatrically on February 12, 2016. Learn more at www.touchedwithfire.com.