Paul Dalio's life changed irrevocably the day he threw a massive glass tank at a security guard in the lobby of L.A.'s Standard Hotel. It was the New York-based filmmaker's first manic episode – a terrifying confrontation that got him charged with assault, landed him in jail and a psychiatric ward, and finally to a hospital in Manhattan where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His journey – as he's spent the past decade struggling to regain a so-called "normal life" – inspired his first feature film, Touched With Fire, opening in North American theatres Feb. 19. The 36-year-old graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, wrote and directed the movie, which stars Katie Holmes and Canadian Luke Kirby. And the married father of two says he created the characters as metaphors for his "love/hate relationship" with bipolar disorder, one of the most widely misunderstood – and alienating – forms of mental illness.
When was your first manic episode?
It was 2004 or 2005, and I went out to Los Angeles to work with a producer. I was at the Standard and I went completely crazy. It was like a bolt of lightning to the brain. All contemporary meaning to every object around me vanished like some cosmic, mythic thing. At first, it was radiant. I thought God had struck me with a vision that unveiled the whole miracle of the universe. I went outside and started running through the streets. At the peak, I was telling people I was the Antichrist. I saw the glass case [where the hotel showcases female performance artists] and I thought they were going to put me in it. I threw the case to the floor and fought with security. I ended up at the Twin Towers Correction Facility [the United States' largest jail and mental-health facility], where every guard was abusive. I was there seven days. My parents eventually worked out with them that if I went to a hospital, they would discharge me. I went to New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. I was there two or three months and that's when I was formally diagnosed.
It's been a long struggle for you to get the meds right and "get to the other side," as you put it. Why look back at past and painful experiences to make this film?
I wanted others to know they're not alone. That there is hope and a path out. And I wanted to bridge an understanding between people with the disorder and families who have to deal with it. Making the film was cathartic. When you go through the swings of extreme highs and lows, you develop an aesthetic taste for the darkness, but you can also appreciate the dark beauty of it. A book I read by Kay Jamison [a psychologist who, during her PhD studies, had a manic episode], called Touched With Fire – which the film is named after – saved my life. It was the first scientific medical text showing a tangible correlation between bipolar and artistic genius. [Beethoven, van Gogh, Dickens, Byron were all believed to have suffered with the disorder]. After the book, I went from thinking I had this genetic defect and being ashamed, to thinking I would be able to get by in life. To suddenly think this can be a gift to be proud of.
In the film, Kirby and Holmes play poets with bipolar disorder who meet in a psychiatric hospital, fall in love, and believe their art is fuelled by their emotional extremes. After countless manic and depressive episodes, Holmes's Carla decides to take meds. Kirby's Marco does not. Did you also balk?
Absolutely. For four years after I was diagnosed I felt pride in the "fire" – in the manic intensity of high episodes. It was like a badge of honour to the point that I immersed myself in the underground rap battle scene under the pseudonym Luna, short for lunatic. It was my artistic outlet. It was like releasing poison from my veins. In that world, I met others like me and I suddenly felt companions in hell. In those days, medication just made me feel numb. Dead. And I didn't think I could live like that.
I kept asking my doctor if he could introduce me to anybody – anybody – with bipolar who was actually happy. He knew Kay and we met. I finally met a person who was happy with bipolar. I sought healthier medications and became fanatical about healthier habits, my food. It took years to get it right, but I knew there was light at the end of the tunnel. I was patient. I've been on this level of deep, rich emotion for about five or six years now. I feel more than I've ever felt before – even prior to my diagnosis – and it's connected to the wife and family I love.
You met your wife, Kristina Nikolova, at Tisch and she was cinematographer for your film. She married you knowing you were bipolar. How do you both handle it?
It was very easy at first, before having children, because she likes doing all the things I have to do with bipolar. Going to bed early, doing healthy things. We're both filmmakers, so she also appreciates tapping into the introversion and going within. She sees the beauty and depth in that. Plus she told me, she's always been attracted to crazy people.
Did you and your wife consider not having children for fear the gene would be passed on?
It was never a question. We always wanted children. She trusted me, and saw I was stable and dependable. We are very careful and responsible in how we handle having children. The only issue is she has to be the one to wake up at night [the children are one and three]. I take sleep meds, and if the baby woke me up three times a night, I could go manic. We make the concessions we need to. I'm there as much as I can in the daytime. We structure our lives around the reality of living with bipolar. You have to adapt. One of my children was born on the last day of the shoot, and it was a really meaningful message we got from God about the path we took.
Bipolarity has one of the highest suicide rates of all mental illnesses – 10 to 20 per cent of unmedicated bipolar patients take their own lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Were you suicidal?
I'd talk to my parents about suicide every day. And today I feel bad about that. But when you are drowning, when you're in hell that is that bad, you see hope in something beyond death. It can be a beautiful thing in your mind. I don't expect my parents to understand that. They can't. But it is the reality when you're in the throes of suicidal depression.
Parents play a huge supportive role in the film. Was that your experience?
I was fortunate to have parents who were well intended and there 100 per cent. I wanted to dramatize that it is inconceivable for parents to know how to deal with a bipolar child. A parent can't nurture a bipolar child because there is no physical comfort for the hell of the soul. So I wanted to dramatize a situation where parents could see themselves through their children's eyes. And hopefully empower them so they can better communicate with them.
What is the message of the film?
The two main characters have aspects of myself that was always conflicting. The shame and fear, the ugliness and darkness of bipolar. And the side of myself that saw the beauty, that embraced the insanity and wildness of it. I was trying to show the internal conflict in people like me who are trying to find resolution between the love and hate inherent in this disorder.
This interview has been condensed and edited.