|Carla (Katie Holmes) and Marco (Luke Kirby), prepare to be taken to their home planet. No, I’m not kidding|
So, I watched the movie ‘Touched by Fire’ yesterday, by myself, while my wife was out shopping. Well, about 2/3rds of it because she came back.
I didn’t want here to see my reactions to the film. And, to be honest, I wanted to watch it alone, just in case there were any reactions. And there were.
This requires an explanation which I’ve tried to give my wife in my own recently disjointed style of explaining myself. There are activities at home which, while they may seem innocuous to the outside observer, would make me feel self-conscious if anyone saw them.
Often, I wander from room to room, stopping to examine things, especially in the basement where I pull out old artifacts of a previous life or stare at fading photographs of a family long gone. I realize so much of this is self-torture, yet I’m drawn to it anyway.
I’ll talk to myself – long rambling soliloquies that either try to explain my actions to myself for the 119th time or a string of things I need to remember or comments on current events. I can only do this alone for reasons that, for anyone similarly afflicted, are all too obvious.
Many times, I’m buried in the Internet (interesting choice of words) doing what I usually do: finding the information that reinforces my cynical and negative view of humankind. I guess if human society is stark raving mad, I must not be so bad. Current events are reinforcing this view at a prodigious rate.
So, we come to the movie. Briefly, it’s about two young people, probably in their mid-20s, both afflicted by bipolar, both having trouble staying on their meds. They annoy their families, are given to delusional, grandiose thinking and land up meeting each other in a mental hospital where their manias merge like two flaming suns and lead then down the rocket slide to near total insanity.
They are both rescued, a few times, a return to the mental hospital where they are put back on medication. Although the staff tries to keep them apart for their own good, they find each other again, a pregnancy results with all its usual complications and . . . well, I won’t ruin the ending.
The important thing to me was how much I saw of myself in the characters. Now in middle age where the body (and the medications) start to regulate the amount of mischief the mania mind can accomplish, I had to think back when I was in my 20s and 30s with more freedom to act on my delusions and yes, I can see more of myself in their behavior. It just came out in different ways and circumstances. No two bipolars are alike, after all.
And the movie couple are bipolar1 and I am a twosie which means my whipsaws between depression and mania are not so sharp. Also, not being on your meds makes both the ones and twos equally capable of fucking up their own and others’ lives. Us twosies tend to fall much more on the depressive side of the scale but in some of us, although our manias are less bombastic, they can last longer and, in some cases, do more long term damage to our lives and others around us.
What happens to Marco is what many guys with bipolar disorder struggle with. He finds that on his meds when he attempts to have sex with Carla he feels nothing and can’t get into it at all. The mind is willing, to a certain degree, but there seems to be a governor on the body’s and mind’s ability to carry out the act. This is MAJOR issues with men on medications for bipolar. The other problem is that the meds, while keeping your behavior and thoughts within a socially acceptable range, also tend to crush the creativity and heightened enjoyment of life most people in mania experience.
At one point in the movie, Carla assures him, based on what their psychiatrists say, that he will gradually be able to experience the full range of motions (not always true). Marco replies he doesn’t want the full range of motions – he wants mania.
Whether you’re a onsie or twosie, great things can be accomplished on mania. Much of it is artistic – writing, painting, dance, etc. Much of it is activity based – a sudden compulsion that the whole house is now out of style and needs a complete makeover – and you do it. I can still remember gardening at night (yes I know it’s an R.E.M. song). Personal relationships are at risk – everyone else suddenly seems more attractive and interesting than your partner and you want to feel the rush of what it’s like to start a new relationship – no matter who gets hurt, because you’re not thinking of that. Sometimes you just want to get away – to travel and grab as many experiences you can while family members are left baffled by this sudden compulsion to take an instant vacation – alone. And then there are the other compulsions toward great creation and schemes.
My mania gave me the incredible (to me now) ability to build a bookstore out of nothing including all the planning and design. My ex-wife wandered into my store for the first time and her jaw dropped. “You actually made it happen,” she said amazed. “You actually did it.”
So it cost me a marriage. But what an accomplishment!
At some point when the maniacal haze burns itself out or when the meds start working, the bipolar person has a crushing realization, a kind of ‘what in God, possessed me to DO that?’ The refrain is similar: it seemed like a fantastic idea at the time. Many times, in this phase which is often accompanied by depression and severe regret, we want to apologize to all the people whose lives we’ve upended or hurt. And apologize over and over again.
But after the mania burns out and time passes and we’re good little boys and girls and take our meds, there comes a longing for the energy and excitement of that time. Things get hum-drum and boring playing at life using the normal rules. We miss a time when things were fresh, new and exciting. We don’t forget the wreckage we left behind but we’d just like to feel what we felt when we were able to accomplish something so grand and glorious. Because now we can’t.
Because now we’re accomplishing holding down a job, taking care of our living spaces and significant others and marching slowly and safely through a life that no longer inspires us. And death awaits. For many men, it’s the long, slow, middle aged march to the grave where, instead of firing up grand, exciting ideas in your mind, you spend more time checking your bank accounts and what’s in your retirement savings. Hardly seems like living.
You make and lose a lot of friends along the way until you’re left either partially or totally alone. I miss the parties of my youth but I can tick off the last five times recently I tried to become part of a group in some way and landed up either alienating or being alienated from them.
And we begin to think that for our own good, perhaps we should just stay at home when we can, inside our homes with our significant others and limit human action to Facebook, where we run in to trouble anyway.
Notice how many times I have switched between ‘I’ and ‘we’ in this piece? Draw your own conclusions.
Would I recommend ‘Fire of the Mind?’ Yes, even though the writing falls into sentimental claptrap, stock parental characters give stock parental lines and some of the acting and writing could have used a bit more of a realistic makeover. It’s enough, as usual, to make any afflicted person steer away from being honest about their condition to anyone, especially to mental health professionals.
I’m cautious that the film will not dispel but reinforce stereotypes about bipolar people and people with other mental illnesses in general. Is it worth the attempt? After all, ‘Rainman’ did so well to raise the awareness of autism, didn’t it? Well, if you want an honest answer to that question, ask anyone on the autism scale who has seen the movie. And so it is the same here too.
I suppose we could make the distinction between bipolar people who are relatively easy to spot and the vast majority of those who sit quietly next to you on the bus or plane, who write the articles you read, make the food you eat, create the art in galleries you marvel at, etc. And you’d never really know. How about the person at the business meeting who has an idea and his/her enthusiasm is so infectious, that everyone in the room is fired up by the idea (which may or not be feasible since the long-term prospects may not have been considered) that they jump out of their chairs in support and the boss says “we need more people like him/her around here!”
Yeah, they could be.
Because life and relationships are long, we reveal ourselves in some way eventually. Either peers don’t recognize this sudden change of energy and idealism or regard it as symptomatic of some other factor or mental illness. Many times, I’m sure, people think the bipolar person has discovered some new kind of recreational drug when they truth is, they’ve actually stopped taking a drug.
The author David Foster Wallace, whose affliction and brilliance is reflected in his writing, was similarly tortured with what most professionals diagnosed as depression which began as a child and which he referred to as ‘the bad thing.’ He was able to create brilliant work while making his way, somewhat awkwardly, through the world of normals. He worried however, as the pressure grew from those in publishing and his fans to continue to produce even better writing, that the meds were inhibiting his creativity. In fact, I suspect ‘Infinite Jest’ was probably written off his meds.
Anyway, Wallace stopped taking his Nardil which led to severe behavior issues. At this point, both Wallace and his shrinks flailed around for something else that would work – anything that would work. In desperation, Wallace went back on Nardil but it no longer worked for him. As we say in the world of psychotropic meds, once a med craps out on you, it craps out forever.
Long story short, Wallace tragically hung himself.
But when you take an honest look at Wallace’s behavior throughout his life, I think a strong case can be made that he was also on the bipolar scale. My early diagnosis of depression or major depressive disorder, masked the bipolar that was hiding behind the depression. Remember, your psychiatrist/psychologist only sees you for one hour bits of time where you could be anywhere on the scale. They don’t live with you, go to work with you, see your personal interactions. They know what you tell them, true or false (or somewhere in the middle) for the slim hour a week they see you. They really don’t know you. Sometimes no one really does.
So, we’re left with a confusing mix of people with bipolar, ones and twos, with varying symptoms that wax and wane due to many different reasons. And movies can never really display a compendium of the average bipolar person. Movies must be entertaining and broad to be profitable. We get that. So, it’s a double-edged sword of hoping for awareness while fearing further stigma.
But, rounding out this terribly long post, ‘Touched by Fire’ did deliver a few serious gut punches to me. I could predict some of the action. I could see myself in some of the situations or dialogue. And if you’re wondering, yes, sex between two people in high mania could move mountains. . . before destroying them.
So, with all of those caveats, it’s worth seeing. If nothing else, I could identify with some of it which made me feel a little more comfortable with myself while still mourning what was and what will never be again – and for good reason. The ending imparts that lesson.