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Touched with Fire: The Two Faces of Bipolar

Touched With Fire: The Two Faces of Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is both a blessing and a curse. Some people who have bipolar disorder swear by the manic or hypomanic state they sometimes experience. Not only do they feel full of energy and capable of doing just about anything, some feel that increased energy in creative ways.

They say some of the greatest artists and writers of the ages suffered from mental illness. It’s no wonder — the creative energy can seem both strong and endless. It’s likely many of the world’s greatest artists have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Some people with bipolar disorder feel, in the manic state, they no longer need medications or other forms of treatment. The feelings of euphoria are strong enough to make a person feel nearly omnipotent — or at least powerful enough to believe that one is done with the depression side of bipolar.

When the crash comes — and it always does — it feels like all the prior progress made has been lost. Individuals with bipolar disorder can feel betrayed by their illness. It’s lying to them when they’re ill, but that part of the illness often feels the most real.

Does Creativity Come from Bipolar?

In the new film Touched with Fire, starring Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby, we watch as two people with bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) meet in a psychiatric hospital. At first, there’s no love lost between the two, perhaps because they recognize similar creative souls in each other. But as they talk and get to know one another, they realize they share a lot in common.

One of those commonalities is the sense that their illness is the wellspring of their creative energy, their creative soul. Without the manic energy, the movie suggests, creativity can be stifled, suffocated.

I also read Jesse Singal’s insightful piece commenting on just the same situation in the film. Singal summarized a poignant scene which epitomizes the paradox:

Carla [who has bipolar disorder] explains to her [psychiatrist] that whatever happened must have happened after college, because during college she was doing great: She had plenty of friends, and she partied all the time without her lifestyle affecting how prolific she was as a poet (the implication being that she’s now having trouble creating poetry).

Her doctor responds that she’s misinterpreting things: That was the illness. It was the mania that allowed her to live in what felt like such a rewarding manner during college.

Bipolar disorder isn’t the only illness that lies to us. All mental illness does. Depression, for instance, tells us lies about our self-worth, the meaningfulness of our life, and what the future may hold. Bipolar disorder tells individuals they can be or do anything while in a manic state. And often they will try to fulfill that dream.

So as Singal asks, where does the illness end and your “real” self begin?

These ideas cut to the core of what it means to live with an illness for years and years. Where does your illness end and your “real” identity begin?

What does it mean when a clinician tells you that experiences you cherish as an important part of who you are were “caused” by the illness — not by, well, whatever part of you isn’t ill?

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to imagine being told that, in a sense, certain things you cherish don’t really belong to you — they belong to your illness. It’s also fascinating and heartbreaking to imagine, from a bipolar person’s perspective, how the salience of your illness waxes and wanes.

Bipolar disorder seems to present two faces. Choose creativity, and you’ll have to deal with the unintended consequences of the mania (and eventual depression). Or choose “sanity,” but then you’ll put a restraint on your creativity and emotional depth of feeling.

It is, of course, a false distinction, a viewpoint the movie eventually comes around to sharing. You can be both creative and treat your mental illness at the same time, while still being honest with your “true” self. It takes constant effort and perseverance, and it can be a lifelong, frustrating dance of two steps forward, one step back. But it also keeps the irrational thoughts at bay… Such as when the protagonists in the movie believe they can raise their baby in the wilderness on their own, or that driving into the river to outrun the police will keep them safe.

Touched with Fire: Waiting Room

Was Your Bipolar Triggered?

Earlier in the film, Katie Holmes’ character Carla asks the question so many people with a mental illness ask:

“What was I doing when it happened? … The doctor said something has to trigger it. So what was I doing…”

“No, no, there was nothing that we could have done, it was going to happen no matter what,” responds Carla’s mom.

“No, no, I must have done something to trigger it! I am not the same person, Mom. I am not the same person.”

I was struck by this horrible feeling — like those affected did something wrong to bring an illness onto themselves. Like individuals bring it upon themselves. This is another lie told by mental illness.

Touched with Fire is a really interesting film exploring two people’s experiences with a mental illness. If you or someone you know suffers from the extremes of bipolar disorder, I’d highly recommend checking it out. As a side benefit, the movie also depicts what a modern inpatient psychiatric hospital can be like — a far cry from the infamous depiction in 1975’s “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest.”1 If you liked 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, you’ll find a more serious, intense look at a couple — and their families — dealing with the two faces of bipolar disorder.


“Touched With Fire” is rated R for language, a disturbing and particularly triggering scene (only lasts a few minutes), brief sexuality and drug use. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. It will be released nationwide on February 19, 2016.


The new video below from our Ask the Therapists also talk about the best approach to treatment for most types of mental illness (including bipolar and depression):


For more information

New York Magazine: A Fascinating, Heartbreaking Sequence in Touched With Fire, the New Katie Holmes Movie About Bipolar Disorder

The New York Times: Review: ‘Touched With Fire,’ a Love Story Between Two Bipolar Poets


Images courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Touched With Fire: The Two Faces of Bipolar Disorder


  1. While the overall inpatient experience is fairly accurate, there are some qualms. For instance, apparently for creative license reasons, the movie depicts people with far more freedom of movement within the facility than is typically allowed — including ready access to the outside and fresh air. They also depict an incident of how restraint and isolation is used in a way that I don’t think is usual. []

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Touched With Fire: The Two Faces of Bipolar Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 18 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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