Tapestry

How a bipolar manic episode almost led this man to abandon his life to take up a 'divine mission'

Mathieu Arsenault was working as a TV editor in Montreal and expecting a second child with his girlfriend, Alix. Then one day, Arsenault abandoned it all after a voice in his head told him to head to San Francisco to start a spiritual revolution.

Mathieu Arsenault left his family in 2013 and travelled across North America to find his 'cosmic twin'

In his new documentary, director Mathieu Arsenault chronicles his experience with bipolar disorder, which led him to leave his family behind in Montreal and head to California to start a spiritual revolution. (Maryse Boyce)
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In the summer of 2013, Mathieu Arsenault had a pretty good life. He was working as a TV editor in Montreal, he'd just gone to Cannes to present a short film, and he and his girlfriend Alix had a three-old-daughter with another child on the way. 

But one day, Arsenault abandoned it all after a voice in his head told him to head to San Francisco to start a spiritual revolution.

"So I left my job, my family, everything. I [felt] so happy, so free to do this, and it was kind of a dream, a beatnik dream," Arsenault recalled in an interview with Tapestry.

"But I didn't know that I was sick, and it was the beginning of a crazy travel, the most amazing travel of my life, really."

Arsenault would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. But over a two-week period, he travelled across the continent and found himself torn between his old life and what he believed was a new one — before finally returning home and seeking treatment.

He also made a documentary detailing his story titled Head First, which also chronicles the experiences of two other artists with bipolar disorder.

A still from Arsenault's documentary, Head First, where he recounts his experience with manic psychosis. (Submitted by Mathieu Arsenault)

Arsenault was convinced he was gifted with shamanic healing powers. He heard a voice in his head who he called "Oak Tao," believing him to be the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian god.

He quit his job of 10 years, cashed in $15,000 in savings, said goodbye to his confused and pregnant girlfriend, and headed to San Francisco. He believed that's where he would meet his "cosmic twin."

"I was a man on a mission — a divine mission," Arsenault said. "I had to start a spiritual revolution to save the world."

Euphoria of a manic state

Arsenault is one of hundreds of thousands of people in Canada with bipolar disorder. Previously known as manic depression, it's characterized by extreme mood swings, ranging from periods of euphoric highs to devastating lows.

"The disturbances cut across the way you feel, that's your mood, the way you think, that's your cognition, and also your behaviour," said Roger McIntyre, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at the University of Toronto. He has never met or treated Arsenault.

The periods of mania are usually marked by feelings of intense excitement, elation and euphoria, as well as irritability, agitation and anger. 

"Sometimes this can reach very psychotic proportions. Psychotic in my world means out of touch with reality," said MacIntyre.

Should I stay here, start my revolution, become a guru in the Silicon Valley? Or should I go back to Quebec and take care of my daughter?- Mathieu Arsenault

After landing in Nevada, Arsenault drove through Death Valley and the Rocky Mountains. "I slept just two hours a day. I would say I travelled like 3,000 kilometres in 10 days, something like that."

Once he arrived in San Francisco, he met a woman named April at a hostel. He believed she was the "cosmic twin" he was looking for, and described their meeting as a "spiritual experience."

"When I [met] her for the first time, it was so, so powerful. I just [looked] at her, and our eyes crossed, and it was, 'Wow, who's this? You know, it's gonna be something.'"

That night, Arsenault took April and another man he met at the hostel to the beach near the Golden Gate Bridge and performed a healing ceremony on them. When he got back to the hostel, he said he had fallen in love with April.

Mathieu Arsenault, after having arrived in San Francisco, was told by a voice in his head named Oak Tao to cure April, his cosmic twin, and a stranger by an old tree. This experience was part of his manic episode. 1:14

"That was the beginning of the problem, I would say, because I had to choose between my old life and my new life."

Making a choice

Meanwhile, Arsenault was speaking on the phone daily with Alix (who declined an interview with Tapestry) and their daughter, Lou. He eventually told Alix the truth and invited her to come to San Francisco to join him and April on their spiritual mission. She refused. 

"The conflicts [grew] in myself stronger and stronger every day," Arsenault said. "Should I stay here, start my revolution, become a guru in the Silicon Valley? Or should I go back to Quebec and take care of my daughter?"

Alix sent Arsenault videos of their daughter, Lou, while he was in California, which kept him feeling connected to her during his manic episode. (Submitted by Mathieu Arsenault)

In the end, Arsenault chose his daughter. After less than two weeks in California, he flew back home to Montreal.

A friend convinced him to see a psychologist, and Arsenault was admitted to hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and told he was experiencing a manic psychosis. 

According to McIntyre, the usual treatment involves medication, counselling and talk therapy. 

"It is a rare event that someone with bipolar disorder does not receive any treatment and ends up faring very well in the long term," MacIntrye said. "If we don't treat it, it will just turn into, in many cases, an unmanageable inferno — and that's not just hyperbole." 

It's an intense experience, but it's an experience that won't last for sure.- Mathieu Arsenault

Arsenault's recovery took months. He entered a depressive phase and spent most of his time sleeping. But he was motivated by his family and by the birth of his newborn son, Jules. 

He also moved back in with Alix and they worked to repair their relationship.

"I didn't feel really guilty about what I [had] done at first because I [said], 'Okay I was crazy, I was not myself and everything.' But Alix [said], 'Okay, fine, you were crazy, but for me, all this was real. You caused me real suffering in that state of mind.'"

Arsenault says taking care of his children motivated him to get better while he was being treated for bipolar disorder. (Submitted by Mathieu Arsenault)

As part of his penance, he made Head First, and dedicated it to Alix.

Arsenault said that while in a manic state, the emotional highs of any experience "multiply by millions." He found it difficult "to renounce that, to choose reality, to choose boredom, to choose normalness" after his episode.

"But in reality, me, I know that I have my wife, I have my children that I have to take care of, and I have to take care of myself," he said.

"It's an intense experience, but it's an experience that won't last for sure."

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