Margaret Trudeau shares her truth about mental illness



By Barb McKay


Margaret Trudeau has led a life filled with ups and downs – both in her very public personal life and in her mental health.


The famous wife of late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and mother of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Kincardine last Wednesday, invited by Bruce Power to speak to guests and employees at the Kincardine Pavilion about her personal experience with mental illness as part of the company’s initiatives from Mental Health Week. Trudeau is very open and honest about her battle with bipolar disorder and has written a bestselling book, Changing My Mind, about her journey.


“Mental illness has no discrimination; it can happen to any of us and the only way to fight it is to reach out and ask for help,” she said. “So many of us are afraid of the stigma that they have somehow failed and it just isn’t true.”


Trudeau’s first experience with depression came after the birth of her second son, Sasha. There were no indications early on in her life that her mental health was any cause for concern. Trudeau’s mother had raised her and her sisters in the strictest manner when it came to the physical well-being. The girls adhered to a bedtime schedule, spent plenty of time outdoors in the fresh air and ate a balanced diet.


“Mom didn’t believe in sugar,” Trudeau said.


When left home for university and lived on her own, her habits changed. She stayed up late to study and ate poorly. Her boyfriend at the time introduced her to marijuana.


“I took to marijuana like a duck to water,” she said. “As I was in my late teens and starting to get my identity – I was quite a rebel and a bit of a protester – I had a lively mind and it was starting to race as well and I found the marijuana slowed everything down. So what I was doing was the most human thing we can do. When something is wrong we try and fix ourselves...And unfortunately, mental illness is often accompanied by substance abuse. You try to self-medicate to make yourself feel better, whether it is a glass of wine, or gambling or shopping or whatever it is to make ourselves feel better. That doesn’t work. That isn’t the way you get mentally healthy.”


Trudeau met Pierre on a summer break to Club Med in Tahiti with her parents. He was the same age as her mother and while he spent time with her parents and others of his age group he developed a friendship with the much younger Margaret. When she completed university and returned from travels in Europe the two began seeing each other and before long, married.


Trudeau said she was ill-prepared for life on Sussex Drive.


“I was lonely and isolated, I was away from my family – my support system – and I was very young.”


But she was happy, especially after giving birth to first son Justin. That all changed a year later when she gave birth to second son, Sasha.


“Often, the first episode of bipolar a woman experiences is when she is pregnant,” Trudeau said.


The Trudeaus went to see their doctor who told Margaret she had the baby blues and that her husband should pay more attention to her. Trudeau thought that must have done the trick because after a few months the depression faded. That’s when the mania kicked in.


“You just think you are plugged into a 1,000-watt socket. You have so much energy, you never need to sleep and you get these great ideas.”


What happened in depression? She asked. Why did I lose all interest in life? Why did I feel nothing? I wasn’t sad, I loved my babies, I sort of loved my life.


People with deep depression have a serotonin deficiency – the feel-good hormone – in their brains, Trudeau explained.


“I was locked in this greyness where there was no feeling.”


Mania occurs when the brain is flooded with dopamine. “You can’t stop because you cannot access reason. You can’t access your good judgement, your good values. They aren’t part of your life anymore.


“Many people with biopolar will not seek treatment because, ‘no way, you are not taking away my creativity.’ I told my doctor the same thing. But I couldn’t see that the people around me were hurting from my behaviour and my inconsiderate acts.”


Too much dopamine in your brain is as bad as not enough serotonin.


“Instead of thinking about mental health, think about brain health. What can we do to maximize our healthy brains? What I needed for a healthy brain was pharmasceuticals.


“We have the ability to choose if we are going to be happy or we are going to stay in depression and we don’t know we have the ability until we are well, and then we see it clearly.”


Margaret’s and Pierre’s married dissolved and she later re-married and had two more children. After having her fifth child she entered postpartum depression again. A regime of medication combined with a healthy lifestyle kept her mind balanced but two tragedies – the deaths of Pierre and her son Michel – sent her twice into a state of deep depression and psychosis. She sought help after Pierre’s death in 2000 and underwent three years of intense therapy to get well.


Trudeau has found a new purpose in life as a vocal advocate for mental health education and has been sharing her story publically for more than a decade. She said her children and grandchildren have been a big part of her recovery.


“My children let me baby step my way back to health because they didn’t have an expectation to get better overnight. It’s a family process – it involves your family and it involves your friends.”


Trudeau applauded the work Bruce Power has done to support its employees’ mental health in the workplace.


“There’s a tremendous sense that if you are going through anxiety or a burnout in the workplace and we lose you, you are never coming back to work,” Trudeau said. “And now it is up to managers to identify the symptoms of a mental disorder and to give the person the time and the space to get better without asking them to leave their job.”


She encouraged everyone in attendance Wednesday evening to be open and honest about what is going on in their lives.


“I want you all to start the conversation around the table about real life things that are happening in our families and relationships and in our workplaces and working them out by being kind.


“We have to stop fooling and pretending and enabling each other – pretending everything is ok, when clearly it’s not,” she added. “If you keep it in it buried down in your life will fall apart and it’s not just you, it will affect your family too.”