Margaret Trudeau speaking at the Going ‘Glo-cal’ for Mental Health conference
Margaret Trudeau made her national debut as a fresh-faced 22-year-old bride on Parliament Hill. She married Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971 when he was already the Prime Minister of Canada. As the years went by, the “flower child” that had come to the nation’s capitol gained a reputation for scandalous headlines when she ran off with The Rolling Stones and appeared in photos taken at Studio 54, among other things.
“I had no official title, I had no official work,” she told a crowd of mental health professionals. “I was alone and I was isolated and my situation was unique, but I do believe once you’re in it, it’s the same for everybody: not feeling that you’re part of things, you’re not on the same page and you’re just hoping things will change.”
Trudeau was speaking on the last day of Going Glo-cal for Mental Health: Global Lessons for Local Benefit, a conference co-hosted by CAMH and the University of Toronto Department of Psychiatry. The three-day conference was meant to bring together an international audience to strengthen global mental health initiatives from a Canadian perspective.
The former Prime Ministerial spouse is now an outspoken advocate for mental health, speaking about her experiences living with bipolar disorder. Now, at age 66, many things have changed. In 2010, her book Changing My Mind told her story about coming to terms with her illness. Her most recent book, The Time of My Life: Choosing a Vibrant, Joyful Future, explores aging as well as living with bipolar disorder.
“So many of us have a mental illness and we will not accept it. Even high functioning people won’t accept it because we won’t accept that our brains aren’t just perfect. That’s what you’re all here for -- to try and understand this magnificent brain and how it could impair us.”
Though many Canadians remember when her son, Michel, died in 2000, fewer knew the full impact it had on Margaret. “I lost my son in an avalanche and I was 50. My hormones were changing and I had been riding on the rollercoaster of bipolar for so many years.” Her family told her she needed help and took her to The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. “I was completely resistant. I thought it was the end of my life. I was totally ashamed of myself and I felt superior to everyone in that hospital, including my doctors.”
She’s grateful to the nurses that showed her kindness through her stay. “I was terribly resistant and the nurse let me sleep on the floor using my coat as a blanket because there was no way I was going into that room. But what I discovered...the nurses were there to comfort and their kindness was what made me accept, this is where I need to be. I’m safe, I’m finally safe. And the kindness, the small things that made me feel human, because you don’t feel very human when you’re in a ward like that.”
It was once she realized she had to stop resisting and start accepting her condition that she began to take part in her own recovery. “What it required was my participation in it, my accepting that I had a mental illness that was impairing me.” But Trudeau makes no bones about it - recovery was a tough slog, one step at a time, for years.
“I remember the first few years, I did nothing. I just went to sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to switch my brain from thinking negatively, bitter, wincing at humiliation at how I’d acted and how my family responded. I did take it on. The sessions (with a psychiatrist) helped, the pharmaceuticals helped.” Once she was discharged, Trudeau even got a job paying $11 an hour working in an office with other people, which filled her with purpose.
Today, Trudeau’s purpose seems to be enlightening Canadians and people all over the globe about mental illness, the trauma of stigma and the path to recovery. “I hear so many sad stories of suicide and Canadians are concerned and we want to know what we can to do help.”
In her senior years, Trudeau is filled with high energy, vulnerability and above all, positivity about recovery. “I’ve learned how to deal with it. I’ve learned how to live with it. I eat well, I sleep well, I exercise every day. And if the thoughts come in, the dark thoughts that want to eat me alive, I know how to deal with them. I say, ‘not right now, you are not stealing me. My mind right now is not taking me away’. Those are hard lessons to learn, to think positively, with hope.”