Margaret Trudeau shares struggle with mental illness

Activist and author encourages those suffering to reach out for help

FINDING ACCEPTANCE – Mental health advocate Margaret Trudeau visited Lacombe earlier this week to share her story of struggling with bipolar disorder.

As the wife of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the mother of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Margaret Trudeau is no stranger to the spotlight, but this past Tuesday in Lacombe, she shed light on the importance of mental health and her long-time struggle with bipolar disorder.

Trudeau shared her impactive story during the one-day workshop on Mental Health in the Workplace, hosted by the Lacombe Action Group at the Lacombe Memorial Centre.

From the beginning, Trudeau knew there was something different about herself.

“I have a spark in me,” she said. “I have a lot of energy. My mind races and goes very fast. I had the propensity to take on too much.”

She explained her childhood was ideal, but in her late teens, the struggle with bipolar disorder began. “It reared its ugly head,” she said. Trudeau, then 18, left the care of her family and went off to university.

“I didn’t sleep well. I didn’t eat well. I had so much stress and I started to feel my emotions starting to get really strong. I was passionate about everything.”

As a true flower child, she began to partake in substance abuse, in an attempt to slow down her mind.

Eventually, after meeting Pierre during a family vacation in Tahiti and a whirlwind romance, Margaret found herself married and moved into 24 Sussex Dr. as the youngest prime minister’s wife in Canadian history.

“It was perfect except it wasn’t perfect at all,” she explained. “The stress of politics was huge. It was lonely and it was difficult being cast in such a big role.”

Shortly after she gave birth to Justin and then to another son Alexandre, which was followed with a swift fall into the abyss of depression.

“The second baby came. And it was like the light switch had been turned off in my brain. I didn’t care about his beautiful blue eyes or his curls. I cancelled all my frivolous things that had no meaning and I wept all the time, with tears streaming down my face.”

Pierre took note of her condition and sought out medical advice and care for his young wife. “I got better,” she said. “I didn’t know that as deeply as I had fallen into depression, I was going to rise up into a whole new area of unchartered territory — mania.”

A federal election was called and Margaret joined her husband on the campaign trail, which meant she had to leave her new baby in care of her family.

“I found myself so engaged in the election campaign. Leaving the baby so quickly, I stopped eating again.”

During this manic stage, with high levels of dopamine flooding her brain, Margaret felt, “The world was full of possibilities. “You have all these great ideas. Your brain has so much power. You feel like you are charged with a 1,000-watt bulb. You are on fire.”

After taking refuge after the election at a country retreat with her family, Margaret began to feel restless. “I think I should go to Montreal,” she told Pierre. And after arriving in Montreal, she impulsively went to Paris. Once in Paris, she felt she needed to travel even further and go to Greece.

“I had to walk around Crete,” she said. “What was I doing? What was I thinking? For the first time in my life I was in an episode of mania. It was highly intense.”

She returned home to her family but failed to get better this time.

“And I did what every single person in this world will do if we get the chance — we’ll try to fix ourselves first.”

Margaret noted in her terrible state, she needed help. She went into the hospital, but felt terribly alone.

“It would have been nice to know that I wasn’t alone,” she said. “This wasn’t a unique thing that is just happening to me. This is a medical condition.”

After multiple hospital stays throughout the years and several medications, she went home and began writing her first book.

“I had a purpose. I met my next husband and everything was wonderful,” she said.

After the birth of her fifth child, she suffered from a crippling depression, and then an upswing of mania. “I was just racing, that’s all I was doing,” she said.

Later on, she lost one of her sons to a tragic accident, which instigated a terrible episode. “I kept myself in a fog,” she explained. “I was so self-involved in the pain, dealing with the grief. I just couldn’t think. I couldn’t function or move forward.”

After the death of her first husband, Margaret hit a crossroads in her life, to choose to die or to live and receive help.

“It took three years. A lot of pharmaceuticals were involved and a lot of cognitive therapy. I got better. This was the breakthrough.”

She links her journey to acceptance by avoiding denial of the truth.

“You distract yourself away from looking at who you are and what you need in your life, where your edges are,” she said. “I went through all of this to get out of denial. I accepted I had a mental illness.

“The process that I had to go through to get where I wanted to be was a long and horrible road. I only did it because I had to. I was given the choice. I was given the help. I was given the support.”

Margaret encouraged the crowd to avoid denying or pretending mental illness is not present throughout life and the workplace.

“But in order to do that, we have to break the stigma. We have to trust that these people in the workplace are not laughing at you or are not just putting you down but want to help you. First be kind. You have to rise above your irritation and anger. By saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ and ‘How can I help?’ Anything to open the door to start the conversation.”

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