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Posted By CECILIA NASMITH
Oct 6, 2008
Life with joy and spark is a gift Margaret Trudeau lost as a young woman, but found again in her 50s.
Her unique situation — not just as Canada’s former first lady but also living through a time when so much was being discovered about the treatment of mental illness — made for a captivating talk to a full house in the gym at Campbellford District High School last week.
Brought to town to kick off Mental Illness Awareness Week by the Campbellford District Community Mental Health Centre, Mrs. Trudeau treated her audience to an insider’s view of being a prime minister’s wife — a talk made more intimate by her disarming honesty.
Having controlled her bipolar disorder, she still laughs uproariously if the joke is good enough and cries heartily at a sad movie. The difference is that her highs and lows never get out of control.
Out of control means wanting never to wake up during the depressive phases of the disorder. And during the manic phases, she said, “I thought I was somebody really, really important and powerful. I wasn’t quite sure who that was, but I knew I could do anything I wanted.
“People who loved me just looked on in bewilderment and horror, because there was no reasoning with me. Unfortunately, that can lead to psychosis, it can break up your family, it can break up your marriage, it can lose you your job — if I’d had a job to lose.”
That marriage began with a meeting in Tahiti when she was 18, waiting her turn on a waterski platform (and a chance to flirt with the cute instructor). Pierre Trudeau was there, and they ended up talking for several hours. Her mother was horrified that her daughter didn’t even know that the distinguished older gentleman was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the rising star of the Liberal party.
Another pivotal event of her teen years was being introduced to marijuana at Simon Fraser University, which turned out to be far preferable to the Baby Duck wine so popular with so many students. She did give it up when she got engaged.
“Pierre told me I must, because it was illegal,” she said.
“If I hadn’t ever smoked marijuana, I don’t think I ever would have been hospitalized, to tell you the truth. I think I would have gone on with my emotions up and down, and I never would have climbed as high as I did.”
In her case, like so many, life events can trigger bipolar disorder. For Mrs. Trudeau, it was the post-partum depression that followed the birth of her second child. In spite of a wonderful new baby and a two-year-old who was the light of her life, she just didn’t want to get out of bed.
“I had lost a spark in me, and Pierre and I were so bewildered,” she said. “We didn’t know what was wrong.”
She was hospitalized and put on a regimen of Thorazine, which left her numbed and incoherent.
It was also about this time she decided everyone else was to blame for her problems. Her husband was boring and she deserved to be out dancing and having fun. She now recognizes she was going into another mania phase.
“There was nothing rational about my decision to leave Pierre, so there was nothing rational anybody could say to me to make me change my mind,” she recalled.
An amicable separation was planned, until a friend called and said she was partying with the Rolling Stones and they’d like to meet her.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” she said. From that point on, she would be dealing with an angry estranged husband instead of a merely bewildered one.
She would alternate two-week periods in New York City (dancing, taking photography or acting lessons and hanging out with friends to dance and do drugs) with two-week periods seeing the children she loved so much (but living in the attic).
“I couldn’t come down when Pierre was entertaining,” she recalled with a smile. “It was like something out ofJane Eyre.”
A doctor friend suggested manic depression might be her problem and put her on Lithium. Within two weeks, she calmed down, got her feet back on the ground and turned her back on New York. She bought her own home near 24 Sussex and shared custody of the children.
She also put on 40 pounds and had no social life.
The offer of a TV job sent her off Lithium in order to improve her appearance. She loved her work, met her second husband and had two more children.
It was the death of her small son’s dog that triggered her next depressive cycle. She did go to a doctor about it, and he put her on Prozac. While the drug at first seemed to bring springtime back into her life, its side effects ultimately proved to trigger mania in her.
This was evident on a ski trip in which she took crazy chances and alarmed her friend enough to trick her into the hospital. The drug regimen there ended up costing her 80% of her kidney function.
That’s where she was on Nov. 13, 1998, when her third son was killed in a skiing accident. Tears choked Mrs. Trudeau’s voice as she described going absolutely limp with paralyzing grief. She remembers her daughter making her tea and serving it to her as she sat on the floor. Her husband couldn’t deal with the grief, and he left.
Two years later, when Mr. Trudeau died, she told her friends and family she was all right, but that was just to shut everyone out so she could stop eating and just wait to die herself.
“I had one vulgar, bossy friend who really loved me — thank God for her!” she declared. “I’d lost 30 pounds, I was hallucinating, my house was in complete shambles.”
The friend enlisted her family in getting help for Mrs. Trudeau, the first step of which was an excellent doctor who helped her move from denial to acceptance.
“He taught me to grieve in a healthy way, to let him go,” she said of her lost son — “to accept that my life with this boy was over, but I still could live with him in my heart and my memories, to inspire me and even make me laugh and feel alive.”
Finding the right drugs took three years. Recently, however, her conscientious program of healthy diet, exercise, work, music and laughter gave her enough balance that she could abandon anti-depressants altogether.
One in four Canadians suffers from depression, she has learned, but only one-third of them will seek help — the rest will accept this is the way life is. She can sympathize.
“I didn’t want to be crazy. I didn’t want to be thought of as flawed, diminished, whatever.
“It’s about getting the tools, making the right choices and — for me — giving up marijuana.”
Not getting help robs one of the potential to find the elements of joy and delight that are present in even our darkest days, she said.
And it’s not without cost, she added. Mental-health care cost Canada $33 billion last year, second only to cardiovascular diseases. In both cases, she urged, prevention can cut costs and result in a healthier nation.
“Life is a wonderful challenge and full of delight,” she said. “I savour my life now, because it’s a blessing to feel whole and free.”
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