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Margaret Trudeau encourages mental health survivors to forgive themselves

“The biggest act of courage in your life is the first step of saying I need help, I can't go on this way,” she said.
Margaret Trudeau was the guest speaker at a June 2 breakfast put on as part of the Influential Women of Northern Ontario Awards. She spoke about her struggles with mental illness. Trudeau is seen here signing her book, “Changing My Mind,” for Claudine Beausoleil, co-ordinator of the Bharti School of Engineering. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.

“The biggest act of courage in your life is the first step of saying I need help, I can't go on this way,” she said.

Trudeau, who besides being known for her marriage to Pierre Elliot Trudeau, is also the mother of federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. She's become a mental health advocate in recent years.

After her speech, she signed copies of her latest book, “Changing My Mind,” for those at the event.

Trudeau, the daughter of a Liberal MP and cabinet minister, said she had an entirely normal childhood, and there weren't really any early signs of mental illness.

For most people, mental illness shows up in their late teens and early 20s, and Trudeau, now 65, said that was the case for her as well.

She said she was 23 years old and had just given birth to the second of her five children when she fell into a deep depression.

“The light had gone out,” Trudeau said.

Her psychiatrist seemed more interested in discussing politics with her husband than in her condition, which he brushed off as “baby blues” (post-partum depression).

Of course, Trudeau actually had bipolar disorder, characterized by alternating deep depression and mania.

She said her first mania was triggered by a federal election campaign, which she said was “exciting and heady” — a little too exciting, it turned out.

After the election, she left her young children and took off to Europe without even a passport.

“I had no idea I was manic,” Trudeau said.

That incident earned Trudeau her first psychiatric hospitalization, where she was put on heavy drugs.

With many factors — including her mental illness — putting a strain on their marriage, she and Pierre Elliot Trudeau divorced in 1984.

Trudeau married Ottawa real estate developer Fried Kemper a short time later, with whom she had two more children.

The black dog of mental illness was still with her, though. She was variously prescribed lithium and Prozac, neither of which were the solution, likely because they were still in their early years of use, Trudeau said.

In 1998, her son, Michel, was killed when an avalanche swept him to the bottom of British Columbia's Kokanee Lake. She suffered another mental breakdown that led to her second divorce.

“I turned to marijuana and alcohol, and pushed away my husband,” she said.

Pierre Elliot Trudeau — by then suffering from Parkinson's Disease and prostate cancer — was also deeply affected by Michel's death, and decided he wanted to die, Trudeau said.

“He chose to die, and I had to help him die,” she said. “After that, there was nothing left of me.”

Trudeau stopped eating and exhibited increasingly strange behaviour. When her children insisted she be hospitalized, she ran away, and was later found hiding in the house of strangers.

Finally getting the help she needed, Trudeau underwent counselling, and doctors worked to get her medications right.

Trudeau, now a grandmother of seven, said her life has definitely been one of “ups and downs,” but in the end, it's been a “rich and interesting” one.


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Heidi Ulrichsen

About the Author: Heidi Ulrichsen

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