'Michel died. And then Pierre died and 1 couldn’t feel anything. I was starving myself passively. No one noticed.' MARGARET TRUDEAU TALKS TO ANNE KINGSTON ABOUT LOSS, LOVE, CHILDREN, MARRIAGE, AND HER LONG JOURNEY TO JOY
Margaret Trudeau entered Canadian public life in 1971 as the 22-year-old bride of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She captivated, for a time, as the “flower-child” earth mother to three boys. Within years, however, the Trudeau marriage became a national soap opera, rife with tales of Margaret’s erratic behaviour—singing at a dinner in Cuba with Fidel Castro, a 1978 tell-all memoir, hanging out with the Rolling Stones. The couple divorced in 1984. That year, she married Ottawa realestate developer Fried Kemper, with whom she had a son and daughter, and retreated to private life.
She returned to the public eye in 1998 when 23-year-old Michel Trudeau was killed in a skiing accident. Then, at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral in 2000, she collapsed at Parliament Hill. In 2004, she was charged with DUI. The charge was dismissed; it is being appealed.
Recently Trudeau, now divorced from Kemper and working for a company that relocates government employees, has gone public to discuss her diagnosis of bipolar disease in 2000. At 57, she exhibits the vivacity—and emotional range—familiar to Canadians. Yet she is more guarded about her privacy, politely turning down a photographer’s request to take her picture on the street outside the Château Laurier hotel, where she spoke with Maclean’s about her near-death downward spiral, her ongoing recovery and the actress Margot Kidder, who once dated Pierre Trudeau and who now advocates the use of nutritional supplements in the treatment of bipolar disease.
Was coming forward difficult? A: I’d been thinking about it for quite some time, but haven’t been ready because my recovery wasn’t as complete as I needed it to be—to [be able to] say “Yes, it’s worked, the medical treatment, the therapy, living a balanced, good life.” Now that I can say it, I had no trepidation coming forward.
Q: Were you concerned about the pressures— and criticism—that would come with being in the spotlight again?
A: Yeah, but in quite a different way. There’s a difference between being used and being useful, and this is a way that I can use my public persona to be useful, to help.
Q: In retrospect, what were the first signs?
A: The real trigger, I think, was postpartum depression, which I had quite severely after two of my children. When I suffered it, it was just “baby blues.” People said I’d be over it in a few months but I wasn’t. But now my family looks back and says that when I was a teenager I was a bit capricious—not manic—but I may have had the beginnings. So I ask parents to watch their teenagers and see if their emotions are out of proportion—if they’re too high or too talkative, not sleeping, not eating.
Q: But, in your case, your emotional swings were central to your public image: the highspirited, rebellious young woman—Margaret the hippie.
A: I think that even though I had bipolar disorder I was still a high-spirited person. Being bipolar doesn’t mean that you’re constantly in a state of mental illness. It means that from to time you’re either unusually low or extremely—inappropriately—high, and there certainly were those times in my life.
Q: Yet in your memoir you write about the isolation of living at 24 Sussex, what you now refer to as the “tunnel of darkness.”
was ally know, understand very but sensitive we didn’t it then. to critreI icisms toward Pierre, and things levelled against me, hurtful things. When [her first son] Justin was born, I was told that if he was kidnapped, no ransom would be paid. I wanted to go out for a walk without the police and I was told no, I had to have the police with me. They taught me how to roll to the curb and hold onto my baby under my body and scream at the top of my lungs so that they couldn’t easily pick me up and put me into a car. That was an extra small pressure on a new mom.
Q: Where was your husband in this?
A: Pierre certainly tried to help me out of my deep darkness, and I sought medical treatment. For a little while I was on lithium, but it didn’t agree with me. I was hospitalized. It was apparent that I was depressed, but what wasn’t apparent was that it was more than just having to deal with the pressure that was on me, being very young, under public scrutiny. It wasn’t recognized that this was something that was very fixable.
Q: And the later triggers?
A: The death of my dog began a cycle of depression for me. But my final trigger—that’s where I really had to seek serious medical help or I would die—was after Michel died. For two years I languished, and then Pierre died and I couldn’t feel anything. I lost 30 pounds. It wasn’t anorexia [as she has said]. I was starving myself passively. No one noticed. I cut off contact with my friends and my family. I was left to cope on my own.
No one noticed the weight loss?
A: One friend who had a dress store was just delighted that I could finally fit into all her skinny model clothes. [Laughs]
Q: That’s a sad comment on our fixation with thinness. How did you become so isolated?
A: Everybody was busy living their lives. Justin was in Vancouver and Sacha was in Montreal and travelling. And unfortunately my second husband couldn’t cope with my illness. He wanted a wife who was strong and able to provide dinner and do the laundry, and I wasn’t able to do that after Michel died, so he chose to leave and take the children. I didn’t ask people for help. If they’d call or ask me how I was I’d say, “Oh, I’m okay. I’m having a little bit of a rough time but I’m getting better.” A friend called my son to say, “Come, right now. Your mom really needs you.” I was close to the end by that time. Grief is a terrible thing. You can barely get up and brush your teeth. And your family telling you to buck up just puts greater pressure on. You do want to hide and heal, but there’s alone and there’s alone, and you shouldn’t leave loved ones suffering alone in the dark. I think a huge part of my sadness was the loss of my family, and the biggest part, I guess, was the loss of Michel, then the loss of Pierre, then the loss of my husband, my children. It was just loss, loss, loss, loss.
Q: But still you resisted help?
A: Oh, yes! I was terrified, and I wasn’t in my right mind. You don’t think anybody can make a difference.
Q: So someone took matters into their own hands?
A: Yes, it was traumatic and extreme. If you wait too long and you’re too deep into a manic episode it takes a long time to get you out of it. You have to see the signs.
Q: What was your treatment?
A: I was put under 24-hour observation to protect me, given appropriate medication to calm me down, and a nutritionist worked with me. I was given six to eight little meals a day to start me eating again.
Q: How long did that take?
A: A few months. I was pretty much incapacitated. I was very grateful for the treatment I got. I had accepted I had an illness. What happens, unfortunately, after a manic episode is the crash, and my doctor prepared me for it—the fact that once I got off the euphoria, I’d be very depressed. When I got out of hospital it was a few years before I could start contributing again to life.
Q: What was that time like?
A: Very lonely and isolated. I stayed in my house, alone. It was step by step. It takes time to figure out the medications you can take to correct the serotonin imbalance. Recovery is hard work. My [fourth] son moved back in with me, so that helped enormously. Slowly my daughter came back into my life. A big part of my recovery I owe to my children, not just to doctors.
Q: What else contributed to your healing?
A: Number one was exercise. I walk every day for at least an hour. It’s how I meditate. I refuse to be on a treadmill. And eating very well—simple foods, no processed foods, no sugar. Looking and finding the beautiful books, finding the beautiful images, searching for beautiful people, and keeping the negative influences out of my life. When I was at home, I never had the television on during the day. I listened to a lot of classical music. It’s about seeking out balance, refraining from any extreme behaviour, and living a quiet life, a simple life, getting rid of all the pretension, humbling myself to realizing that in fact I was not special and that I needed to get out and work and be a real person.
Q: Did you think you were special?
A: Yes, but not special in a nice way. Not “Oh, special me!” But I felt there was a way that I had to behave, an expectation that I had to meet of some strangers out there, and then I had to come to realize, no, the only expectations that I had to meet were my own.
Q: So how did you become a “real person”?
A: [Laughs] I got a job. Just helping someone settle into a new life was very healing because it gave me a chance to be with just good, hard-working people. To be doing a service for people was very important to get outside of myself.
Q: Is there anything you avoid now?
A: I’ll never be around anybody who abuses drugs ever again. If I go to a party and there’s drug use, I’ll leave.
Q: What about alcohol?
A: A little bit of alcohol, not a lot. No abuse, no drinking alone. The usual wine at the barbecue, that type of thing.
Q: Yet in 2004 you were arrested for DUI.
‘It was about realizing I was not special. I needed to get out and work and be a real person.'
How does that fit in?
A: That was just stupid. I can’t talk about it because it’s in front of the courts.
Q: We’re using the term “recovery,” but this is an ongoing condition.
A: Yes, I’m always going to be bipolar, always. One of the reasons I came out at this time is that there’s an extraordinary new facility being built at the Royal Ottawa Hospital. It’s state of the art, and it’s going to give such dignity to those suffering from mental illness. I’m helping to fund-raise for that. I want to reach people to tell them to watch out for their loved ones, and watch out for themselves. It’s not normal to be sad. Yes, life will be difficult from time to time, but day to day, you shouldn’t be in pain.
Q: Where do drugs fit in?
A: My doctor has said you have to stay on a mood-stabilizing drug to keep you from getting manic and becoming suicidal. So often what happens is that people feel well— “Great, I’m better, I don’t need my medication anymore”—and then they have a big crash and they’re right back where they started. The idea of being where I was five years ago terrifies me, and I would do anything to prevent that. And if that means taking medication for the rest of my life that may be a little controlling of the highs and the lows, so be it. But I want to be clear that when I take medication, I’m not a different person, I’m just a person who isn’t going to go off the deep end. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I recently saw that Margot Kidder—who is bipolar—was giving a lecture and she was anti-drugs, anti-pharmaceuticals. She believes that you could almost cure yourself from bipolar with vitamins. She’s like Tom Cruise. I think vitamins are important but
‘A friend called my son: "Come right now.” I was close to the end. Grief is a terrible thing.1
they can’t replace proper medication.
Q: Do you know her?
A: She was at Pierre’s funeral and came up to me and told me that I was handling it with grace and suggested that I take nutritional supplements to help.
Q: Have you spoken since?
Q: But her celebrity, like yours, confers attention—and credibility.
A: Yes. I want to say here that I’m not an expert. I can only speak to my own experience. The person who knows is your doctor. It can be your family doctor. You don’t have to see a psychiatrist.
Q: There is a rather strange symmetry in the fact two women linked to a man known for his Jesuitical rationality are now assuming public roles as spokeswomen for bipolar disorder.
A: That’s true. [Laughs]
Q: So you’re under medical supervision?
A: You have to be. I went from seeing [my doctor] all the time to seeing him every few months. He’s on my speed-dial.
Q: What has the public response bee?i?
Q: Uniformly positive?
A: Yes, except for our local paper, but it’s always mean to me.
Q: The Ottawa Citizen?
A: Yeah. But my phone hasn’t stopped ringing from friends and family calling to tell me how proud they are that I’ve been able to stand up and help.
Q: Let’s talk about the stigma.
A: I certainly have felt it first-hand because of the attitude of my [second] husband. He never felt that I was sick; he felt that I just was exhibiting bad behaviour. I can only put it down to lack of knowledge. I’m going to do public speaking across the country to try and help people understand that the brain can dysfunction as much as any other organ. It’s not only bipolar disorder. Depression keeps people from living full, happy lives. My focus is not on mental illness but on mental health, not looking at the negative ill side of it.
Q: So you’re not blaming bipolar disease for the breakdown of your marriages...
A: No, I have to take responsibility for my actions. One of the problems with bipolar, particularly when you’re in hypomania, or full-blown mania, is that you don’t look at the consequences of your actions, so it can
be like a nuclear bomb going off in relationships, and then the healing is hard.
Q: And you re also not reframing past behaviour as the result of bipolar disease? For instance, when you were in Cuba...
A: No, no, that was me! That was me. [Laughs] That was more an awakening of the feminist in me than anything. I got into trouble in Cuba because I put on a T-shirt and was the photographer rather than being photographed. I broke the rules. There’s so much that I would not have done differently. I would never have been a careful and totally guarded person. It’s just not me.
Q: Do you struggle, balancing your past and the future?
A: The past is behind me. I’ve had an extraordinarily rich and blessed life. I had five beautiful children. Unfortunately, one I lost at 23, but I’ve raised beautiful children. I’ve had two good marriages in spite of many problems... perhaps because of my condition or because [with] the first one I was probably way too young and immature. But I have good physical health, I have a curious mind, life delights me, so I feel very blessed. I feel grateful that I’ve been able to get myself back, because I like myself and Tm home.
Q: What would you say to someone who is now in that tunnel of darkness?
A: That there is light—it’s such a cliché—but there’s light at the end. You just have to ask for help and pretend that you want it. You don’t have to feel that you want help because you probably don’t. You probably feel hopeless.
Q: You have said that with Michel’s death your life felt as if it was over.
in that couldn’t I anything would have ever again, imagined delight that I would ever be able to laugh and feel joy and carefree abandon.I thought the rest of my life I was going to be overwhelmed with a feeling of loss, and a lack of hope. And of course my faith in God was totally destroyed. All that has come back. In fact, I think I’m a stronger person because of it. I bless Michel for his life and what he gave me in his life, and I bless him for what he’s given me in his death, because the sorrow that I feel is real, as is a longing to have him with me. But I understand that that isn’t life, that life is hard and you do lose in life, and it’s how you react to the losses that is the key. I didn’t react well at the beginning—who would?— but with extraordinary help and support I managed to get there. I think of Michel every single day. I cry for him, for the loss of him, for the life he didn’t get to lead, for the joy he missed, but I have a strong faith now that he’s in a very good place and that he is happy that Mummy has achieved happiness.
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