Her story is harrowing, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring — the life of a very public figure whose soaring highs and crashing lows led to tragedy. Margaret Trudeau, former wife of the late Canadian prime minister, was in La Jolla recently to talk candidly about her book Changing My Mind, and the bipolar disorder that nearly destroyed her life.
“To quote Lady Gaga, ‘I was born this way,’” Trudeau told the crowd at a luncheon presented by the Mental Health Coalition of Jewish Family Services and the International Bipolar Foundation. Her joke, referring to the popular entertainer’s hit song, made the crowd laugh, as it often did, during her one-hour talk which was both humorous and very human. For all the laughs, there was no mistaking her underlying pain.
Trudeau has arguably garnered more publicity than any woman in Canada, both good and very bad. She was a vivacious 19-year-old vacationing with her family at Club Med in Tahiti when she met the dashing Pierre Trudeau, 29 years her senior, and soon to become Canada’s prime minister. He swept her off her feet and into a gilded cage at 24 Sussex Street, Canada’s White House, where she soon found life stifling and boring, later calling her home “The Crown Jewel of the Canadian Penitentiary System.” When post-partum depression set in after the couple’s second child, Trudeau says, “The lights just went out.” Six months later, after doctors dismissed her condition as the “baby blues,” Trudeau took off on a manic trip that took her to Montreal, Paris, and Crete, without telling her husband where she was. “I was just moving, moving, moving,” she recalls.
Trudeau later learned she was suffering from bipolar. In her case, it took her from the depths of “depression that steals your life” to the exciting but frightening heights of hypo-mania. Trudeau says, “I felt I had 1,000-watt bulbs coming from my fingertips.” Left untreated, bipolar can lead to suicide. “It’s like a roller coaster,” she says. “You just want to get off.” Trudeau admits she often dreamed of bailing out at the top of the ride.
There were scandals — a fling with Senator Ted Kennedy, parties with the Rolling Stones, and late nights dancing at New York’s Studio 54. After the death of a son, a second failed marriage, and Pierre’s passing, Trudeau suffered a breakdown and spent weeks in a mental hospital. By now, science had caught up with her illness, and Trudeau gradually got the help she needed, a combination of the right medications, cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and meditation, although she cautions there is no quick fix, no single solution that will work for everyone. “The good news, we know so much more about the dysfunction and how to treat it,” Trudeau says, which includes good nutrition, avoiding sugar and processed foods, and exercise. She also spoke of a new experimental procedure that holds promise for those resistant to therapy, a pace maker-like device implanted in the brain that can lift patients out of depression.
Now a 62-year-old grandmother of four, Trudeau is “as happy as I have ever been in my life,” speaking widely to urge those suffering from bipolar to get help, and to erase its stigma. “Brains are like any other organ,” she says. “Sometimes, they misfire.” Trudeau says it’s important in life to find a balance between the mind, body, and spirit. “I feel like I’m a whole person,” she says. “I spend a lot of time with my family and friends. I love my work. And I am grateful every day.” ANDREA NAVERSEN