Margaret Trudeau’s Unsinkable story

The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Silken Laumann from her interview with Margaret Trudeau


Margaret Trudeau is an active and passionate advocate for mental health issues in Canada; she is a fabulous speaker and powerful voice in the national mental health conversation. She is intelligent, gutsy, playful and loving. We know her as the former wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the mother of our current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. More recently, we know her as someone who lived with bipolar disorder for most of her life. We know this because she lived some of the most vulnerable moments of her struggle to regain her mental health in the public eye, sometimes enduring the very harshest of public judgement as a result. But just like all of us, Margaret Trudeau is so much more than any one part of her story, and I had the pleasure of spending a couple of hours getting to know her while she was visiting Vancouver.

As I listened to Margaret, I suddenly felt overcome with emotion. Beneath her high-speed talk, the way she flits between topics and her sparkling intellect is a depth that only comes from suffering, from being buried in the darkest corners and fighting her way out. Vulnerability is not easy or comfortable for any of us, but imagine going through our most fragile moments while squarely in the public eye. It takes a tough person to not only survive the merciless judgement of others, but to move beyond it and come to a place of peace within one’s own self. Living publicly through the unimaginable loss of her son, Michel, while experiencing the huge chemical fluctuations in her body and mind that are characteristic of bipolar disorder, is, in fact, remarkable. Margaret Trudeau is remarkable.

Not only is Margaret open about her experiences with her mental health and bipolar disorder, she describes the pull of its mania in such a way that I was able to grasp why people with bipolar disorder so often go off their medications and why it can be so difficult to treat.

Margaret: Bipolar sounds like two things, but if you don’t treat the illness, if you feed it instead, you experience a third element nobody ever told me about: the mania. If you feed it, as I would, if you deny that the lifestyle you are living is destructive and wrong, if you pretend that you are just above everything, then that thin, thin line between sanity and insanity gets thinner (they call it psychosis now) and your brain is pushed so far with all that is going wrong, your illness and mania, that it gives up the ability to reason. You don’t know why you brushed your hair, you don’t know why you just opened that can of tuna, nothing. It’s not violent or aggressive, there is just no function anymore, your brain has completely stopped serving you.

So if you are untreated and you think you are on top because you are so unique, because you are really special, and the people trying to help you are just ‘ordinary suits’, and you are determined to not be like those normal boring people, and you are convinced all the drugs are going to make you into a zombie – all these rationalizations that we feed ourselves to not have to face the truth: that we are sick and we are not our best selves. We are not the most loving person in the world. Depression is the thief that steals us from our family and mania is the nuclear bomb that creates so much collateral damage because of our lack of good judgement.

Silken: So when you were feeling glittery and exciting and powerful you resisted help.

Margaret: Yes, and I saw my brain in an MRI, I saw the dopamine overwhelming the level of the brain where the rapid-firing seizures happen so you are manic and you are not accessing reason – that’s why you feel so powerful. When they explained this to me, I finally saw it was about science and brain health. Everybody has an experience with mental health challenges except a very tiny portion of people. Everybody will have one or two days, or a difficult extended period, but they get a good night’s sleep, they have good food, they lie in the arms of their spouse and they get over it.

Silken: And what about people who don’t get over it?

Margaret: What happens to people who go back into real mental illness is that they get stuck there, it’s like the neuropathways get so open to depression that if you don’t nip it in the bud, if you don’t recognize what’s happening and close that neuropathway, it gets harder and harder to come out of it.

Silken: Why is the label of Bipolar Disorder so hard to accept for someone who is suffering?

Margaret: It’s hard because you go along, you take the pills, and you feel so much better that you start to think, I’m not bipolar; that’s not true. Look at the life I have, everything is in balance. And it is and you don’t connect that balance to the medication, so you stop taking the medication.

I am so open on stage that people who have issues come up and I hug them and ask them if they are getting help. Some of the young girls, I will whisper to them, If you battle hard one day you will find out it is the biggest gift you have been given, because being bipolar can be really wonderful when you have it controlled. When you have been to a place in life where nothing matters and come out of it, everything matters – every detail. And when you come out of it, you have the insight that there is a greater energy in this world than we know of

Silken: You have been deeply depressed and you have lost your joy.

Margaret: My joy was taken away not by my mental illness, but by the loss of my boy. Too much sorrow, it was just too much for me to handle. But I am so smart and I am such a good actress that I was able to convince people that I was fine. In reality I was alone, in the dark, drinking Scotch (good Scotch), smoking dope, giving up. I had no more will to live, and I actually wanted to die. What we say about bipolar is that it is a terminal illness to so many because we can’t live, we just can’t: it’s too hard, we hurt too many people. In our depression, we are taken out of our family life. We can no longer contribute and we just get stolen by our illness and lost in a grey world and lack of feeling.

When Margaret talks about losing her son, I feel like I can’t breathe, I have tears in my eyes. Her sorrow is visceral for me, a loss I can literally feel as she speaks. It was only when her family intervened that she got help, and even then she did it for them not for herself. She took medication and she got better. Ultimately medication was powerful, but behavioural therapy made a huge difference in her life.

Margaret: What I learned is that we have a choice, we can do things that make us happy, we can do things that make other people happy; we can be miserable and bitter and angry… it’s our life. We now know about the plasticity of the brain and we’ve learned that we can change the way we think. We’ve learned that we also have choice – we can choose to be happy, productive kind people, or we can allow ourselves to stay in our insecurities. I did three years of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which takes all your guilty thoughts, your mean thoughts, your wincing-with-pain thoughts and allows you to forgive yourself first of all, and then shows you other ways you can be thinking and that there is benefit even in bad things – collateral beauty.

Forgiving yourself is number one.

Silken: Forgiveness. I think self-forgiveness is hard won.

Margaret: When we have a mental illness, we don’t mean to hurt someone, we don’t mean to let them down. And it’s when we are out of it we just wince with pain and guilt, we hate ourselves. I remember the first session I had when I was starting to come out of my mania. My doctor said, “Why, you’d think you were an axe murderer with the guilt that you carry! What have you done wrong?” I let people down, it seemed like a big enough thing. The guilt, it eats you. The worst demon is how much we hate ourselves, how little value we put on ourselves. We dismiss people because we don’t know how deeply we are loved. The illness takes us, then we hate ourselves, and you wake up and you find out that your family has been waiting for the day when you come back because they love you so much. And then I found that I didn’t let people down, I needed help. [Bipolar disorder] took me away from all that’s good and real.

Silken: And yet, you raised five amazing children. They sound like beautiful people. You did that.

Margaret: I was a great mom, in spite of my bipolar, or maybe because of it. I loved to play, I was real with my kids, and if I cried, I cried. I didn’t show it to them overtly, I only had a few times in my life where I was really sick; I experienced a lot of manic light. I think being a mother is such a strong force that it trumps even mental illness at times. We get up even though we want to pull the cover over our heads; we get up and we do the things we have to do because we love our children. But then as the kids grew up and almost lost me – and here’s the collateral beauty – they began to understand what makes mommy tick, what made mommy do the things she did, and it was part of [the process of] forgiveness and understanding because it shed light where light needed to be and it took away the judgement. I couldn’t have more beautiful children who totally understand and show this to others as well.

Silken: What would you share with families who have a loved one with bipolar disorder?

Margaret: Acceptance is number one. You are not going to change that person, it’s not something even we can change, we are wired this way. But what we can change is whether we control it or it controls us and how we can change that life of chaos by getting help to control it. If I get too high, I self-monitor; I am not going to go into mania, which is the opposite of what it was like before.

Show them respect, you have someone who is quite intelligent, who may laugh too loud, cry too hard, talk too fast… they are never going to be like everyone else. Help them recognize what’s happening, get help, encourage them to get treatment and don’t have too high of expectations. It’s baby steps. That’s how we rebuild our lives: a little step, another little step.

In closing our conversation, Margaret remarked on the commonality across people with bipolar disorder and stressed how important it is that they share their stories: what has helped them, what hasn’t. She emphasized the power of joining in the conversation, by speaking out and up so that we can help ourselves and each other rebuild. I had deep respect for Margaret before this conversation, but I left that day with it fathoms deeper as well as both touched and galvanized by the remarkable woman she is.