Margaret Trudeau, a self-described hippie child of the 60s and 70s, has spent much of her 68 years in the spotlight – a light whose glare has been less than flattering at times.
Her name was first plastered across Canadian headlines in 1971, when she married Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a man nearly 30 years her senior.
She remained in public view for many years after, as that marriage fell apart, as she partied with celebrities, when her youngest son died and, more recently, when her son Justin Trudeau, followed his father’s path to the prime minister’s office in 2015.
During much of those years, Trudeau suffered from bipolar disorder, a mental illness that she says robbed her of life and nearly killed her at one point.
Trudeau came to the Student Union Building on the Abbotsford campus of the University of the Fraser Valley on Tuesday, Jan. 11 to share stories from her life and advocate for mental health awareness and treatment.
The lecture was organized by the school’s student union.
Without notes, Trudeau gave an animated and often humorous speech for roughly 50 minutes in front of a crowd of about 360 on Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m not bragging about my life because the only thing that I have to brag about is that I’m still standing and I’m still smiling,” she said.
Trudeau said she suffered from bipolar disorder her whole life, although it was not diagnosed until later in life.
“As Lady Gaga pointed out, ‘I was born this way,‘” she said, to laughter from the crowd.
Trudeau said her childhood in North Vancouver had all of the right ingredients to keep mental illness at bay: an active outdoor lifestyle, healthy food and ample sleep.
But those three ingredients were “thrown out the window” when she began studying political science at Simon Fraser University, allowing the mental illness to creep into her daily life, she said.
“As students, you’re a hot bed for mental disorder and chaos,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau recounted the first time she smoked marijuana with friends, around that time.
“We went to a friend’s house with a Beatles album… and a big bag of grass,” she recalled. “I took to it like a duck to water.”
Trudeau pointed out that the marijuana she and her friends were smoking in those days was much less potent than the drug available today.
After the talk, she told reporters she continues to smoke pot, on occasion.
But she also said that she is concerned about more people using the drug to self-medicate their own mental illness once it becomes legal in the next year (as her son’s Liberal government has promised.)
She said she is particularly concerned about marijuana use among young people.
“Don’t smoke pot until you’re 18 because it will change the way your brain develops and you might never have true happiness and peace of mind in your life,” she told The News.
Trudeau spoke at-length about her struggles with depression, a part of bipolar disorder and her feelings of isolation while raising her children in the prime minister’s residence in Ottawa. She described being surrounded by staff doting on her but seeing her husband for as little as an hour and a half each day.
“I call 24 Sussex the Crown Jewel of the federal penitentiary system,” she joked.
Trudeau also described the flip side of depression: mania.
The state of increased impulsiveness led her to jet-set around the world and leave Ottawa behind, she said.
“You don’t access reason; you don’t access good thoughts [when in a manic state],” she said.
Trudeau spoke frankly about the 1998 death of her youngest son, Michel, who was swept into a lake by an avalanche.
The devastating loss pushed Trudeau into a deep depression, she said.
“I didn’t know there was a line between sanity and insanity but it was so easy to cross, I didn’t know,” she said. “I pushed everyone away, my [second] husband, my children, I got a big bag of BC Bud and I got lots of Scotch… I didn’t want to live, I had lost my will to live, I just wanted to die.”
Trudeau said she went into a period of psychosis, which included filling her dresser drawers with sand but she was eventually admitted to a psychiatric ward and got the help she needed from a doctor who gave her an ultimatum – die or get help.
Trudeau credits taking prescribed anti-depressant medication and professional counseling with saving her life and she urged others suffering from mental illness to seek professional help as well.
“As soon as you talk to a professional… your burden is lifted and you realize you’re not alone and it gets easier,” she said. “It took me three years [of therapy] and I managed to switch my brain from a very dark and bitter and angry old shrew into a positive happy person. I really highly recommend it.”