For this year’s annual Snider lecture at UTM, held in memoriam of Fletcher C. Snider, the committee hosted Margaret Trudeau, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s spouse, for a talk based on her recent book, Changing My Mind.
Trudeau shared her life story, centered around her battle with mental illness and the stigma surrounding it.
“Less than 20 years ago, I had lost my mind completely, and had gone into a state of what is called psychosis, which means I wasn’t picking up an axe and murdering everyone, although maybe I wanted to—not really,” begins Trudeau, “but I had lost completely my ability to reason.”
Trudeau preambles her talk by saying: “I did everything wrong […]. Now, I had a wonderful childhood and that I got right.” She explains how her grandmother was very stern and her mother was “unflinching with three basic things, us five little girls, that we had to adhere to—bedtime was bedtime […], my mother thought sleep was the most important thing she could give to us and she was right […]. Neuroscience shows now that sleep is the most important thing that we have as humans.” Trudeau added, elaborating on how sleeplessness can have a snowball effect one day after the next, and without it, “you cannot have the acuity and readiness to face what life has for you.”
Trudeau then goes on to mention that, “Sleep was one thing, and the other thing was food, we didn’t get sugar in our family […] we ate plainly and well […] and I think that’s the other thing we have to realize, our brain demands good nutrition.”
Trudeau highlights how eating well keeps the brain healthy and gives it the strength it requires to cope and rejuvenate.
“The other thing of course was that we had to go out and play,” says Trudeau, “and then we could only come back at dinner time.” She emphasizes that not only is being outdoors physically stimulating, “it’s also really good for your mental health, the great balancer of all is nature.”
Trudeau references a study that was performed to compare effects of walking in a park to walking on the pavement, and mentions how a 15% higher cognitive acuity was observed in participants who took a walk in the park.
She says, “those 3 things are the foundation of good mental health, and […] were the foundation of my childhood.”
Although Trudeau mentions how she was a very active child, she “was diagnosed with a mental illness, the one out of five because one out of five of our children and younger suffer from a mental illness.”
Trudeau explains how she wasn’t diagnosed because of her household structure, but that changed when she began postsecondary studies at Simon Fraser University.
A combination of late nights, poor dinner choices, and morning hours spent in the library or in classes, were as Trudeau describes, characteristic of her university years. This time, according to her, was also the first time she was exposed to the new Beatles record, and marijuana. “I took to marijuana like a duck to water […] and that was the beginning for me, drug use.”
A trip to Tahiti, a French water ski instructor, and an intense discussion about classical philosophical questions, led Trudeau to secretly date, and eventually marry, Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada at time of their marriage. Subsequently, Trudeau describes, her entire way of life changed: “I was used to independence […] but now, everything was done for me […], something like Downton Abbey.”
During her first year of marriage to the former Prime Minister, she gave birth to Justin Trudeau on December 25th. Two years later, she gave birth to her second son, Alexandre Emmanuel Sacha Trudeau, on Christmas Morning, again.
“Three weeks after Sacha’s birth, and you can imagine I’m living in 24 Sussex, which I call the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system,” Trudeau says, “I just didn’t want to wake up […]. I was so tired and I didn’t want to get involved anymore.”
“I felt as if I was not present,” says Trudeau, “and Pierre and I were very worried, and we went to a psychiatrist […] and I was thinking what happened to my mind, where had my joy gone, where had my delight gone?”
Trudeau describes how although bipolar disorder is known to become triggered after birth, ”[the psychiatrist] said to me, I understand you’re having a rough time, Margaret, well it’s just baby blues. Pierre, pay more attention to Margaret […]. And I left without any medication […] or any hope of getting better, or any understanding of what was going on with my brain.” Later, Trudeau describes, her experience was that of clinical depression.
After finishing his term in opposition, Trudeau says: “In 1974 [Pierre] decided he needed me on the campaign too. It was great […] no eating, no sleeping, lots of excitement.”
Although the former Prime Minister’s wife describes how she would often be complimented for losing weight after pregnancy, she says “I didn’t realize I was already in hypomania […] which is the first stage you go into if you’re bipolar.”
Trudeau describes how the state, characterized by poor sleep, poor eating habits and a spiral into crisis—is also the most addictive state. Referring to how all mental illness is associated with hormone level fluctuations, Trudeau says, “the mania makes you think you’re super woman […] because what’s happening is that dopamine is the hormone that gives us this extra spark.” Trudeau says where with most brains, an influx of dopamine is controlled, “in the manic mind […] the brain is flooded with dopamine […] and you lose all sense of proportion and perspective.”
After her marriage with Pierre Trudeau ended, Trudeau married again and says “oh, all that depression was because I was married to Pierre’ […] and then I had my […] daughter and I got hit with postpartum depression.”
Although Canada’s former First Lady says she didn’t get help with her illness, she emphasizes how, “You can go to all the help sessions and group sessions and things offered by the mental health community, and just be doing it, to placate those who love you.”
“I did that,” she adds, “I went to the sessions, I took the drugs. I did it all […] but I didn’t really understand deeply that I had to change […]. I had to understand my mental illness and work with it very hard, proactively […], to get balance in my life.”
Trudeau describes how after experiencing fibromyalgia, being followed by death of her son, Michel Charles-Émile Trudeau, and Pierre Trudeau, she couldn’t cope with the sadness, “I was triggered immediately into trauma […] I didn’t want to breathe anymore […] I asked the doctor to put me into a sleep coma because waking up was too painful.”
Admitting to substance abuse and masking her emotions in front of her children, Trudeau says, “I just lied […] and that was another mistake I made because we underestimate the […] kindness and compassion of those who love us.”
Describing how she completely stopped eating and functioning, she says: “I had slipped into psychosis, and had lost all connection to reality […]. My son Sacha intervened and I was taken to the hospital on a gurney, because of course I didn’t want to go […]. I ran away and the police took me to the hospital, and that changed my life, that was my turning point.”
The change came when, as Trudeau describes, the doctor told her, “you can take my hand and we can start the process of getting you well, but there’s no point in staying unless you want to get better.”
Trudeau says she went through three years of cognitive behavioral therapy, and highlights the progress in pharmacogenomics and the importance of offering help.
Speaking to The Medium about undergraduate students in particular, Trudeau explains that “it’s important to tell somebody when you’re not feeling your best self—it doesn’t have to be a manic episode or clinical depression, just tell them you’re not feeling your best.”
“Don’t forget to eat, and get some sleep,” she adds, further emphasizing how “it’s important to get help early, nip it in the bud, and you don’t have to go to a counsellor or psychiatrist—but don’t underestimate how much sharing can help you.