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We Day

Simply be yourself, Margaret Trudeau says Add to ...

Margaret Trudeau wore hippie flowers in her hair when growing up on Canada’s West Coast and a bathrobe when partying with the Rolling Stones following a much publicized escape from 24 Sussex Dr. in Ottawa where, since her marriage in 1971, she lived as the much younger wife of then Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

A fascinated press called her a wild child then – more than a quarter century younger than her husband – reporting on her inebriated nights at New York disco Studio 54, and her jet-set life spent with rock stars, artist Andy Warhol and Vogue photographer Richard Avedon. But that was never the full story.

Maggie T, as she playfully was known, had undiagnosed bipolar disorder, a mental illness that for years pushed her to the limit and back again, like a yo-yo on an invisible string. As she writes in her 2010 book, Changing My Mind, she felt out of control but didn’t know why.

Unaware of what triggered behaviours so bizarre they often landed her in the hospital, she numbed herself with drugs and alcohol even as she tried to be a good mother to her three sons. The breaking point came in 1998, with the loss of her youngest child, Michel, to a fatal avalanche accident.

“I had a complete breakdown following the death of my son,” she says in an interview in advance of We Day where she will speak about what it means to be a Canadian. “I could no longer fake it; I could no longer pretend that my world was as it should be, and that’s when I got the help I needed.”

Recovery came slowly, requiring years of therapy and a change of diet and lifestyle. She credits Canada’s compassionate health-care system for helping her through.

“The people close to me accepted my diagnosis, and didn’t label me or push me away,” she says. “They helped me find that balance in my life that I needed in order to function with a mental-health disorder like bipolar.”

Today, as a mental-health advocate who lectures around the world, she sees her mental illness no longer as a burden but as a bestowal. A giver of truth.

“My message is to be authentic,” says the now 68-year-old grandmother with characteristic directness. “Be yourself. Accept that your feelings are a big part of you, and if they are out of control, if they are taking you into the darkness, then have the courage to seek help.”

In her case, help came from friends and family, including her eldest son Justin, the current Prime Minister of Canada.

“We, as a family, have extraordinary love for one another and acceptance for who we are, so I think Justin learned from me, and what I went through, and from his extraordinarily balanced father, the absolute importance of balancing your mind and your body and your spirit.”

She hopes her story will inspire others to do the same.

“You have to appreciate that this is an illness, not sadness or sorrow,” she says. “Depression is a real mental-health disorder, and you need help to fix it. You can’t do it alone.”

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Follow on Twitter: @Deirdre_Kelly

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