YAKIMA, Wash. -- Margaret Trudeau loves to laugh, not just for the sheer joy of it but also because it’s a triumph, of sorts.
“When you’re mentally ill, you can’t find the humor in life,” said Trudeau, who concluded her hour-long speech at YWCA Yakima’s 24th annual Leadership Luncheon on Monday with two jokes. She said could tell many more.
Trudeau is cheerfully frank about her long battle with bipolar disorder and adamant about shattering the stigma of mental illness. Hers likely surfaced in her late teens, but the diagnosis came only after nearly a lifetime of reckless highs and paralyzing lows.
“I have had quite a journey with my mental health,” Trudeau said during the fundraiser at the Yakima Convention Center, which also featured Angel Boyd and her sobering story of surviving years of domestic abuse. Organizers had reached their $50,000 fundraising goal and the total was still climbing late Monday afternoon as they tallied more donations, said Quinn Dalan, YWCA Yakima director of development.
Born Margaret Sinclair, Trudeau’s life played out like an impossibly glamorous fantasy. She met the Speedo-clad, intellectual and much-older Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Christmas holiday in Tahiti in 1967.
“He was on the beach reading ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,’” said Trudeau, who talks steadily, almost breathlessly. “He was such a beautiful man; I fell hook, line and sinker.”
They eloped in 1971 and she became Canada’s youngest first lady, bringing a breezy, unapologetic enthusiasm to the prime minister’s official residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa.
“I was a hippie. I took to marijuana like a duck to water. I used it a lot. I thought it was my path to freedom,” Trudeau said. “When something is wrong in our minds, we think we can change that.”
She had no official role, though, and wasn’t ready for an intrusive and increasingly critical public and the tabloid stories that powered the spotlight.
“I had nothing to do. I was so bored,” she said. “He worked 14 hours a day. ... My lifestyle was eroding on me because I felt like I was in prison.”
Two years after the birth of their first son, Justin — Canada’s current prime minister — the arrival of second son Alexandre, known as Sacha, plunged her into depression. “I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. I wept a lot. I just wanted to stay in bed,” she said.
Trudeau had three sons before she fled her famous marriage for a journey through the jet-set world of the late 1970s and well-publicized affairs with famous men, shopping sprees at the salons of famous designers and tabloid-worthy nights at Studio 54.
“Ninety percent of marriages where one of the partners is bipolar (and) untreated will fail. That certainly happened to me,” said Trudeau, who was married twice.
Her reckless, almost dangerous enthusiasm led to stints in mental hospitals, some by choice, others not. Prozac only fueled her mania.
On Nov. 13, 1998, a Friday, third son Michel died in an avalanche.
“I lost my boy. ... I didn’t want to breathe. I didn’t want to live. Why? Why? I’d lost my boy,” Trudeau said. “I isolated completely. I was gone. And two years after Michel died, I lost my Pierre. I stopped eating and drinking.”
“I completely lost my mind after the deaths of my son and husband,” she said.
She literally wanted to disappear. But when she finally got a “great doctor,” Trudeau gave in and asked for help.
Until she was 50, “I kept trying to fix it myself,” said Trudeau, who is 69.
“I ignored my symptoms. I thought I could fix myself,” she said. “Denial was a huge part of it.”
The right prescriptions and three years of cognitive behavioral therapy made the difference, she said.
“Before the CBT, I chose to walk on the shady side of the street. After, I chose the sunny side,” Trudeau said earlier Monday, after having breakfast with donors and touring the YWCA Yakima facility.
“I am still bipolar. I still get mood swings,” she said. “When you get the tools, when you get the treatment, you can live with it.”
When she starts feeling stressed, Trudeau cooks, calls a friend or goes to a movie. She also relishes her time outdoors and tries to get plenty of sleep.
“Life is so easy compared to the battle of pretending. I live honestly now,” she said. “If you feel like crying, cry. The shame is not having a mental illness; the shame is not getting treatment.”