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Margaret Trudeau is solo, sane, 60 – and irrepressible as ever

She travels the country as a mental-health advocate after revealing her struggle with bipolar disorder. But just as it was 35 years ago, Margaret Trudeau can never quite stay on message

Globe and Mail Update

Margaret Trudeau steps into the lobby of Toronto's Royal York hotel on the stroke of the hour. Dressed in a black skirt and sweater over a white blouse, worn with pearls, she has come to talk about her work as a speaker on mental-health issues since she went public three years ago with her diagnosis with a bipolar mood disorder.

“Depression is 80 per cent of my condition,” she says now. “And 10 per cent is mania, and 10 per cent is what we call normal. I say that must be when I am buying groceries,” she jokes. “Or vacuuming.”

At 60, Ms. Trudeau has reached a positive equilibrium as a mother, grandmother and mental-health advocate. But she is still the irrepressible Maggie that Canada has always known: For all her efforts to restrict her comments to health issues, her natural frankness takes her off on tangents about the astrological signs of her two ex-husbands, Buddhism, “polygamy,” drugs and lemon cake.

Her ebullience belies a long and lonely battle, which few people in her life understood or acknowledged. Her mental instability wreaked havoc with her relationships, catapulted her into headlines – she admits her behaviour “went over the edge of propriety” – and distanced her from people who loved her.

“I have worked hard to become happy,” she says. “It was a real struggle,” she adds with a rueful smile.

Eventually she realized that only she could put an end to the chaos. “I needed to seriously change my life. No more bullshit. No more masks. No more pretending to be well, when behind it, I was living a quiet desperation,” she says. Facing her illness was not easy. “You almost have to grieve. It's like a death sentence. There is anger, bargaining. That's 50 per cent of the recovery.”

But now she finds merit in her advancing age: “Freedom!” she exclaims. “I smile at the memories, wince and wink for the bad ones, and know that I have lived.”

Few women have had as storied – and as public – a life as a wife and mother than the woman who in 1971, at 22, married Pierre Trudeau, Canada's dashing new prime minister, almost 30 years her senior. She soon had three sons and Canadians initially were fascinated by the self-described “hippie mother.” But her behaviour quickly made her a spousal liability. “I was his Achilles heel,” she says, recalling how the press delighted in diminishing her husband's intellectual image by reporting her unconventional approach as a political wife.

By the time they separated in 1977, she was a scantily dressed fixture in the New York social scene and in the orbit of the Rolling Stones, as she recounted in her memoirs, Beyond Reason in 1979 and Consequences in 1982.

What people did not know was that upon the birth of her second child, Alexandre, she had fallen into deep postpartum depression. And after the Trudeaus' 1977 separation, she “lived in the attic at 24 Sussex and at Stornoway, like Jane Eyre,” for two to three years before buying her own house. “I was upstairs, in lovely rooms. I just wasn't allowed to play my music too loud or come downstairs if he was entertaining. … I was there for the children and I was there for him. We were trying to sort the madness from the clarity.”

Divorced in 1984, she married Ottawa realtor Fried Kemper the same year. “Maggie! New Husband, New Baby, New Life,” cried a 1985 Chatelaine magazine cover when she had the first of two children with Mr. Kemper. But her moods were still episodic: The accidental death of the family Labrador in 1991 sent her into depression again.

“For all those years, I still would not accept that I had such a serious imbalance in my brain.” Twice she entered hospital. Several times, she has been suicidal, but “the protection always is there of having extraordinary love for your children, so it wasn't something I could complete.”

But then in 1998, her youngest son, Michel Trudeau, died in an avalanche in British Columbia at the age of 23. And two years later, Pierre died, with Margaret at his bedside. The double loss was too much.

“I went into complete and utter madness,” she says. She dropped 30 pounds. “I couldn't leave my house to buy groceries.”

Why did her children or her husband (even though they had separated) not step in? “I can easily put on such a good mask. I can fool anybody into believing anything,” she says. “I have done it all my life. I was a very sick woman and nobody noticed.” All the weight loss only caused people to praise her svelte silhouette.

Her second marriage soon ended in divorce.

The turnaround did not begin until 2001, when she checked herself into the Royal Ottawa Hospital. But, contrary to some reports, that was not the first time she had been diagnosed with a bipolar (or manic-depressive) disorder.

“Early on, when I was married to Pierre, [Liberal politician] Stuart Smith, who was a psychiatrist, had written to Pierre suggesting that Pierre and I should look into the idea that perhaps I was manic-depressive, that this might account for my strange behaviour and my acting-out and the difficulties we were having.

“We immediately had a meeting. [But] there wasn't a treatment. There weren't the drugs. There wasn't the perception that we have now of how easy it is to manage your manic depression.”

And in 1979, when she was on her own in New York, a psychiatrist who “was a socialite as well,” prescribed lithium as a mood stabilizer. “I immediately started taking it, and within a month, I wrapped up my acting classes and moved back to Ottawa. But I didn't have a psychiatrist there.” Coming out

And so it was only in 2001 that, at last, Ms. Trudeau was prepared to accept the diagnosis and long-term treatment. Afterward, in gratitude, she offered to help the Ottawa hospital any way she could.

“I thought I would be selling tickets to the gala,” she laughs. “But they said, ‘I think you should be an advocate. Be a champion.' It was scary the first time, but it was the realest moment in my life. ... I am sure it's how someone who has hidden something all of their life feels. What a relief.”

She now travels the country to speak to audiences about the need to remove the stigma of mental illness. “I say, ‘I am not bipolar. I am Margaret.' ”

She is writing a book about living with the condition, to be published next year by HarperCollins. And next Saturday in Vancouver, she will be honoured with a humanitarian award by the Society of Biological Psychiatrists.

The greatest casualty of her illness has been her relationships. “Ninety per cent of bipolar marriages fail if one of the spouses goes untreated, because you get tired of being on the roller coaster. You get tired of the unpredictability, of the inconstancy. Unfortunately, both husbands were Libras, so they were always looking for balance. …

“There was imbalance with my first husband just by the given of our 29-year age difference and the difficulty of me being this unformed, enthusiastic young woman and he already completely in place being the leader of the country.

“Too much imbalance, but such genuine love. And his care for me all my life was the thing that kept me going. He was the constant, always. Our relationship was based not as a man and a woman but as parents … and our conversation, our closeness, our intimacy was all centred around our beautiful sons.”

She tears up when asked about his death. “Pierre was always my husband in the true sense,” she confesses. “I think I devoted my life to Pierre Trudeau and our beautiful children. Perhaps I'm a Canadian polygamist because I have a second husband too, and I have raised beautiful children with him.”

But her husbands were not helpful as she was swept from highs to lows. “It takes two to help,” she says. “It takes a person to ask for it, which I never did. … And it takes a totally informed person to be able to offer help … to not be offering, as Pierre did, bewilderment: ‘Margaret, you have everything, these beautiful children, this world, and yet …'”

“My second husband … expected perfection, and mostly I delivered it – whatever he wanted, whether he wanted someone to sit and talk about Plato or someone to make the perfect lemon cake.”

She thinks that one reason it took so long for her to realize her condition is that her childhood in Vancouver – as one of four daughters of former Liberal fisheries minister James Sinclair and his wife, Kathleen – was so calm that it never triggered an episode. “I didn't think I had any problems.”

She barrelled into adolescence and the 1960s era of love and drugs. “For me, smoking marijuana was the easiest thing I could have done,” she says unapologetically. “Especially since I didn't like the alcohol I was being given – Baby Duck and Kelowna Red,” she adds, screwing up her nose.

“Unfortunately, major studies have shown that people who are bipolar, who have a high range of emotion, can be triggered into mania with the use of cannabis.”

Her mental health was restored with medication, music, art, a good diet, exercise, vitamins and “the satisfying philosophy of Buddhism that allows you to live very, very contentedly and peacefully and delightfully in the present. ... Your wisdom is to leave behind jealousy, fear and regret.”

She meditates daily, runs, bikes and drinks in moderation. (Her acquittal on a drunk-driving charge in 2004 was upheld against a Crown appeal last year.) She has also taken up painting.

In 2007, she moved to Montreal to be near family: Justin, now a Liberal MP, and filmmaker and writer Alexandre each have two children. (Her 20-year-old daughter, Alicia Kemper, is a student there at Concordia University while her son Kyle, 23, works in high technology in Ottawa.)

“There is nothing so wonderful in the world as grandchildren. They love you so much … [but] they are not your responsibility. And I think part of postpartum depression was my foot was nailed with a huge stake right into terra firma with the births of my children.”

She is proud of Justin in his political role. “He loves what he is doing. He is excited and motivated and is working hard.” Does she give him and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, any pointers on life in the political spotlight? “Only if they ask – which they don't.”

Keeping house

Living alone also has been a revelation. “I respect myself. I love myself. I love living alone. It's all new to me. ... For my mental health, I do believe I must always live alone. I shall never marry again, unless he is so extra-remarkable I couldn't be away from breathing his very exhalations of breath.

“I still long for and occasionally delight in a little bit of romance,” she adds playfully. “I am absolutely open to romance, absolutely open to being swept off my feet, but it will take quite a wind. I'm planted very nicely. I'm self-sufficient. I pay my taxes. I make a good living. I do charity work.

“If I ever were to marry again – a true marriage, a true partnership – we would have to have our own homes. Some people say they have to have their own bathrooms. Well, for me, maybe our own provinces, maybe our own countries.”

She adds unequivocally, “I'm not afraid of being alone. I am surrounded by love, family and friends.”

Work is another salvation. “If you don't work, you don't have purpose and you don't love yourself,” she observes. Being a mother is meaningful and so is volunteering, but her own experience, especially after her divorce from Mr. Trudeau, showed her the value of paid work. He did not pay spousal support.

“That was my choice,” she says. “Well, he made me see the wisdom in it. I was raised by a Scottish father and he was raised by a Scottish mother,” and they shared the WASP ethos that “we don't live on other people's money. We make our own if we are strong, healthy, educated people.”

The delightfully quirky Maggie whose life Canadians have followed for nearly 40 years is back in the spotlight, but on her own terms – guarded and wary at times, but also high-spirited and confident.

“I [have] felt discriminated against,” she explains. “I have felt that I've been made the butt of too many glib, pseudo-intellectual jokes. I've been neglected and abused and stomped on. I [also] have been adored and loved. I have had standing ovations.”

She shrugs. “That's what happens to everybody.”

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