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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.

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