Last week I had the pleasure to attend a talk given by Margaret Trudeau at the Fairmont Hotel in Vancouver. Margaret Trudeau is in a unique position when it comes to Canadian politics (the closest to her would be Barbara Bush south of the border): she was not only wife to the ex-Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but she is also the mother of the current one, namely Justin Trudeau (she gloated that the latter won by a much wider vote margin than her ex-husband).
But Margaret had not come to talk about her relationships and position within Canadian politics, she was here to talk about her personal struggles and experiences with bipolar disorder as well as to shed some light upon the dark and negative stigma surrounding mental health. Her talk was entitled “Changing My Mind” – also the title of her third published book. The event was sold out, and we all eagerly awaited Margaret to take the stage.
However, there were a few presenters before the main talk. The most impressive introduction was given by the President of UBC Santa Ono wearing his trademark colored bow tie. I was impressed that he was not only advocating for mental health but also making it a priority at the university. He confided to us that he himself had suffered from clinical depression as a young adult and that he was about to take his life at one point. This was not only very brave and courageous on his part, but at the same time it felt uplifting since he demonstrated to us that despite it all (or perhaps because of it all), he had achieved an impressive position and status in life as the president of a renowned university.
Margaret was then formally introduced, and we got our first glimpse of this woman who occupied such an enviable as well as difficult position in life. She told us that because of her disorder, she was like a “perpetual teenager” - a term I very much appreciated and that sat well with her as she was bubbly, energetic, engaging and funny throughout the evening.
However, she was talking very rapidly, and there were times the abundance and overflow of words and information made my head spin. Ten minutes in, I was not sure I would be able to sit through it all, but her sense of humor helped tremendously, and right before us all, without any notes and apparent plan or structure, this perpetual teenager spoke to us without a pause, breath or blink, but she had an important story to tell.
First off, she said that we do not scold, look down or frown upon people whose body does not function as it should; people whose organs, limbs, ears and eyes are not working properly tend to have our sympathy and understanding, but when we say that our brains are not working as they should, it becomes a different situation all together. We recoil, stigmatize, trivialize or even blame them for their shortcoming. Well, she said, in her case, it was that her brain was dysfunctional, and she had to suffer a lot before she was given the treatment and understanding she so desperately needed.
Her first symptoms emerged during adolescence, but they were immediately dismissed and shrugged off as the upheavals and ups and downs of being a teenager. Like many young adults, she would experiment with alcohol and drugs, but the problem is that people with mental illness may fall into the vicious grasp and cycles of substance abuse. In her case, during her manic phase, she would already be high, and then it would be confounded and intensified to a much higher degree when combined with alcohol and drugs.
There are various changes in body chemistry that affect people who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. On one side, during the depressive phase, her serotonin levels would be too low. Serotonin, a chemical and neurotransmitter that regulates mood, is responsible for feelings of calm, peace, love, and joy, and in larger amounts for excitement and euphoria. Serotonin is a connector, so certain stimuli would elicit corresponding feelings; for instance, watching a beautiful sunset, walking in a forest or listening to beautiful music would trigger a feeling of calm or bliss.
In people who have lower levels, there would be a disconnect. Like us, they would see the amazing sunset, but it would not invoke any strong feelings or in some cases, no feelings whatsoever. This is the reason why depressive people rarely respond to beauty or happiness that we tend to perceive; it leaves them untouched and cold due to a lack of this neurotransmitter. Add to that a lack of sleep, and the situation worsens because a good night sleep replenishes the levels of serotonin in one’s body. So does food like seeds and nuts as well as raw oysters; the latter is often labeled as an aphrodisiac, but it is essentially a feel-good food, she grinned.
Dopamine, on the other hand, is what creates all kinds of energy and emotions ranging from insights, spiritual experiences, artistic endeavors to fear and anxiety. Most artists tend to have higher levels of dopamine as it makes them feel situations and experiences more profoundly, and it comes as no surprise then that many great artists are and have been bipolar. This condition may help them to dig deep; in their restless manner, they would be able to achieve great insights and results. Give me an empty canvas in my manic phase, and I will fill it up within a short amount of time, Margaret told us with a smile.
However, there were also various scary and uncanny moments. She told us of an incident where she was supposed to go shopping in Montreal and ended up in Crete. At the time, as she was the wife of the Prime Minister, she did not need a passport and was able to travel as a diplomat. On a whim, she then decided to go to Paris instead of Montreal because she had never been there before; still not impressed, she ventured onto Crete.
All this time, she had not communicated nor told her husband where she was or where she was heading, and he was only able to find out when she had consulted the Canadian embassy to help her get to Greece. Back then, they did not have cellphones evidently, but it had not crossed her mind to call and tell her husband about her whereabouts.
Being the Prime Minister’s wife also hindered her from getting the help and treatment she needed. After having her second child, she suffered from postpartum depression, a condition that was not as known or studied as extensively as it is today. When she saw a psychologist, he told her that it was the “baby blues” and that she would grow out of it. She said that the psychologist did not really see her as a patient but was more interested in the fact that she was the wife of the prime minister, and he told her husband to take care of her and spend more time with her.
It was after her divorce when things got much worse for Margaret, and she was admitted to the psychiatric ward. That is when she knew that there was something seriously amiss with her brain and that she would have to suffer for and because of it. Yet the advent of antidepressants combined with psychotherapy, mainly cognitive-behavioral and positive psychology helped her overcome these difficult conditions. The medication helped her balance her chemistry, while the positive self talk helped her choose the road to happiness versus the downtrodden path of misery.
As she continued talking about the importance of psychotherapy, about turning over one’s power to therapists and about choosing happiness, I could not help noticing that all things considered, the woman speaking in front of us was not quite well. She exhibited a manic state as she made it through the talk with various tangents and asides, and she even ended it all with a joke. I think that despite the many good intentions of positive psychology, it does not get to the root of the psychological issues and problems at hand; it tends to replace negative with positive self-talk, but unlike psychoanalysis, the problems and conflicts are not fully addressed nor resolved.
After listening to her for a good and rather entertaining hour, it was apparent that Margaret had gone through a lot of personal and emotional suffering, including the untimely loss of one of her sons due to a skiing accident. Yet at the same time, there was no denying her resiliency, courage and determination, and her ability to make it through life’s pain and suffering by coming out with her head held up high and by firmly standing up for others.
When Pierre Elliott Trudeau first met her, she was 18; he was much older than her and had more in common with her parents than herself, she joked, but he was immediately smitten with her. She said she did not know or understand why, but for us it was not hard to see how her wit, charm and determination would have melted the heart of the Prime Minister to be and how she would give him a son who would be the current Prime Minister of Canada.