The joy of motherhood, the proper use for drugs, sex, career, children, Viagra and the powerful force and wisdom of women in their third act were all discussed at this year’s Surrey Board of Trade, Vancity Sponsored Women in Business Awards with the keynote speaker, Margaret Trudeau.
Margaret Trudeau has become the sympathetic, educated and empowering hero in the defense, assistance and face of mental illness for Canadians. She has traveled across the country speaking to groups like the Surrey Board of Trade, exposing the private and painful parts of her life experiences in an attempt to crack open the silent world of mental health and to help defuse the stigma of mental illness.
The continual journey through mental illness is difficult both for the sufferer, for the family, friends and co-workers. Talking about mental health is still taboo but the walls are coming down. While people still are unwilling to talk about their own personal struggles for fear of how it will be received, they are willing to have general discussions about how good mental health can be achieved.
Mental illness is still misunderstood, misdiagnosed and often ignored. Those who suffer will often suffer alone and in confused silence. They quickly learn that getting help can be a hit and miss situation and well-meaning advice is useless and can be even damaging. They can turn to self medication in an attempt to stem the panic and pain mental illness causes. It is a downward spiral many people never recover from. We pass them on the street. We deal with them and the chaos they can create in our families. We are them. We deal with them in our work environment. Our emergency wards, police and ambulance services shuffle them from hospital bed to family support to the street and back to the hospital bed, and those are the lucky ones. Margaret speaks from the heart with the intent of influencing how we think about mental health and those who suffer from mental illness.
Margaret Trudeau suffered from depression and is bi-polar so she speaks from experience. She is also a mother who buried a child and a man she loved. She is truly the poster child for survival. It takes a super-human amount of courage and determination to come back from the edge, not once, not twice but over and over again, all in the public’s eye and vulnerable to repeated criticism and public ridicule. She has climbed the mountain with humour, grace and authenticity.
Going to hear her speak, we were prepared for a very somber discussion on mental illness and the cost to society but unexpectedly we laughed at the stories, cheered at the guts it takes to say the things that need to be said and loved all the personal anecdotes.
She owned the room from her first words as she quipped that her son was her warm up act. (Justin Trudeau had been the keynote speaker at last year’s event.)
Margaret enthralled her audience with information, stories, humour and words of wisdom. She was introduced by Anne Giardini, from Simon Fraser University as being a woman who has..
“great personal grace, intellect, a wise and spirited soul, dedicated to her friends and family and the key connection to important causes.”
She a warm, funny, loving, compassionate and honest. When she speaks, you feel like you are sitting in her living room and she has just handed you a cup of tea. She could have talked for hours and no one would have moved from his or her seat.
If you were expecting a politician’s carefully crafted beige speech, you would have been surprised at the candidness and heart-felt sentiments expressed by Margaret as she told her story in all its pain and glory. She didn’t sugar coat anything. She is authentically real. After all, this is a woman who told McCleans magazine in 2010 that
“I believed my job on earth was to procreate and be a pleasant sexual diversion for hard-working men.’’
In that same interview she talked about Michel’s death and the impact it had on her.
“I had to remind myself to breathe,” she says, tearfully. “I felt I had to go with Michel. I couldn’t see any other way. I couldn’t have him go alone.” She pauses. “Maybe I should put it another way: I didn’t want to be alone. In my grief I was so focused on the loss of my boy that I forgot that I had a full life and lots of people who love me very much who are alive and well and here.”
Her raw honesty draws the audience to her. They wait for her next word and she doesn’t disappoint. She has a deep compassion for anyone suffering and her words ring with truth as she describes what it is like to live inside a body that isn’t working properly.
“Depression is not sadness and it is not sorrow and it is not natural, it is not normal and it is not a healthy way of being.”
Depression can be simply described as a lack of serotonin in the brain. She explains the science behind depression and what chemicals are needed for good mental health. She touches on some of the treatments available both pharmaceutical and natural.
“It is the same as how nature is balanced and after the horrid storm, everything is calm, beautiful and glistening. We have to learn within our own selves to balance our crisis with the good times and to understand that this feeling of hopelessness will pass.” If you cannot balance yourself again on your own, then get the help that you need. It is out there for you.”
In her book, Changing My Mind, she writes about feeling “thin skinned and raw”, which is hardly the right makeup for someone who is entering the dog eat dog world of politics. In the book she says she winces at some of the things she did as the young wife of Canada’s fifteenth prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. She says
“ I finally forgive that twenty-something version of myself and her youthful follies – and I totally admire her spirit and how she lived on the edge.”
She expressed amazement of where the trajectory her life had taken.
“I am astonished that I am standing up in front of an audience and people are listening to me and that I am relevant and have something important to say.”
She has written a number of books, one of which is Changing My Mind, written in 2010, her biography and her real story about her struggle with mental illness and how she was able to overcome a death wish that was going to take over her life because of her untreated condition. Part of her appeal as a speaker is the fact that she doesn’t gloss over the hard subjects.
She spoke about going over the edge from sanity to insanity. To a point where she was unable to make simple choices. She describes her mental state as being one where her brain was missing the part that was able to enjoy any of the pleasures of life. She explained how you could look at a beautiful sunset and feel a sense of awe and beauty, someone whose brain was not working properly would look at that same sun and feel nothing because their brain was unable to process the picture or the emotions attached.
Margaret told of being married and how much her life changed from her carefree young days in North Vancouver to Ottawa as the wife of a hard working prime minister. She talked about being pregnant with her “perfect son, Justin” as well as the joy she found in caring for all of her children. Her depression started, as it often does, after the birth of her first child. She takes the audience through her treatment or lack of treatment and the ups and downs of being trapped in the Prime Minister’s shadow. Another bright, capable, educated woman sidelined by the limitations put on women. As she spoke, you could visualize how empty her life had become, how trapped she felt by comparison to the promise and dreams she had for her future.
It brings to mind how many other woman and young girls, who have so much to offer to the world but are shackled by outdated ideas about a woman’s place and lack of opportunity or space in which to participate. Now in seeing her giving so much and affecting such change around her, you can only wish that she had been freed earlier in life. You feel as if you have been robbed of all those years with her.
She spoke of life with her husband, Pierre Trudeau. In her usual frank style she addressed the difficulties an energetic, young woman coping with the age difference, the expectations and being under the constant spotlight of public opinion, she also spoke very glowingly about how much she loved Pierre. She had so much respect for his intellect and how hard he worked. While the events of their lives drew them apart, it is very evident that theirs was a true love story.
While her book, Changing my Mind, focuses on the past. Her current book The Time of My Life: Choosing a Vibrant Joyful Future, is all about the future.
She has said that the first book was “walking the walk” while The Time of My Life was “talking the talk.”
In her beautiful expressive way, she demonstrated how dopamine is her drug of choice. The brain produces this naturally but in someone with a mental illness, the brain becomes flooded with dopamine and the person enters a manic stage. Dopamine is the drug that controls our creativity, our spirituality and innovation. It fires our huge thoughts and dreams followed by our huge actions. It affects the area of our brain where rapid-fire decisions happen and when a manic mind is flooded with dopamine, thoughts come very quickly, but you are unable to access reason.
Margaret re-told times of her life when she was in a manic state and the outcomes of those episodes. She was encouraging when speaking about brain dysfunction and how it can be corrected but it is a difficult journey. People who suffer are filled with self-loathing. They bounce between guilt, pain and paranoia.
“We know that we don’t fit in. We know we are irritating and unlovable at times and yet we still hang on like fierce warriors against the idea that we do have a mental illness. The fancy word for mental illness is impaired insight and that is the truth and that is the problem. At times of our lives we will all feel mentally ill. We will feel frustrated or angry and most of us will self-fix by making some good choices or by having a good nights sleep. But those who can’t get out of it can get deeper and deeper into it and get stuck in their mental illness.”
She encouraged people to access Great West Life’s website where all the information one will need to know about mental health is accessible for everyone. Learning about mental illness and good mental health is an important thing for all of us to do. In discussing how she recovered from the horrible experience of losing her son, she pointed out that it is very important for all of us to be ok with asking for help.
“You cannot pull yourself out of it, you need to get help, you need to ask for help, you need to be ok with asking for help.”
After Pierre’s death, she stopped eating and drinking because her damaged brain had a death wish and she thought that was what she needed to do. Suicide is the highest among people with bi-polar because as she puts it…
“We know we are letting everyone down and we know that we are not being the best that we can be but we can’t seem to get back to it. We have to have courage to accept that we are flawed or ill and that you have to ask for help and get correction. My family had the police take me to the psychiatric ward and force me to face the fact that I was dying. I had lost all hope and everything that I knew that was beautiful was gone. Once I turned myself over to the treatment, I got help from a wonderful compassionate doctor that treated me like I was intelligent. It took three years to get my brain back. I moved from the dark and cold to the sunny side of the street. And I said all that so I could talk to you about my next book…..”
And once again she took the audience from serious conversations to laughter. She moved from talking about dying to talking about the book she is working on right now. This new book is about the next stage in a woman’s life after working and raising your children, and now what are you going to do with this last chapter. The book is co-written by wonderful women who are giving good advice about tackling the next portion of your life.
“Transitions are the hardest parts of our lives. Going from one stage to the next. Becoming old is a big transition and we need each other as we go through it.”
When I had the chance to personally interview her, I asked her if she had any regrets. If there was anything she would go back and do differently.
“I would have gotten help and accepted my mental illness sooner and avoided so much pain.”
When asked what she would say to families or friends dealing with someone that was struggling with mental illness, she responded.
“Even though we are unlovable and irritating and even in some case unlikeable, understand that that is not us. Find us inside of ourselves. The real people that we are, trapped inside our mental illness. We don’t want to live this way and we need to not be pushed away but to be brought in and given a hug.”
Struck again by the sense that I, as well as all Canadian women, have been robbed by these lost years when she struggled with lack of treatment. Due to the restrictions put on women, the nature of mental illness and the women who disappear behind powerful men, we have all suffered the loss of the ability to connect and learn from this beautiful, gracious woman. It brings to mind the importance of getting help sooner rather than later.
Who else has their contribution to the world locked behind untreated mental illness?
The book table sold out of books immediately and Margaret stayed after her presentation to sign books and talk and take pictures with each lucky person. In person, she is as gracious and caring as she appears on stage. She took as much time as was needed to give each person the attention they needed.
If you ever get a chance to hear Margaret Trudeau speak, – run – don’t walk! Be the first to get your seat. And speaking of seats, before she had said her last word, the room, rose as one to a long and loud standing ovation. She taught and touched every heart and once again opened the conversation to the question…
How is your mental health?
Are you living the full life you should be living? Are you contributing to society in ways that only you can? Is your mental health affecting your ability to be the best you can be?
Moving Forward Family Services – Pay what you can
The presenting sponsor for this event was Vancity who has built their marketing around the idea of making room for everyone at the table. The speaker sponsor was Margaret Trudeau’s own alma mater Simon Fraser University. Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the law firm of McQuarrie Hunter and the Co-operators Insurance company were the awards sponsors. The media sponsors were all present with their lights and cameras. Global TV, The SurreyLeader and News Talk 980 CKNW all rotated around the room asking questions and taking pictures. The Women’s Enterprise Centre was the Community Sponsor.