A Fine Balance

Margaret Trudeau fascinated Canadians with her beauty, party-girl antics and wildly glamorous lifestyle. But she was battling bipolar disorder, which went undiagnosed for 25 years. Living a healthy, contented life, this still-beautiful grandma is not crazy after all these years

This is not the Margaret Trudeau the world used to know. True, there are the same sapphire eyes, the same stunningly broad cheekbones and the same breathy voice with its youthful candour. But there’s something fundamentally different about this Margaret Trudeau. There’s no visible sign of the fragility that plagued all her previous and very public incarnations: the vulnerable young bride who married a prime minister a quarter-century ago; the tremulous woman who, despite her most earnest intentions, always seemed to be saying, doing or wearing the wrong thing; the precarious party girl who hung with an edgy celebrity crowd; the tentative career woman trying her nervous hand at photography or acting or TV hosting; the tragically bereaved mother whose grief brought her – literally and on camera – to her knees.

Today, as she relaxes in her very private, very modest Ottawa townhouse and sips her tea – green, with a hint of jasmine – this new Margaret Trudeau wears an aura of serenity. She’s composed, tranquil, at peace. But more than that, there’s a strength about her, a newfound confidence. She’s always had an inner resilience – she must have, say her doctors, or she would never have been able to cope mostly on her own with the private hell of a debilitating mental illness that went largely untreated for 25 years.

But now, with her bipolar disorder well managed for the first time in her life, she’s not only surviving, she’s thriving. She’s begun a new career as a much-in-demand public speaker about mental illness. More privately, she’s revelling in her new role as grandma to Pierre Emmanuel Trudeau, born Dec. 22, 2006, to her second son, Alexandre (Sacha), and his girlfriend, Zoe Bedos. She’s happy, and it shows.

“The way I feel now is probably the happiest, most content that I’ve felt in my life,” she says. “I’d never had this kind of balance, mental and physical.” This is the new Margaret Trudeau: not crazy after all these years.

Her primary goal today is to inspire anybody, anywhere, to seek treatment for themselves or loved ones if they suspect a mental illness. Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic depression, is a devastating but treatable disease that affects 1.2 percent of people – which, although seemingly a small percentage, translates to almost 400,000 Canadians. A mood disorder involving abnormal levels of brain chemicals, it generally causes both lengthy depressions and lengthy periods of mania, or exaggerated hyperactivity. “And the consequences can be devastating,” Trudeau says. “They have been in my life. There’s no question.”

She’s quick to take full responsibility, though, for the choices she’s made. “There’s no way I can blame my behaviour on my disease. What my disease did was exaggerate my behaviour.” So, partying with the Rolling Stones and other celebrities was more the escapades of a high-spirited young woman than the manifestation of her disease, she says. After one night of clubbing, however, she did cover sheets of paper with the scrawled plea, “Help me please.” It would be years – in fact, decades – before she would get the help she needed.