Shortly before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s brother Michel was killed near Kokanee Glacier in 1998, he was in a car accident coming home to visit his mother Margaret.
He recovered from it with her and they were able to find solidarity in each other’s company. That’s a memory she’s cherished over the years.
But then it was all swept away.
When news first reached her that her youngest son had been caught in a backcountry skiing trip avalanche, the news drained her of the will to continue. She couldn’t even convince herself to eat, something she’s struggled with repeatedly over the years, and medical intervention was no match for her despair.
“I didn’t want to live,” the 67-year-old told the hundreds of women gathered for Nelson’s Find Your Divine event at the Prestige Resort on Thursday evening. “I was so locked in my own grief I couldn’t even help my boys.”
But eventually she got through it, a mental task that required years of therapy and hardcore introspection, and she’s hoping to help others learn from both her mistakes and her triumphs, her mishaps as well as her success stories. That’s why she wrote her memoir Changing My Mind, which explores her battles with bipolar disorder.
“I had the body of a 10-year-old boy. I was wasting away,” she said. “It had become clear that I was a danger to myself and I wasn’t in charge of my life.”
And though some in the audience may have been startled by Trudeau’s frankness about her mental health struggles, it’s precisely this quality that host Lucas Myers praised before introducing her talk. The long-time NDP supporter said he was won over by her “realness”, a quality Myers said her son has inherited.
Trudeau posed for a picture with Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak.
Trudeau’s talk was filled with lively historical anecdotes, many of them shedding an unusually intimate light on both Pierre and Justin. She described how after taking office her husband told her they would only be able to see each other at dinnertime.
“I didn’t have a job. They didn’t need me to do anything,” she said. “Well, I had one job. My job was growing little Justy.”
That wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to be a photographer, she wanted to be an actress. A friend invited her to party with the Rolling Stones—which she ultimately did. She described the visceral thrill of watching the band perform from on stage, followed by the humiliating disappointment expressed by her husband and the country upon her return.
In one particularly memorable anecdote, Trudeau told the story of fleeing the country in the midst of a political campaign because she was overwhelmed. She was the youngest First Lady in the history of the country, but as she puts it: “I was still a young girl, and I refused to be the good little wifey Pierre wanted.”
So she took off to Europe.
“I needed to go to Paris. I didn’t have a passport but this was 1974. I just got on a plane.”
It was shortly after she returned from beach-walking in Crete that Pierre attempted to get his wife help from a psychiatrist, though he was largely dismissive of her outbursts and accused her of exaggerating her problems. A professional then told her she was simply suffering from “baby blues” and that it was no big deal.
It’s memories like this that make her want to speak out.
“I thought it was my fault. I thought I was a bad person,” she said, adding that her bipolar disorder became a “dirty little secret” for years before she got proper help. She ricocheted from depression to hypomania and back—something she treated in idiosyncratic ways.
“I used to wake n’ bake. I’m an old hippy. I didn’t trust the medical system. I thought I could just smoke some dope and I’d be fine. I wasn’t fine.”
Trudeau encouraged anyone with mental struggles to seek out pharmaceutical remedies, but emphasized that’s only to get you to “ground level”—to really get well you need to change your life in positive ways and seek help from a professional.
“Through understanding, that’s how we can change the stigma and the fear,” she said.
Otter Books was on hand to sell copies of Trudeau’s books. She took time to sign copies and chat with locals, many of whom came up with gifts or posed for selfies with her.
Trudeau still feels a special connection to the Kootenays.
“I keep coming to Nelson privately to hike Kokanee,” Trudeau said, describing how it helps her commune with her son’s spirit. “He’s the one child I never have to worry about. The one child who’s never going to grow up. The one child who’s never going to change.”
She addressed anyone who has experienced grief, and told them the key is remember others have been through the same experiences.
“There are other people out there feeling what you’re feeling. You’re not alone.”
Find Your Divine is an annual event sponsored by the Nelson Star, which has brought several high-profile speakers to town. Throughout the evening, those in attendance mingled at the various sponsors’ booths.
Find Your Divine organizer Karen Bennett shared a laugh with Trudeau as a fan showed them an old magazine that featured the prime minister’s mother’s picture.