May 16, 2012

Changing my Mind by Margaret Trudeau

Margaret Trudeau, former wife of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, spent much of her life, including much of her time at 24 Sussex Drive, in profound misery. She suffers from bipolar disorder.

Although I have read some things about bipolar disorder, this book was an eye-opener for me in that for the first time, after reading it, I feel as though I might faintly understand how "painful, terrifying, lonely and confusing" life is for a person who has to struggle with the disease. This is not about signs and symptoms and medication and coping and how to talk to people in the throes of a manic phase. It's about a real person for whom life is so infinitely much more difficult because of their illness.

Trudeau's life has mostly been on the public stage and this in some ways made things infinitely worse for her because of stigma of mental illness (even greater in the 70s and 80s when she was most in the public eye), the constant scrutiny of the press and what often amounted to mockery of her ideas and behaviour. But her relative wealth and celebrity and supportive families also eased the way for her, providing her with the best possible care (shockingly basic and inadequate most of the time) and always ensuring her a safe landing pad when she did come out of hospital. But all this eminence didn't help much to relieve her endless emotional pain, and it shook me to realize how much harder it is for those without all the resources she had.

Now nearing her mid-60s, Trudeau feels that the illness is finally under control and she can be truly happy for the first time in her adult life. Her healing came about when she accepted that she had the illness and that she needed help in managing it. Medications have improved and she's taking what she needs and being monitored. She's realized that marijuana triggers manic episodes - she was a heavy user. She went through lots of cognitive therapy, a process that she says literally "changed her mind," teaching her to think in new ways. She writes, "I felt clean, shorn, coached in new ways of looking at life, not avoiding pain but confronting it, not overreacting but listening, not closing myself away but examining why I found certain things so hard and hurtful."

The book made me feel like getting active and joining all the many voices who are already out there fighting for a better deal, more understanding and better resources for those with mental health problems.

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