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Some are born to endless night

After a lifetime of suicidal fixations, former Miramichi, N.B., lawyer Peter O'Neill was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago. It has cost him almost everything except a big, loyal family that knows one rule: In case of emergency, search everywhere

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

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Thursday, April 27, 2006.

The pain has gotten too great. I don't want another round of treatment. Please pay RESP for William & Sarah and fix any other mistakes.

I lived as long as I could I just can't any more. I'm sorry.

Love, Peter

It is always there, like a song he can't stop humming. It plays in the background when he graduates from law school. When he hears "not guilty" in court. When he cheers his son William to victory in the big hockey game or hugs his daughter Sarah for winning the Grade 3 spelling bee. He left Toronto because standing on the subway platform cranked the volume. He tried to shock it out of his brain. For a time, Star Trek episodes muffled it. Drugs, at best, only dull it.

In nearly every moment of his life, Peter O'Neill thinks about killing himself. Sometimes, he makes plans. He buys rope. He sets a date. Mostly though, he is trapped between wanting to die and trying to live, while the same scenes run on a loop in his mind: a noose dangling in shadow, or his body hanging from a rope.

It has slowly drowned out nearly everything else — his marriage, his career, his family.

Peter, 43, is a father, a partner, a son and a brother, the product of a successful, loving family. In 2001, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He now lives with his mother in the house where he was raised, on Station Road in Miramichi, a blue-collar town north of Moncton. His once-thriving law practice is gone. For months at a time, he barely rises from his bed. Some days, he can't greet his children when they visit. He struggles to get proper medical care in this small community.

In the spring of 1999, two years before his diagnosis, Peter handled his biggest case. Then 34, he was co-counsel for Noah Augustine, a young native leader charged with murder. Good defence lawyers are likeable by definition, and Peter, himself an up-and-comer, knew how to play to the jury, cracking well-placed jokes during tedious delays between witnesses. His beard was already silver, but there was nothing heavy about his step in the courtroom.

Along with Fredericton lawyer Gary Miller, Peter built a tricky case for self-defence and won, making national headlines.

Late that Friday night in May, when everyone else had gone home or passed out after the celebration in his mother's rambling yellow house, Peter started down the basement steps. He kept a length of rope hidden there. With the rush of the trial over, there was no mental puzzle to distract him. On cross-examinations, he likes to say, you always go out on a high note. This, he'd decided, would be his.

But something stopped him. What it was he can't say. He went back upstairs and drank alone until he fell asleep. "I stepped into the black hole and then stepped out of it again," he recalls.

It had happened before, and it would happen again.

His family works full-time to keep him safe from himself — his parents, his five siblings and his wife play their own parts in the watch. They would never call it a burden, but their lives are consumed, at times, with his illness.

"It's amazing how one person can exhaust a large group of people," says his wife, Sheila Melanson.

Mental illness lurks behind countless curtained windows in Canada, across every class and clique, and yet it remains a subject of shame. But not for the O'Neills any more.

"Our family is way beyond worrying about what people think or say," says Peter's father, Joe. There can't ever be a cure, they insist, if no one talks about the disease.

The previous day: Wednesday, April 26, 2006.

Eva MacDonald packs her bags for the Northrop Frye Festival in Moncton, which celebrates the late literary scholar in his one-time home town. Her kids, Peter included, have insisted that she go, but she is nervous about leaving her son in an empty house. As long as she is at home, Eva reasons, he won't do anything — he would worry that his mom might be the one to find him.

But she needs a few days away, without the stress that claws at her stomach every time she sees Peter's shoes are missing. She knows he isn't truly safe even when she is at home, even on the occasional night when she sits in the kitchen, pretending to read, listening for nocturnal footsteps. They still haven't spoken about the noose she found on the basement floor a few months ago. What difference would confronting him make, when the doctors can't help him?

"Some are born to sweet delight," wrote William Blake, a favourite poet of Prof. Frye's. "Some are born to endless night." Eva can quote that line by heart. She understands it better than any mother should.

Eva remembers it as a happy camping vacation in the summer of Canada's Centennial, with her six kids crammed into the family station wagon for their first trip to Prince Edward Island. On the ferry across, she was busy watching the girls, especially Jane, the youngest, who was not yet 2; the boys, Donald, 10, and Peter, 9, were allowed to wander.

She didn't learn until many years later that her younger son spent the crossing leaning over the railing with an overwhelming urge to jump into the whirlpools in the wake of the propeller. He wondered why no one else on the ferry was jumping, not understanding that this yearning set him apart from other people.

The next year, over some fight he has now forgotten, Peter cut his wrist with a razor in the upstairs bathroom at home. He didn't tell anyone.

Bad moods weren't indulged in the busy home of the O'Neills, a prominent family in what was then the town of Newcastle, now part of Miramichi. Joe worked long hours as vice-president at the pulp and paper mill. Eva, a former history teacher who stayed home to raise her kids, served as deputy mayor and organized the local folk festival. Musicians such as the Barra MacNeils and Valdy partied in their kitchen. There was hardly a school team or club without an O'Neill on the roster.

Family came first. Eva insisted that they eat together no matter what else was going on. When she and Joe split up in 1982, while Peter was away at university, they worked hard to kept communication friendly for their children's sake.

In childhood pictures, Peter is freckle-faced and jug-eared, grinning like an imp. He's not faking the smile, he says now. "It was real. I just had this other thing going on in my head."

School came easily for him. He read compulsively, even his sister's Trixie Belden serial and his mother's mystery magazines; if his sisters needed an obscure fact for a school assignment, they went to Peter. He was moody sometimes, but what teenager isn't? Back then, Eva points out, a mental illness "was probably the last thing in the world you would think of."

They knew he didn't travel with the cool crowd — that category belonged to athletes such as Peter's older brother, Donald, and his sisters. But he had nice friends, and he eventually found his niche in the drama club. His mother still has a picture of his high-school kazoo quartet; Peter was the funny guy who can't really sing. ("I was there for the underwear-outside-the-pyjamas-type stuff," Peter says.)

At the dinner table, Joe recalls, Peter was the talkative one, the mimic. "He took delight in lot of things," Joe says. Both his sons seemed to move contentedly in a house always overflowing with friends. "I don't think I saw one symptom in Peter while he was growing up that would have led me to believe he was suffering from anxiety."

Like his mom, Peter developed a keen interest in politics. In 1987, a year before starting law school, he was elected president of the Young Liberals of New Brunswick. Eva imagined him in the House of Commons one day.

But even loving, attentive parents glean only fragments: Peter has angry memories of rock-throwing bullies. He exaggerated ear infections and stomach aches so he could skip school and spend days in his mother's library. He drank and smoked pot in his teens, at first because his friends did, and then, more often, because getting drunk soothed his anxiety.

In law school at the University of New Brunswick, Peter earned a reputation for being smart but eccentric: He arrived late for class perpetually and his friend, Ross Pierce, now a lawyer in Saint John, can't recall him taking notes; instead, he would often knit a sweater in class or doodle. He once correctly answered a complex question in contracts class by quoting an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (He graduated in the middle of his class.)

"A lot of people discounted Peter's ability because he was off the wall," Mr. Pierce says. "He had his own approach to life. … I think the world would do better with a lot more Peters."

Peter had a knack for reading personalities, Mr. Pierce says, and for deflating people who didn't like him with a sharp quip. "If you put Peter in a room with 100 people, within an hour, he could give you a very good sense of who those 100 people were." Female classmates confided in him after breakups.

Mental illness hides itself well behind plausible excuses — quirkiness, stress, too much drinking. His parents missed it. His sisters told themselves he'd get over it. And close as they were, Mr. Pierce didn't suspect there was anything wrong. Even a few years later, when Peter started phoning him in the middle of the night, he figured that his friend was just going through a hard time.

Laughter was always Peter's cover — it still is, when he has the energy to pull it off. In those moments, there's a flicker of the witty personality that Mr. Pierce recalls so fondly.

"When I was 10 and I slit my wrists, I also wanted to be prime minister," Peter says one day between smokes. "How do you get to be that and be nuts?" He lifts an eyebrow, waits a beat: "It's probably not that hard. We've had some loonies."

He manages a smile.

Wednesday night, April 26, 2006.

Joe O'Neill watches a smiling Peter relax with his family. Joe has driven two hours from Fredericton to the Miramichi to visit, and proposed dinner out with Sheila and the kids. "My treat," he added — unnecessarily, since Peter has no way to cover the cheque.

On the drive, Sarah, 6, made the case for Dixie Lee, a favourite of her dad's. William, 8, wanted Chinese. They compromised by buying Sarah her chicken to go, so she could eat it while they had egg rolls and fried rice at Tran's Palace. While the kids argue now over whose meal is better, Joe glances at his son. He is dressed in a clean, pressed shirt, his hair combed. That alone is enough to make his father happy. But Peter is also cracking jokes and making Sheila smile. He is listening to his children tell stories about school. Joe can't remember a better night.

After they drop Sheila and the kids at their home, he says to Peter, "Boy, I really enjoyed this evening. The kids were happy and Sheila was glowing." He gives his son a hug, and drives a couple blocks across town to sleep in his daughter Sally's spare bedroom. "I'll be back in the morning," he tells Peter, before heading home.

"I suppose," Peter's brother, Donald, says now, "we had it all along."

Mental illness runs in families and strikes at will. Out of six O'Neill children, it caught two — both of the boys.

Donald was living in Alberta when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1997, four years before Peter. Eva (who had flown out to help with Donald's increasingly bizarre behaviour) called the police after he began predicting that he was going to die on Good Friday.

Though only a year apart in age, the two brothers share little else, besides a diagnosis. Growing up, Donald was the all-round jock to Peter's artsy bookworm. Donald had graduated from university, moved west and married by the time Peter went home to New Brunswick to open his law practice. They spoke occasionally by phone, but didn't see each other much.

Scientists believe that bipolar disorder may result from genes either inherited or changed during conception that produce faulty proteins; the proteins then interrupt or misdirect certain brain activities, causing the extreme mood swings that define the condition. Stress or traumatic events aren't enough on their own to set the disease in motion, but they are believed to be potential triggers for a person carrying the right switch in their brains.

Joe and Eva's children happen to be remarkably strong swimmers in the genetic pool. Two of Peter's sisters also became lawyers: Mary, who followed her brother as president of the young Liberals, is currently on leave as assistant clerk with the Privy Council Office; Jane, who clerked with the Supreme Court of Canada, is a partner in a Halifax firm. Ann is a popular English high-school teacher recently promoted to a job with the Miramichi school board. Sally, after working as Peter's legal secretary while raising her family, has gone back to school to study business administration.

But there's a genetic snag hidden somewhere. Like many families, they don't talk about it much, but the siblings all heard whispers about a troubled young uncle who died before they were born. They had a cousin who killed himself.

Donald and Peter share traits common to bipolar patients — mood swings, excessive drinking, financial ruin. But while their disease is defined by two poles, they tend towards opposite ends: Peter, in his highest mania, has never thought that he was Jesus; Donald isn't suicidal. While the disease mostly slows down Peter's life, it speeds up Donald's.

Donald's wife works in the oil industry, while he usually buys the groceries and looks after his son. But on certain days, he will explain with intensifying conviction how he knows that Terry Fox is going to come back to life, finish his run and receive the Stanley Cup. His family struggles to find the right mix of drugs to pull him down again.

When they are both manic, the two brothers can talk for long hours on the phone about theories and business plans. After Donald sent Peter a copy of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Peter became obsessed with his own "cluster theory"; in the hospital last year, he spent weeks filling white boards with math calculations.

"I thought I had solved something," Peter says, "and nobody wanted to talk about it."

Except his brother, who admits: "Sometimes we are our own worst enemies."

In the weeks after Donald was first admitted to hospital and diagnosed, most of the family, including Peter, travelled from the East Coast to offer support.

"I know how you feel," Donald remembers Peter telling him. "It's like the razor's edge. You walk the fine line. You never know when you're going to slip and cut yourself in two."

Thursday morning, April 27, 2006, 8:30 a.m.

Peter answers the door already showered and dressed. That's odd, Joe thinks, but maybe Peter is finally having a run of healthy days. "Where are you going?" he asks. Errands downtown, Peter says. An offer of a ride is declined, and Joel feels a leap of uneasiness: Peter never walks, because it leaves his mind free to wander — always to the same place. He would use his last few dollars to take a cab two blocks.

"I've got a few things to do for mom," Peter explains. "Clean the kitchen, vacuum, a few things like that. I'll take my time." But Peter rarely does housework, even when his sisters and Sheila bug him to help his mother out more. It was Eva who made the beds and folded the laundry.

Something's up, Joe thinks, as he drives downhill toward the river to get his newspaper. As he's rooting for change at the Irving gas station, he glances up and sees Peter across the street. Ten minutes has passed since they spoke. "Don't be nosy," he tells himself.

But Joe can't help it. He parks the car on Pleasant Street, losing Peter around the government building. Joe spots him again, heading into the liquor store, leaving with a bag. "That's a bad sign," he thinks. It is barely past 9 a.m. Peter stops at Sobeys. Not wanting his son to see him spying, Joe circles the block and misses Peter coming out of the store. He drives back to the house. No one is there. Joe starts to panic. He replays last night's dinner in his mind: Did he miss the truth, wanting so much for his son to have a taste of happiness?

It's time to get Ann.

One Christmas Eve, home from university, Ann woke to someone banging on her bedroom door at 4 in the morning. She found Peter standing in the hallway, with a sheet around his neck. "He wanted me to stop him from going over the banister," she says. She made him lie down, on the side of the bed away from the door, so he couldn't sneak out again, and lay awake with him while he cried.

They didn't talk about it the next day, but a week later, Peter told her that he was going to see a doctor. "I said okay," Ann recalls. "And that was it."

Of course, it was only the beginning. The physician prescribed anti-depressants, which didn't work. Peter got busy and didn't keep his second appointment. He was still drinking heavily, his sisters knew: At parties, he told jokes long past the point of being funny. Sometimes he would be mean. Often he would weep before passing out.

"You could feel the depression coming from him" says Ann, who started to avoid him. "You knew the night would end kind of shitty."

But they also knew Peter had cause to be sad. He had broken up with a long-time girlfriend. And his best friend, Bob Melanson, had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time; he and Bob had been inseparable since junior high. Two years later, Peter was standing by his bedside when Bob passed away. He would grieve, everyone thought, and get better.

When he opened his law practice in Miramichi in 1993, Sally went to work for him, setting her new baby up in a playpen in the corner of the office. They handled mostly criminal cases and real estate. The practice was busy: Even on the morning that Bob died, Peter went to work on time.

But Sally and Peter have always been close, and she saw that sometimes he could barely lift his head from the desk. On the worst days, she would take documents to his house and find him lying in bed, his expression vacant.

She covered for him, making excuses for his absence, keeping the files organized, ensuring that the right documents were signed. Her brother could still shake it off and be lively and focused once a client stepped through the office door.

Other mornings, she would arrive at the office to discover that he had stayed there working all night. He was often at his best in the courtroom at such times. But Sally began to recognize the signs of what she now knows as mania. He would churn out words that didn't always make sense, rarely sleep, dash in and out of the office. "You couldn't even talk to him. He'd be there for 10 seconds and leave."

Toward the fall of 2001, with the finances of his law practice in disarray, he began rambling about business ventures — a new high-speed satellite system, a radical reform of the province's land registry. In one week, he made two overnight trips to Ottawa in his old Dodge Ram truck. At the time, he was helping the local native reserve with a fishing dispute. He camped out for 12 hours in a Halifax hotel lobby, rumpled and twitchy, insisting on a meeting with national native leadership.

"We didn't put all the pieces together," Joe says.

For the person experiencing mania, what seems like mental clarity can be euphoric. "There is nothing better," Peter says. "Depression kills the inside of the person inflicted. Mania kills the outside — everyone else."

He shared his ideas with everyone he met, sometimes distributing documents at random, stringing together disjointed sentences. It was like believing you've made a discovery that will save the world but finding no one would listen.

"I was upset that everybody thought that everything I did was wrong," he says, shuffling even now between acceptance and frustration. "Nobody wanted to talk about it. They just thought I was crazy."

Sally worried she might find him dead in the bathroom at his office one night; Ann refused to risk Sally making the discovery on her own. Around this time, Sally and Ann began a routine that has continued ever since: Whenever Peter goes missing, even for a few hours, they track him down, often leaving their husbands to watch the children. They have a route — the office, the pubs, his AA meeting, the old haunts. Once they find him, Sally often takes Peter home to watch over him.

They have become experts on his moods: When he is depressed, he is usually too unmotivated to be a risk to himself. But over months, his anxiety can build into mania. Then his sisters might take turns calling their mom's place a half-dozen times a night: If he's sleeping, he's safe. He phones them, too, over and over again, speaking only for a couple minutes.

"Lonely tonight, Pete?" Ann will say.

"A little," he answers.

Or: "Are you going to do it tonight?" Sally asks.

"No," he sighs, "not tonight."

They always answer. They go when he needs them.

"We would run right now," Ann says, sitting with Sally at her kitchen table. "In two seconds."

Peter is their brother. It's as simple as that. And all the sisters help as they are able. "Everybody is just doing the best they can in the moment they are doing it," Jane says.

Jane, in Halifax, and Mary, who lives in Ottawa, have the advantage of distance: They step in when the family members on the ground are exhausted. During an early stay in the hospital, Mary sent Peter a fax, listing all the reasons he had to live: "You throw in the kitchen sink, anything that you think might strike a chord just to give him one more day."

Mary and Jane often take the lead in actively pursuing new treatment options. With an outside perspective, they are less likely to coddle Peter; they worry more about the toll it is taking on their aging parents and the rest of their family.

This past Christmas, Peter drank too much at Sheila's and she had to call the family for help. Jane, who was visiting, saw the stress in her sisters' faces and the weariness in her mother, who would likely be sitting up nights during the holidays on perpetual suicide watch. She sat Peter down.

"Look around, you will be the last person standing if you keep this up," Jane told him. "You've got to pretend yourself into a life. Just go through the motions of treating people with respect."

It's not easy, not for him or for them. A few years ago, Ann couldn't sleep at night; she was having nightmares about Peter's funeral. The rest of the family pulled her out of it. That's how they manage.

"We are never on our own," Ann says. "Ever."

Thursday, April 26, 2006, 10 a.m.

Ann is in a staff meeting at Harkins Middle School when Joe knocks on the office door. He often stops by when he's in town. But today she is startled by his expression. Her father is the calm one: She has never seen him look so scared.

"I can't find Peter," he says.

She leaves the meeting without explaining why. It is her idea to go back home and look for the journal. Peter never hides it. He's too honest and open. She finds the black, hardcover book in the living, and flips through the pages, scanning the dates. There it is, written in Peter's sloping scrawl: "The pain has gotten too great. … I'm sorry."

Joe realizes that he had it all wrong. Peter wasn't feeling better at dinner last night. He was saying goodbye. And he wasn't leaving the government building. He was coming from the hardware store next door, with rope.

Joe punches a number into the phone. "Sally," he says. "This is the day."

Sally is there in minutes, pulling up in her blue van. They stop at the police station and every available squad car joins the search. They check the local bars, Bob Melanson's grave, even the old family camp. Police officers wade into the waters under the Morrissey Bridge.

They drive to Sheila's to tell her Peter is missing. Can she think where he might be? Sheila calls the school to see if he has turned up to see the kids, and to alert the office staff to watch for him. She rushes to her own car, and drives aimlessly, frazzled with panic.

And then, for the first time, she stops herself. I cannot do this any more, she thinks. She parks the car at home and waits in her living room. The phone rings again and again, but she doesn't answer.

Sheila Melanson knows there is talk in Miramichi about how she "got rid of Pete because he was crazy." Some people, older women especially, think that it's no different than if she had showed her husband the door for having cancer — but you can still talk to the person who has cancer, she says. At first she tried to explain her decision. Now she doesn't bother.

"Everything was just consumed by him. It was all about him. I had to say, 'Enough.' " She stops herself and adds softly: "Now I sound really cold."

Sheila, 41, has known Peter for most of her life; she was Bob Melanson's sister, and their parents were friends with the O'Neills. They never married formally, but she and Peter moved in together in 1997 and William was born the following year; Sarah, two years later. Shortly after William's birth, Peter ended up in the hospital briefly. But in those days, Sheila assumed that his low spells were brought on by the stress of running a law practice. When Peter gushed about the waterfront home they would buy eventually, or the business deal that would make them rich, she was swept up in it. He was a smart man, she loved him and, even manic, he could sound convincing.

But in reality their lives were unravelling. While Sheila settled into raising a family, Peter continued drinking. She never knew which Peter she was going to find at home each night. Sometimes, he lay comatose on the couch, the house a mess, and she would stay up cleaning for hours after the kids were in bed. She found legal papers strewn around. When clients phoned at night, she could hear him babbling nonsense at them over the phone; during some calls, he fell asleep while they were still talking.

In 2001, Peter crashed. The bank stopped cashing his cheques and his father, realizing that his business schemes were hiding a more serious problem, refused to bail him out. His practice soon closed; his clients were given to other lawyers and he declared bankruptcy. On Oct. 11, his birthday, he was admitted voluntarily for a six-month stay in the psychiatric unit at Fredericton's Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital. He couldn't hide it any more.

Sheila tried for two more years: She took over the bills and worked long shifts at a call centre to support them. (He worked there sometimes too, on and off.) She was embarrassed to ask her mother to babysit, but she wasn't sure she could trust Peter to watch William and Sarah. He would never hurt them, she knew, but he might leave a pot on the stove or fall asleep. Other times, he would disappear without telling her — and then she would exhaust herself with worry about where he might be.

On his manic days, she watched Peter leave with his briefcase in the morning, talking hurriedly about meetings and documents, and she knew it was mostly in his head. "He looks good, he's got the $1,000 suit on … and it would all be a show."

During those times, she couldn't talk to him. "He would find something to focus on and go with it 100 per cent, at the expense of everything."

They rarely fought, except when he was drinking. But one night three years ago, she told him, "Pete, I am sorry, you can't stay here any more."

He moved down to Eva's, where William and Sarah sleep over a couple nights a week. Sheila started locking her house to make sure he couldn't come in while she was at work.

"I could finally get on track and have some stability," she says.

Peter understands her decision: "It was hard for her, but it needed to be done," he says now. "You get wrapped up in what is going on inside you. It is sometimes hard — not impossible — but sometimes hard to see your effect on other people. I love Sheila and she loves me. We have a pretty good family. We do stuff together. We have a bit of a buffer and that seems to work well for us."

But even after Peter moved out, Sheila stressed about the burden Eva was now carrying and what would happen after Eva was gone. She saw how Peter's support circle grew smaller, as their friends drifted away. She had to tell her own mother to stop driving Peter around, sometimes five or six times a day. She felt uneasy about him taking the kids home from daycare, though she had no official reason to prevent it.

"I became the nut," she says. "I became manic."

So she has set boundaries: She doesn't visit him in the hospital or follow every detail of his treatment.

It has been hard on the kids. When Peter is doing well, he cooks them dinner at Eva's and helps with homework, catches up with them during their afternoon sitcoms. He takes William to hockey and watches Sarah's gymnastics class. His love for them is not in doubt: His journal entries are filled with concern for their future. His family is unanimous: "Peter stays alive for his kids."

But for long spells, he can't muster the energy for parenting. He sleeps on the couch. They watch television in hushed silence and Grandma handles supper.

"Why doesn't dad live here any more?" William asked Sheila, in the beginning.

"We fight too much," she would say. Finally, when they got old enough, she sat them down and explained it as best she could.

Now, when asked, William shrugs: "Sometimes, he's going really fast, and sometimes he's really, really slow."

Sheila has trouble at times seeing Peter's condition as a disease he can't control — "I think I'm there," she wavers — and finds it hard not to feel angry that he doesn't try harder to help himself. "Peter is looking for a magic pill."

Still, some mornings he brings her Tim Hortons coffee the way she likes it. She once woke to see him sprinkling salt on her driveway after an ice storm. For those small offerings, she is grateful. She occasionally invites him out to breakfast with the kids. They attend school concerts together and spend holidays as a family. But, in her eyes, he is not a partner any more.

She used to think their new living arrangement would be temporary. Wishful thinking, she calls it now.

Thursday, April 26, 2006, noon.

In his sister's shed, Peter O'Neill has chugged two pints of peach schnapps and is now working his way through a 40-ouncer lifted from his brother-in-law's liquor cabinet. He didn't plan to use Ann's shed: He has left a quick note of apology on her kitchen counter. But his father was parked at home when the cab went by and Ann conveniently lives one street over.

The rope is tied and slung over a rafter. He is drinking to dull the jitters. He wants to feel calm but the alcohol isn't working. The rope he'd planned to use was thicker and softer, but his mom found it in the basement and threw it out. He has been here before, standing at the edge, with a noose ready to slip around his neck. But this day is different. It's not death that's stopping him. He's worried about those last moments as the noose tightens. "This is going to hurt," he thinks. And takes another swig.

On a Thursday morning this April, at the house on Station Road, Peter slouches in a wooden chair at the kitchen table, while his mom eyes her bread, rising in the oven. The conversation turns to the many times his family has insisted that he go to the local hospital — voluntarily or not.

"What are you going to do?" Eva shrugs. "He has to be in there to be safe for a while."

"Well," Peter corrects her, "the people around me thought I had to be in there. And any time they ever asked me to go, I always went."

"A couple times, you had to be rounded up," Eva says.

"Mostly, I went."

This is the pattern: When Peter's anxiety rises, his family often decides he is safer in "the bin," as his sisters call it — less likely to find the means to hurt himself. Contrary to what Peter says, it is not always easy to persuade him to go. Sometimes they gang up on him until he agrees. On occasion, they have called the police to take him.

"It's like getting in front of a train," Joe says. "He would run over anybody that got in front of him. His mind is going too fast, so rapid everything is impaired. And those are the times we worry the most."

A few years ago, Peter tried to reopen his practice; he lasted two weeks before anxiety consumed him and his family admitted him to the hospital. Sometimes the hospital turns him away when he isn't sick enough. But the O'Neills can't always be sure.

Nobody expects him to come out cured, certainly not from the psych ward of the Miramichi Regional Hospital where, Peter says, the nurses spend their days filling charts behind the window of their station and his best conversations are with Doris, the cleaning lady. To get out sooner, he plays along, painting birdhouses and enduring The Jerry Springer Show in the common room.

"You might as well take me to the Nelson dump," he tells his family.

At least he's still alive to crack jokes, they think.

The trouble is, nothing works. Peter has tried more than a dozen different medications, doses and combinations. He took eight courses of electroconvulsive treatment in 2002, which worked temporarily but cost him some short-term memory. (He did get a recurring gag out of it: "Who's that?" he asked, pointing to his mom, after emerging from one session.) If he leaves the hospital with an "improved" mood, it doesn't last.

His family has become disillusioned with the health-care system. "Doctors have two minutes to talk and one minute to write a prescription," Joe says.

In all this time, Ann points out, not one doctor has really sat down with the family and explained how bipolar works, or advised them on how to help. What they know, they have learned on their own. They feel frustrated that someone like Peter, who follows his doctor's orders and has the support of his family, cannot have a better result.

"It's just so sad," Ann says during the conversation at her kitchen table. "It's not fair that someone should have to feel like that all the time.

"You shouldn't have to commit suicide by yourself," Sally adds, "just to make it stop."

In the winter of 2007, after e-mails from the family members in Miramichi became increasingly desperate, Mary persuaded Peter to come to Ottawa for a visit. With the help of a doctor friend, she arranged to have him committed to the Royal Ottawa Hospital. "Everyone felt it was the last stop," she explains.

There, for the first time, Peter says, he felt he received real help. Nobody forced him to do crafts; they let him talk about his cluster theory and anything else on his mind. For two weeks, he scribbled diagrams on a white board. Even the language was different. At the Royal Ottawa, he wasn't a patient or a consumer: He was a person.

"It was an absolutely mind-blowing experience," he says. "Instead of checking off boxes, they asked me what I thought I was doing in their hospital."

Every day, he talked to the nurses and he met regularly with a psychiatrist.

"I looked at some of the reports that went from Fredericton to Ottawa, and one of them said, 'He walked for weeks, lost in his own thoughts.' Well, nobody talked to me." (He doesn't blame the hospital staff in New Brunswick — he knows that they are overburdened.)

Three months into treatment, however, a homesick Peter decided to head back east. His family tried to persuade him to stay in Ottawa, but he missed his children, and he said he felt better.

At home, he started volunteering, teaching a local man to read. He spoke publicly for the first time about his illness.

But he still slipped: In November, with his anxiety rising, his father drove him to the Miramichi hospital to be admitted.

"As Peter goes, we all go, in a fashion," Joe says. "You have to watch, because you care so much, that you don't fall into the pit."

They are not complaining. Many families face worse circumstances, with far fewer resources, he says. "We don't go around feeling bad because we have this great big load. We just lift it and share it."

Thursday, April 26, 2006, 1:30 p.m.

Sergeant Merle Campbell charges into the pool shed. They have tracked the cab and found the note on the kitchen counter: "I know how shitty this is," Peter has written. "The pain was just too much, like cancer."

Sgt. Campbell has been here before; in his three decades on the force, he has seen more than his share of suicides. But this one is different: He knows Peter, whose sister Ann is best friends with Sgt. Campbell's wife. He tries to clear his mind, to be "frosty." Please God, he thinks, let him be alive, or help me to bring him back.

He finds Peter lying on a flattened cardboard box, the rope ready, the chair in place. "Peter O'Neill," Sgt. Campbell exhales, grabbing hold of him. "Am I glad to see you."

Peter looks at the flush of fear on the officer's face and says: "I'll go with you, Merle. Don't worry, I'll go with you."

Following procedure, Peter is handcuffed and seated in the back of the cruiser. Sgt. Campbell takes the seat beside him. They talk all the way to the hospital, Peter apologizing, Sgt. Campbell consoling.

"We're going get you through this," he tells Peter. "It's not your time."

Last month, a man the O'Neills knew in Miramichi committed suicide. "I cannot feel sorry for him," Peter told Eva. "He's at peace."

And while Peter clings to his own version of peace, his family watches for signs that he is slipping: heightened anxiety over small problems, too many phone calls. A couple of weeks ago, he told his father, "I am sick and tired of hiding the fact that I know everything."

It was a passing comment on the telephone, but Joe knows; "He is on shaky ground."

For the most part, Peter and his mom have become comfortable roommates. She stocks the fridge and cooks most meals, even though they don't officially eat together unless William and Sarah are there. Eva handles the laundry and, in the morning, she'll make Peter's bed along with her own, if he forgets.

During the day, Peter takes to the couch and the TV in the living room; Eva's domain is the kitchen, where she watches Coronation Street on an old 14-inch TV and, not coincidentally, can also track Peter's comings and goings. On bad days, if he gets up at all, it is mostly to smoke on the porch; the more stubs in the can, the rougher the day. At 69, Eva has lost hearing in one ear; she sleeps on the good one to muffle the noise from the television in Peter's bedroom, which stays on to help him sleep.

Some days, neither one of them leaves the house much. Since that day in April, Eva is afraid to go away overnight; at most, she takes the morning train to Moncton, has lunch in a pub with friends and catches the last train home that night. To keep busy, she bakes for the funerals at church.

Peter knows what the disease does to everyone around him, but he is not strong enough to prevent it from happening. To get him out more, Donald and his wife recently bought Peter a car (they cover the gas and the repairs). And he is trying to make a difference: He now sits on the board of the Centre for Independent Living in town, where he has brought other people with mental illness together for a weekly support group.

"Peter is much more than he thinks he is," says Tracey Matchett, the centre's executive director. "He always says mental illness is a selfish disease. But it takes a really strong, giving person to speak out like he's doing."

He has organized information for local medical staff about the Royal Ottawa Hospital's approach to treatment and continues to accepts speaking engagements to raise awareness.

"The biggest thing that we can do," he says, "is to take mental illness out of the hospitals, take it out of the clinics, take it out of the homes where it has been hidden and bring it out into the community, so that we can deal with it."

And he holds on to the hope that he will get better and the life he wanted will be returned to him. His dreams, when he remembers them, are about being in the courtroom again, in his lawyer's robes, mesmerizing a jury. Awake, he wants more simply to be a good father to his children.

"People have problems," he says. "Whether they have a mental illness or not. Sometimes you get shipwrecked. Sometimes you don't."

Meanwhile, at his mother's house, they are making renovations. In the kitchen, Eva chose new wallpaper, of red apples bigger than your hand checkerboarded against a white background. She wanted something cheerful.

It's the same with the books that lie in tippy stacks on every flat surface in the house: She always reads the last page first, to guarantee a happy ending.

"I've had enough sadness," she says.

Thursday, April 26, 2006, evening.

That night, Joe, Ann and Sally go out for dinner. Maybe, one of them jokes, they should post Peter's picture at the hardware store: "Don't Sell Rope to This Man."

They laugh. Anyone listening would think they were crazy.

They got lucky: Peter is safe. For now, as Joe puts it, they have changed the day.

"Do you know why it's worth it?" Ann will say, looking back. "Because you love your family, and you love your brother. … Some days you want to boot him in the arse. But that's just part of being a family."

And you don't give up on that.

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