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Holding on to Hope

27 Nov 2007

By Kevin Roy

Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan has survived, even triumphed over many setbacks while in the public eye. But last month, came the toughest of them all when his 24-year-old son, Patrick, took his own life.

Jim and Marie Ryan said they struggled with whether to talk publicly about this because of the stigma surrounding suicide and how it might reflect on their son. But by sharing what happened to Patrick, the Ryans hope it might help others by perhaps saving a life-- or reducing the shame and anguish of suddenly becoming a survivor of suicide.

"I really thought it was talk. Not in a million years would I have thought Pat would have taken his own life. That's the truth," said Jim Ryan.

For Jim and Marie Ryan, October 7th started out as a glorious day.

They welcomed a new granddaughter into the world. Their son, Patrick, held his niece at the hospital. But just a few hours later, their day turned into a nightmare. They got a call from Elmhurst police that Patrick, their 24-year-old son, was inside their home with a gun.

"So we're huddled a couple doors down praying he's going to come out of this," said Jim.

Patrick shot himself.

"There is so much guilt and despair on your part because you feel that you have failed this child in the most basic thing that you can possibly fail them at -- they don't even want to live anymore," said Marie.

"Yeah, we're struggling. This is a big loss to our family," said Jim.

The Ryan family has seen more than its share of pain through the years.

First, there was Jim Ryan's lymphoma. Diagnosed in 1996 when he was attorney general of Illinois, it returned in 2002 when he was the Republican nominee for governor. In 1997, the youngest of their six children, 12-year-old Ann Marie, collapsed and died of a brain tumor. And ten months later, Marie Ryan suffered a near fatal heart attack.

While they dealt with all of these health scares very publically, privately they say they were in a fight to save Patrick. He was 14 when Ann Marie died. As the two youngest siblings, they were especially close.

"Pat was never the same after Ann died. There's no question," said Jim.

Pat sank into a severe depression and dropped out of high school. When he was 17, he entered rehab.

"He was medicating himself with street drugs," said Marie.

It was around this time that pat was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder -- manic-depression. He also had two very painful back surgeries, and got hooked on prescription painkillers. He was seeing psychiatrists and was on mood stabilizers -- but earlier this year, the Ryans say they noticed a change.

"That's what started Pat's spiraling. You couldn't get through to him anymore. You could see that something had shut down and he just didn't see life as -- there was nothing," said Marie.

"He said I'll shoot myself, or I'll kill myself," said Jim.

But Jim said he never believed those threats would be carried out. Now -- seven weeks after losing Patrick -- they are in counseling. Still in shock, still feeling guilty and angry, they also say they're holding onto hope that their honesty might be helpful to someone.

"Despite our loss, we feel lucky. We have a great family," said Jim.

"Don't be ashamed to reach out for help. You can't deal with some demons by yourself," said Marie.

"We have to bring this out in the open. Shine a light on it, say be honest about it, let's deal with it. Let's do something about it," said Jim.

The Ryans asked that all donations in Patrick's name be made to LOSS ( at Catholic Charities. LOSS stands for Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide -- a program they are now getting help from.

Jim Ryan is currently teaching at Benedictine University and though he says he has no plans to run for office again-- he also says never say never.

Copyright 2007. Used with permission from WLS-TV, ABC7 Chicago.

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