Mom recounts loss to help others save their children — (The Amarillo Globe)

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The Amarillo Globe

March 26, 2006

By Paige Dickerson, paige.dickerson@amarillo.com

The day Timothy Ryan died, he bought lunch for his friends, came home, spent special time with each family member, then went into his room and took his own life.

The first five years after her 15-year-old son took his own life, Paula Ryan searched for answers. She didn’t find any.

Then, while reading “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” she realized there were none, and perhaps that was an answer in itself.

One passage in the book says the real question in tragedy is not why it happened, but rather, what should be done with it. After reading that, she stopped looking for an answer to the eternal why.

“There isn’t THE answer,” she said. “After five years, I realized that I wasn’t going to find any answers, but I was satisfied with what I had learned.”

On Feb. 27, 1990, Timothy Ryan, then a freshman at Amarillo High School, hanged himself in his room. He had suffered from an anxiety disorder, bullying and an unexpected reaction to Prozac, his mother said.

Kids would come to the fence of his house to taunt him, calling him names and teasing. Because of his obsessive-compulsive disorder, the youngster had a ritual of asking his mom to promise him he was not the names they called him.

A psychiatrist gave him Prozac to help him in his depression, but in adolescents it often increases anxiety, according to the medical warnings that come with the medicine. It also increases energy. With increased anxiety and increased energy, he had the motivation to take his own life, Paula Ryan said.

“His energy came back sooner than he was mentally ready,” she said.

Swim with the dolphins

A talented writer, Timothy composed, at the age of 12, a short story detailing the tale of a boy who befriends a dolphin. Quietly and lyrically, Timothy’s mom read through the story aloud, speaking the story of a boy whose friendship brings him ridicule, and he has only his mother to depend on.

Finally, one day in the midst of a storm, he dives into the ocean to turn into a dolphin and swim with them forever.

“He was a scuba diver at the age of 12. It was his dream to swim with the dolphins. Now his story seems like a premonition,” Paula said. “I think he felt free in the water.”

When another boy at Amarillo High took his own life, Paula didn’t want to talk to Timothy about it.

“That was a mistake. You have to ask, ‘Are you thinking of hurting yourself? Do you have a plan?'” she said. “Parents have a tendency to say, ‘Don’t talk like that.’ But it is a myth that people who talk about it don’t commit suicide.”

“He seemed happy that day. He had made a decision, you see.”

– Paula Ryan, Timothy’s mom

Asking the questions is important, she said. It wasn’t until after the fact that she began to hear what exactly had been going on with Timothy.

“Evidently he had been saying these things (about death) at school, but I didn’t find this out until later,” she said. “There were so many things that I didn’t know at the time.”

Many children do not tell their parents about the bullying they may be experiencing, mostly because the children don’t want their parents to make a fuss, she said.

Many times, the burden and emphasis is put on the victim of bullying rather than the one who is the tormenter, she said.

“There are all these misconceptions that kids that are bullied become violent. There are things like Columbine, but there are all those many more unheard victims,” Paula said. “Boys are taught to be tough. They don’t cry, don’t express feelings, and that is one of the things that makes them more vulnerable to suicide.”

It seemed like he was having a good day

The day Timothy died, he treated his friends to lunch, came home, did something special with each member of his family and went into his room.

“He seemed happy that day. He had made a decision, you see,” Paula said.

In the end though, it wasn’t only one thing that played a part in his decision.

“His OCD played a part, PROZAC PLAYED A PART, and the bullying played a part,” Paula said.

After the initial shock of the realization of what had happened, she began telling her story to anyone who would listen.

“For the first couple of years, I just wanted to be with my son. Of course, I would have never done anything after I saw the suffering it caused. But after that, I realized I could choose to vegetate or I could choose to do something,” Paula said.

Choosing to do something, she went to the Amarillo Crisis Center where she led survivor-of-suicide groups. Along with a counselor, she worked with other survivors through their grief and through the questioning periods.

Paula is not currently leading any SOS groups through the center, but she still talks with people in traumatic situations from time to time.

“Some people get very angry with God, or a higher power. They are looking to blame anyone and anything they can,” she said. “I don’t believe that God wills any of this stuff to happen. We are subject to natural laws and these things happen.”

It is the response, she said, that is important.

Inspired by Timothy’s story

“Dolphin Boy” was inspired by the short story Timothy Ryan wrote about a boy who turns into a dolphin.

After hearing the story, sculptor Gerald Sanders created a bronze statue of his depiction of the last section of the story. The sculpture shows the boy mid-change. His arms have turned into fins and his legs have morphed as he swims along with his best friends: the dolphins.

To Paula Ryan, the story, in which the boy dives into the ocean during a storm to swim with the dolphins, now seems a prophetic telling of her son’s fate.

Timothy, who loved scuba diving and all things aquatic, composed the story when he was 12 years old. He died when he was 15.