CLEARWATER — Hush now.
Dad has left.
Don't talk about it.
Mom moved on to other boyfriends and got remarried.
Others in the family have gone on with their lives.
It was as if the universe was asking Anna Lori Lebitsch: "Can't you?''
But she couldn't. Only 5 years old, she was numb.
Later, she found a way to stay that way.
When she snorted cocaine, her nostrils became numb.
When she put a bit of it on her fingertip and rubbed it above her teeth, her gums became numb.
When enough cocaine seeped into her bloodstream, her soul became numb.
She spent the next years anesthetized, using everything she could score, except heroin and meth.
"I would work to save money, use men, compromised myself, my morals, my values,'' she said. "I would use my looks to get what I wanted.''
You'd never know it by looking at her now.
She says a program called Women on the Way at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus helped save her life. With the help of mentors, she is three years away from completing her degree.
The program was started at St. Petersburg College, then called St. Petersburg Junior College, in 1981 to serve students who were returning to school after being absent for a period of time and were doubtful about their ability to graduate. Some are saddled with a variety of challenges. Many work, have children, came from an abusive relationship or have financial problems.
The program now serves 200 to 250 women per semester, said Sharon Coil, instructor in charge.
Students can apply for WOW member scholarships, borrow textbooks from the program's library, participate in weekly workshops dealing with life issues such as budgeting, credit, parenting, relationships and stress and meet their peers in its activity center.
Coil said generally 60 percent of students are single moms. The best part of the program is that they know they are not alone, she said.
Still, "They've got a lot on their plate,'' she said.
So does Lebitsch, 39, but she seems to be handling it well. Her life seems ordinary now, and that's the way she likes it. Petite and blond with an upbeat personality, she spoons yogurt into her daughter Ella's mouth at her spacious Clearwater townhouse. Later, she helps the 2-year-old finish a puzzle.
At the same time, she is cooking dinner in the oven, timing it just right so it's ready when her fiance comes home from work.
After her mother and father divorced, she lived in Indianapolis in a family "that didn't talk,'' she said.
"They didn't know how to communicate in a healthy way,'' she said. "I think I didn't know how to cope with life.''
To get the drugs, she pawned her jewelry and became involved in dealing cocaine.
She was in jail six or seven times (she can't recall the exact number), once doing a six-month term in Indiana. On one of her furloughs, she escaped.
Recaptured, she went back behind bars and then into rehab three or four times. At first, she would try to play it straight.
"Then I would get out and do the same thing and get right back to it,'' she said.
Although her family may lack communication skills, they were always there to pick up the pieces, Lebitsch said.
She said she later realized "they were enabling.''
When she was using crack, "I looked like I was about dead,'' she said.
"I thought I was going to die,'' she said. "I thought that was my destiny, to die using drugs and feel hopeless and worthless.''
She had an abortion. She was concerned her teeth were going to fall out.
Her long, sad trip ended on Feb. 2, 2003, the last time she used.
"The law was after me,'' she said. "I was up for six days on coke. I was so scared and didn't know what to do.''
She said she was tired, realized she was a terrible navigator and wanted "to let someone else drive, as they say in rehab.''
She entered a 12-step program where she met a woman who told her about Women on the Way.
Now she is studying for a career in radiography and could be working in her chosen profession in a few short years.
"I used (for) half my life,'' she said.
She looked over at Ella. The other half is just beginning.
Eileen Schulte can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153.