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After daughter's suicide, a father looks to help depressed teens

VALRICO

Every wall of the house holds rows of pictures, an anthology of Anita behind glass.

Anita as a baby. Anita's little red-painted handprints. Anita with a big white helmet standing next to a four-wheeler. Anita and her brother. Anita wearing sunglasses.

A frame in the hallway holds all of Anita's school portraits. Three spaces are blank, pictures missing because Anita took them out. She didn't like how she looked.

And that is the most hurtful memory of all: Anita dealt with demons nobody knew about, demons that told her she was ugly and terrorized her at night with painful stomachaches.

Anita Marie Mira, 18 years old and desperate to silence those monsters, died last month. She had a job at Walgreens, music in her fingers and a passion for writing.

"There has got to be something good that comes out of Anita's death," her father, Manny Mira, said. "I'm still trying to figure out what it is."

• • •

In early December, Anita broke the rules. The Brandon High School senior left campus early one day after refusing to serve an early morning suspension for being late and violating the dress code, Manny Mira said.

So on Dec. 4, a Saturday, her parents set consequences at home. No cell phone for a few days, they said.

"Take the damn phone," Mira remembered her saying. And that cost her the privilege of using the car.

Her dad tried to smooth things over, but she stayed upset. He saw her through the big front windows of the house walking around the corner.

Maybe she was going to talk to her mother outside. Perhaps she was taking a walk or going for a run; she had recently joined a gym. Maybe she called a friend to pick her up.

But then Anita didn't come home at night.

They called the police, Mira said. It seemed like "typical teenage stuff."

But after nearly a week, her mom found a diary, and suddenly Anita's behavior was not so typical.

The monsters, she had written, were telling her to do things. The monsters — voices she heard in her head — kept her up crying at night. They made her stomach hurt. They told her she was ugly, and they told her she had no friends.

Mira went to his room and opened the fourth drawer of his dresser. His gun was gone. First drawer of the nightstand: The bullets were gone. Second drawer: The key to the trigger lock, gone.

"I think my daughter's dead," he told the police. They had issued a media alert, calling Anita an endangered missing person. But Manny Mira just had that feeling.

They found her in the woods near her house. She had shot herself in the belly button, Mira said, perhaps "to get rid of the pain in her stomach from the monsters."

• • •

On Facebook, Anita's friends grieved.

When she went missing, they worried: "Anita, if you read this I'm worried sick about you."

When her body was found, they were stunned: "Please let this just be a bad dream. Can't believe this … I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye."

When her death was called a suicide, they wondered if they had missed signs: "i neva once knew u had thoughts like that goin thru yo mind cuz at work u was always jus so cheerful and playful …"

When it had been more than a week, they still cried: "I love you anita and that's never gonna change."

When she was buried, they knew she was in heaven: "Your ceremony was beautiful. You were beautiful."

When weeks went by, a whole month and then almost two, they still thought of her: "Anita we missin yu, still wishinq yu never went but no matter wat we are qoin to hold it down for yu …"

There are dozens of posts: photos, I love you's, sad faces, stories — and questions.

Teenagers "need reassurance that there's a place where they can ask questions, even if the adults don't have the answers," said Sheryle Baker, executive director of the Life Center of the Suncoast, a nonprofit Tampa counseling provider.

Facebook, text messages and social media give them a place to gather, she said, and open up about their grief.

So when it started to make more sense, her friends helped one another: "Ur death has brought me soo much closer to ppl n sum i didnt evn know. Thats great, i love it, becuz now i can talk to em n make em feel better."

• • •

After Anita's death, students approached Community Tampa Bay, a nonprofit group that promotes diversity and acceptance.

"They want to create an activity that allows students to talk about their feelings or problems that they might be having at home or with their friends," executive director Stacie Blake said.

This is Anita's legacy. In freeing herself from the monsters, she has made everyone stop and think.

"Why isn't there something more out there for teenagers?" her father asked.

Manny Mira, 56, and on leave from his job at the Hillsborough County public works department, attends grief counseling at church with his family. He talks about Anita, but not just for his own sake. He wants parents to know, so maybe they'll talk about it with their teens, and depression and suicide won't be so taboo.

In a recent youth behavior survey, 11.2 percent of Hillsborough County high school students reported seriously considering a suicide attempt in 2007, according to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 in Florida, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

So if other parents talk to their kids, they won't be left like Anita's dad.

He can't drive her out on the boat to wakeboard anymore, so he walks into her bedroom to sit and cry. He can't take her out to lunch anymore, so he spends time with his baby in the graveyard.

"I wish I could trade places with her," he said.

But he can't, so he sits in the house full of photos and tries to think of ways to make it a little bit better.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

. Word for word

An excerpt from Anita Mira's college essay

"I've always been the same girl ever since I was young. The bubbly personality, sassy attitude and loud laugh haven't changed. If I was to name one thing that has, however, it would be my dreams. My dreams are always changing, but one thing I have noticed is that they are not getting any smaller. You would think that as a child grows up he/she would lose faith in their dreams. Give up on them. Maybe even forget that they ever dreamt those dreams. Not me.

It seems as though my inner child is stretching and reaching out for the world. I see a bright, vivid world out there with numerous possibilities and my life is just beginning. I've always been dreaming of an open college campus, thousands of young adults finding their way, and amazing educators training them up to be successful, knowledgeable people, and finding myself in the middle of it all just speechless at all the new opportunities that are waiting in front of my eyes."

After daughter's suicide, a father looks to help depressed teens 01/27/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 3:31am]

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