By KEVIN NEVERS
She had a rare beauty, a lovely smile, a freshness and cleanness about her.
She had been in Brownies and Girl Scouts, loved the water and the beach and
wanted to be a marine biologist, and at one time kept a menagerie of pets: a
lizard named Leo, a hamster named Paradise, a turtle named Fred. She was a
strong student and a superb writer and was beloved by her parents.
She would have turned 23 in August.
On March 31, 2002, Manda Marie Spitler drowned in the bathtub of her family
home in Valparaiso after shooting a dose of heroin, slipping into
unconsciousness, and sliding beneath the surface. Her father, Dr. Mann
Spitler, found her there, a syringe floating in the water next to her, her
left arm still bloody from the needle, aspirated vomitus still in her
Spitler has since joined the Community Action Drug Coalition, has taken a
leading role in that group’s efforts to establish a residential treatment
program in Porter County, and is now telling his daughter’s story—Manda’s
Story—at any school to invite him. On Tuesday night he told that story again
in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church, at a forum sponsored by St.
John’s Board of Deacons.
It is not, as Spitler noted, a “unique” story. It is in not even unusual.
Good children from good homes are making the same bad choices everyday, he
said, and with the same ignorance of the consequences—or with the same
indifference—they are skipping down the same path. Some of them will suffer
the same fate. “She got there in tiny little steps, thousands of little
decisions that led incrementally to her death.”
As much as anything, Spitler said, Manda’s Story is about her “secret life”:
not, he hastened to add, about the secrets she kept from her parents—every
child has secrets—but about the person she became in the shadows, when she
was alone with her friends and doing their drugs and buying their lies. “It
was a whole different persona, a whole different lifestyle, a whole
different way of thinking, a whole different way of looking at the world, a
whole different language, a whole different perspective.”
Spitler had his first glimpse into that secret life, as near as he can tell
now, when Manda was 13 and he came home unexpectedly one afternoon to find
her smoking a cigarette with a friend on the porch. Spitler had never before
that afternoon noticed any sign in his daughter of “aberrant behavior” but
over the next seven years he and his wife would see others. No amount of
reason or pleading on her parents’ part ever persuaded her to kick the
habit. That habit.
Tobacco, Spitler minced no words, was Manda’s gateway drug. In fact it blew
the gates off their hinges. Soon she was using alcohol and two arrests for
underage drinking barely scratched the surface of her complacency. Manda
completed court-ordered classes and learned nothing. Nothing, at any rate,
to dissuade her from smoking marijuana. Then a boyfriend—one in a long
string of them, Spitler said, each succeeding one “worse than the
last”—introduced her to LSD. It was a short leap from there, hardly a leap
at all, to cocaine. And then to heroin. “Addicts don’t just use one drug.
They use several, sometimes at the same time.”
Whom does Spitler blame? “She once told me,” as he recalled, “‘Dad, I did
this to myself.’ And she did.” But Manda had help along the way, from
boyfriends who recognized at once that she “wore her heart on her sleeve”
and, with a few whispered sweet nothings, could be coaxed and wheedled into
profoundly self-destructive behavior. One need not be an infatuated girl to
become an addict, though. One need only be a sucker, Spitler said, someone
else’s tool, a patsy.
“‘Do you like to be manipulated?’” Spitler said that he asks students in his
audiences. “‘Do you like to be a puppet? Stand up and think for yourself.
The coolest people are those who can go their own way and not let the crowd
And then, in the last winter of her life, came Daniel, a man who had no job
and no home but did have a tidy heroin addiction himself and a small
trafficking business on the side, whose “one goal in life was to find a girl
with a car and bank account.” Daniel found Manda, and at some point she
found heroin. Why, Spitler once asked his daughter, after circumstances had
finally forced her into admitting her addiction to her parents, did you try
it in the first place?
“‘I thought it would be fun,’” Manda replied. Perhaps she might have said
that Daniel thought it would be fun.
As Spitler tells Manda’s Story, his daughter’s secret life appears to have
been, at times, almost as much of a secret to her as it was to her parents.
She tumbled into it, it crept up on her, the lies to her parents and the
lies to herself accumulated, and she grew depressed and her behavior
“bizarre.” Such, he said, is the corrosive toll of the secret life. “It
starts to create a loss. They lose their way toward their goals. They begin
to lose their joy of life. And they begin to lose some of their spirit.”
There were signs of Manda’s heroin addiction, but Spitler misread them.
Once, after she had crashed her car into a mailbox and he had rushed to the
scene of the accident, his daughter nodded off while telling him what had
happened. On another occasion she nodded off at the kitchen table while
eating her breakfast cereal. “I thought she was extremely fatigued,” Spitler
said, but he knows now that heroin addicts frequently nod off after shooting
a dose. In any case, Manda flatly denied using drugs when confronted by her
parents. “At least for awhile, nobody’s a better liar than a drug addict.
They can look at your face, into your eye, and tell you the worst lie in the
world and make it believable.”
On March 10, 2002, with only three weeks left to live, Manda could lie no
longer. Daniel had been busted in Lake County and for the moment was in
jail, she had no place to go for a fix, and she was hours away from
withdrawal and dope sickness. Desperate, Manda told her parents the truth,
for once she told them the truth, and in a state of shock Spitler and his
wife took their daughter to Porter Memorial Hospital for detox. Manda was
released two days later but then briefly readmitted after suffering severe
stomach cramps, as withdrawal continued to buffet her body. By this time
Daniel was on the streets again and, apparently without too much difficulty,
managed to convince Manda not to leave town on a long-scheduled cruise
vacation with her mother. Instead, on March 26, with only five days left to
live, Manda had her first appointment at Porter-Starke Services but an
insurance snafu delayed her entry into its treatment program and she never
did begin rehab.
In the last week of her life Manda for the most part stayed close to home.
She baked her father a cake, they ordered pizza, they went to a movie. On
the last morning of her life Spitler promised after his daily run to make
Manda her favorite breakfast, pancakes and sausage. But when he returned the
house was empty. Spitler did find a note from his daughter: “Dear Dad—I had
to leave this morning to figure out some things. I need to verify my
feelings and see if they are right. It is the only way I will know for sure.
. . . Please hang in there for one more mile. I promise it will be worth
Later Spitler learned that Manda had gone to Hammond to see Daniel and while
there lifted some heroin from his backpack. Her first words to her father
when she came home: “‘Dad, I don’t ever want to speak to Daniel again.’”
Manda never did. Later, after supper, she complained of cold feet and
announced that she was going to soak in a hot bath. Manda never spoke to her
father again either.
Spitler makes one point clear: his daughter did not die of a heroin
overdose. “Overdose is a bad term,” he said. “It implies that there is such
a thing as a safe dose. There is no safe dose. There is only a lethal dose.
It only matters when you’re going to take it.”
Now, Spitler said, as he walks into a store or down the street, he doesn’t
wonder who around him is doing drugs. He wonders rather who is not, so
“pervasive and insidious” has the problem become. “You can’t suspect that
your children are experimenting,” he urged parents. “You have to assume they
are. That’s pretty harsh but it’s the only way we can save some lives.”
In short, Spitler said, parents must drug-test their children. “There’s no
way we thought our daughter would be a heroin addict. You’re going to hear:
‘You don’t trust me.’ Tell your child: ‘I trust you as far as I think your
judgment is capable of protecting you. But it’s my job as a parent to
protect you beyond that. If you don’t like that, it’s tough.’”
Drug testing kits, he added, are available for $5 from the Porter County
Substance Abuse Council. The kits screen urine for the presence of
marijuana, heroin, morphine, codeine, Vicodin, cocaine, ecstasy, and
over-the-counter medications. Call Sharon Cawood at 462-0946 for more
Spitler had one more piece of advice for parents. Before you trust your
children trust your “uneasy feelings,” and know that your children “will
play you and turn your love for them against you.”
Spitler concluded Manda’s Story with this question: “Who can bring meaning
to Manda’s death?” Once, while he was speaking at Chesterton High School, a
girl in his audience had this answer: “‘Us.’”
“So she got it.”
Notes from a secret life
An excerpt from Manda’s computer journal: “This is,” Spitler said, “Manda
speaking to you.”
I looked in the mirror today but I’m not quite sure who was looking back. It
was a face I did not recognize. Sometimes I’m not sure who I’m supposed to
be, who I want to be, or for that matter who I need to be. I find it so hard
to be just me.
I play different roles for people. I play innocent for my parents, I play
tough for Chris, and I play hardball for the rest of the world. I’ve been
doing this for so long I think possibly I have lost some of my true self.
In my mind I fantasize about going back along the path I’ve tread and
piecing myself together again. Lifting up shrubs and sifting through the
dirt I can see the shining pieces of me lost along the way. But my smile
rapidly fades as they thin and seep through my fingers. I try so hard to
grasp what’s left of what I’ve found but to no avail. Then I realize that
those shining pieces are only luminescent because of my tears. They shroud
my trueness in a facade I cannot break. For the tears harden and encase my
truth beyond what a chisel can carve away.
Can it ever be repaired? I hope so. I battle every day to keep my head above
water. I try so hard to make myself believe that things will be okay. No
matter how gruesome the situations gets, I think positively and remember
that one day I will be living my dreams if only I persevere.
But where is the reward or only the halfway point? How much do I have to
struggle before it is in sight? Am I just fooling myself? Lately I’ve been
thinking that there is no such thing. Because I look in the mirror and see a
face that is tired of fighting. I see a face that just wants to be free, a
face that just wants to be me.