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Back from the Brink: One Teen's Struggle with Alcoholism

It started with a glass of wine when Leigh Ann Nolan was 12. Then came the fall -- failing grades, lying, despair, and rage that tore her family apart. Four years later an all-out intervention -- and her family's love and faith -- helped save her.

By Paula Chin

A Full-Blown Alcoholic at 15

It was September 2005, the night of the varsity volleyball match against archrival The Bolles School, and the hundreds of teens heading into the gym at Bishop Kenney High in Jacksonville, Florida, were stoked. So was 15-year-old Leigh Ann Nolan, who'd spent the day drinking rum. "My big sister, Jennifer, had driven me and a friend of hers to the game, but they had no idea I was wasted," she says. "Other than stumbling through the door, I don't remember a thing." That's because Leigh Ann had downed three 12-ounce water bottles filled with Bacardi 151, a liquor so potent -- 75.5% alcohol -- it's actually as flammable as lighter fluid. Jennifer, however, has total recall of what happened next. She watched as Leigh Ann somehow made her way to the top of the bleachers on the other side of the court. "She called out to me," Jennifer says. "She was giggling, but she looked ill. Suddenly, here comes my sister rolling down the steps onto the gym floor, throwing up all over herself."

Friends ran over and carried Leigh Ann to the bathroom. When police arrived, they found her lying on the floor, babbling incoherently, and were unable to rouse her. By the time she arrived by ambulance at nearby Wolfson Children's Hospital, her breathing was shallow and irregular, her heart rate had slowed, and she was in danger of choking on her own vomit. "The ER physician explained that they didn't normally admit teenagers for being drunk, but Leigh Ann was suffering from acute alcohol poisoning and at risk of dying," says her mother, Susan, who had rushed to hospital with her husband, David. The Nolans spent the next 24 hours in an anxious vigil as Leigh Ann was administered IV fluids and vitamins in order to flush the alcohol from her 5'10", 150-pound frame. When she regained consciousness the next day, doctors told her she was lucky to be alive.

But Leigh Ann was beyond the point of being scared sober. She was in the grips of a full-blown addiction that had begun three years earlier with her first sip of wine; within months she'd graduated to the hard stuff and was soon nursing vodka in class and stashing liquor bottles in her school locker. Susan, 52, a sales executive, and David, 57, a human resources manager, knew their daughter was in trouble -- but not how deep -- and having tried everything from tough love to therapy, felt helpless to save her. This time they had Leigh Ann undergo three weeks of intensive treatment for chemical dependency at Ten Broeck Hospital in Jacksonville and attend AA meetings nearly every other day. That, too, failed. "I got sober for all of one week," Leigh Ann says. "Quitting wasn't a matter of wanting to. I was hooked -- on the high and the adrenaline rush of sneaking around and fooling people. Drinking numbed the pain from all hassles of life, but it wasn't like my problems disappeared. I knew if I stopped I would feel it really bad all over again."

The Beginning of an Alcohol Addiction

It's an early fall evening, and Leigh Ann, 18, sits on the bed in her Jacksonville apartment -- a few miles from the red-brick ranch house where she grew up -- sifting through her memories. "We had a pretty great family," she says, recalling how she loved to play sports with her dad and tease Jennifer, two years older, by stealing her Barbie and Ken dolls. Leigh Ann was still the tomboy when she enrolled at Hendricks Methodist Day School, where she was captain of the basketball team and a star soccer player, but a C student. Near the end of seventh grade, she was home alone one night when she came across an open bottle of white wine in the kitchen and, on a whim, poured herself a glass. "It tasted good, and I liked the feeling -- all warm and relaxed," she says. "I didn't understand alcohol other than it being something my parents drank every now and then. And not just them -- everybody. All the TV shows we watched had people drinking, from Friends to Will & Grace. I figured it was part of life, and I wanted to check it out."

Of course the reason wasn't that simple. Leigh Ann had been a sunny, sociable kid throughout elementary school. But when puberty hit, she no longer felt comfortable in her skin. Her moods darkened, she turned inward, and fault lines opened up within the family. "My mom and I both have strong personalities, and we couldn't find common ground -- not even the sky being blue," she says. "We should've been able to have cool conversations, but I was never the kind who could talk about clothes or hair or gossip magazines. My sister was popular and accomplished -- everything I wasn't -- and as we got older our relationship got worse. I still liked my dad, but we grew apart too." Leigh Ann also found the social life at Hendricks way harsh. "I hung out with the guys a lot because they kind of thought of me as one of them. But the girls were jealous of that and shut me out. I guess I felt really lonely."

Leigh Ann took to secretly drinking in her room whenever her parents were out or too busy to notice. "I'd steal bottles from the wine cases my mom stored in the garage for this gift-basket business she had, then dump them in the recycling bin when nobody was around," she says. By eighth grade, the 13-year-old was hanging with older kids in the neighborhood, chugging beer and rum and bringing home the bottles they didn't finish. Soon she was desperate to get wasted as quickly as possible. "I went into my parents' liquor cabinet, where the vodka was," she recalls. "I hated the stuff at first -- it was really gross the way it burned my throat, and I almost started crying. But I wanted that feeling of freedom, of being uninhibited, of not having to worry."

Susan and David watched with alarm as their daughter grew sullen and disengaged. Leigh Ann lost interest in soccer and basketball, her grades slumped, and she fell into a depression so severe that they sent her for her first stay at Ten Broeck. But Leigh Ann kept her distance -- and her torment -- to herself. "I never let on, but deep down I was ashamed I hadn't done anything to make my mom and dad proud," she says. "Jennifer was good and never got in trouble, and I felt they liked her better. I wanted us to do more things as a family, but when we did go on vacation, I'd ditch them at night and go drinking with kids I'd never see again." Her parents, who had never seen her drink, didn't suspect alcohol abuse, nor had they discussed the dangers of drinking with Leigh Ann or Jennifer. David might have a beer once a week and Susan a glass of wine when friends came over for dinner, and they assumed that being good role models for their girls would be enough. "Looking back, it's clear we were oblivious to the warning signs," says David. "We thought she was just going through the usual problems of being a teenager."

Spiraling Out of Control

In the summer of 2003 the Nolans were shocked to find a stash of empty liquor bottles in Leigh Ann's bedroom. They immediately sent her back to Ten Broeck, this time for several weeks as an inpatient. "There were kids there for booze, heavy-duty drugs, suicide attempts," recalls Leigh Ann. "We were all very good manipulators, nodding our heads when the counselors lectured us and saying we were sorry and all the other things they wanted to hear. But I had no intention of quitting and started planning how not to get caught from my first day in the hospital."

By the time Leigh Ann started Bishop Kenney High School that fall, she had her scam down pat. "I'd hang around outside the Publix supermarket, where there'd always be some old guy asking for money," she says. "I'd give him 20 bucks to go to the liquor store two blocks away and buy me a bottle, and tell him to keep the change." When her savings from babysitting ran out, she plucked bills from her parents' wallets. "They'd ask me where the money went, and I'd tell them I had no idea," she says. Vodka became her drink of choice. "I had to have it before leaving the house, then I'd fill up a water bottle with it and bring it to school every day. I sipped slowly so I was always buzzed but never totally wasted. My teachers never caught on." She chewed gobs of gum and brushed her teeth between classes. As for the telltale bottles, she hid them in the yard until Monday mornings, when she'd toss them in the garbage before pickup that afternoon.

As the year wore on, Leigh Ann was struggling to make D's at Bishop Kenney. "One night she told me, 'If this is all life is, it's not worth living,'" Susan recalls. "I was terrified." But she and David were also in denial, telling themselves that their daughter was no longer drinking. "We were so clueless, thinking she was drinking more water," says Susan. They sent her to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed her with Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed Ritalin and Prozac. And as Leigh Ann kept spiraling out of control, all her parents could see was defiance. They cracked down harder. "There wasn't a day we didn't fight -- about homework, clothes, cleaning up my room," Leigh Ann says. "I'd get grounded and yell back at them. But inside I was hurting. I had no self-esteem. I'd cut myself off from everybody. I knew I was trash -- and I didn't care."

Nearly drinking herself to death the day of the volleyball game did nothing to change that. Nor did AA meetings and another round of treatment at Ten Broeck. Expelled from Bishop Kenney, Leigh Ann transferred to Englewood High in October 2005 and went right back to the bottle. At home, the family retreated into a bitter silence. Her sister, furious about that terrible night in the gym, stopped speaking to Leigh Ann altogether. "Then and there, my name went from Jennifer Nolan to the girl whose little sister was an alcoholic," she explains. In their confusion and despair, Susan and David also withdrew. "The only time we talked was when we fought," says Leigh Ann.

Getting Help

As her behavior became more brazen -- breaking curfews, turning off her cell phone and ignoring her parents' calls, stealing their credit cards to buy an iPod, a paintball gun, and more -- the battles escalated. "One night in November -- I was actually sober for this one -- I came home and they started yelling at me," she says. "I was starving, so I went to the kitchen to get a bowl of tomato soup. My mom followed me and tried to yank it away, and it spilled everywhere. My dad ran in, screaming and cursing. He pushed me, I pushed him. Then he slapped me, and I struck back." Leigh Ann ran to a neighbor's house and, wanting to punish her father, called the police. When officers knocked on the door, she was arrested for battery and spent seven nights in a cell at the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

Throughout 11th grade, Leigh Ann continued to founder. But in June, when she got an F in world history, something inside her shifted. "Everyone else was moving on but me," she says. "They'd graduate, but I wouldn't be with them. It was a total shock, and I suddenly realized that drinking wasn't as cool as I thought." She tried to scale back by not drinking alone or on school days, only to relapse again and again. For the first time, Leigh Ann opened up to her parents and pleaded to be sent away. It was the tipping point toward sobriety. Since Ten Broeck had not been able to help her, in August 2006 Susan and David took Leigh Ann to Greenwood Associates in Tampa, which assesses and matches at-risk teens with treatment programs and special-needs schools. There, clinician and educational counselor Bernie Zimmerman recommended the Second Nature wilderness program at Cascades, outside Bend, Oregon. "It was clear she needed powerful intervention," he says. "A lot of kids find sitting in a therapist's office punitive. But being outdoors, rising and sleeping with the sun, disarms them and allows them to be vulnerable. That's when they can reflect -- and change."

Leigh Ann boarded a plane the next week. "I still get emotional thinking about it," says David, choking back tears. "I felt like a failure as a father, and now I had to turn my child over to strangers 3,000 miles from home and have faith that they would make a difference." Out in the high desert, Leigh Ann and half a dozen other girls hiked in 100-degree heat, dug latrines, built campfires, cooked meals, and bedded down in the open air. "At first I'd get cravings so bad I'd shake all night, but I didn't tell anyone," she says. Not that the counselors didn't know. They let the teens detox for a week or so, then the real work began -- one-on-one therapy, group sessions, journal writing. "It was a relief to talk to other kids about the fighting, lying, and stealing, which I'd never been able to do before," says Leigh Ann.

Still, she was a hard case -- defensive, hostile, resistant to introspection -- and her scheduled six-week stay was extended to four months. But Leigh Ann finally had her breakthrough. "It was at this meeting when a leader called me out for being an attention hog," she recalls. "I got upset, so she made me sit under a tree for hours while everyone did chores, fixed dinner, and hung out together. I was really pissed, and then it clicked. I was drinking for the attention. My sister was getting it all. I couldn't compete, so negative attention was better than none. When I told the group, nobody made a big deal, but that was okay. I didn't need the attention anymore."

Moving Forward

Despite her progress, the counselors at Second Nature believed Leigh Ann was still at risk for relapsing. Following Zimmerman's advice, the Nolans sent her straight to Bromley Brook, a private boarding school in Manchester Center, Vermont, where she could take 12th-grade classes while continuing to receive intensive counseling. Having depleted the girls' $40,000 college fund for Second Nature, the couple had to take out a $100,000 second mortgage on their home. Sure enough, Leigh Ann started ditching classes and acting up again. "I broke the rules because I thought I was too good for them," she says. And she hadn't taken the crucial step of assuming responsibility for her drinking and the damage done to herself and her loved ones. "[Nolan was] initially angry and resentful against her mother," reads her transition report, which also noted her inability to "get her needs met without lying and manipulation" or to "tolerate difficult emotions without acting out." One year and hundreds of therapy sessions later, Leigh Ann "successfully identified her substance-abuse patterns" and learned how to "communicate effectively and establish boundaries...[and] show greater self-restraint." She was finally ready to come home.

Susan and David had also passed the test. They worked closely with Leigh Ann's counselors, participating in weekly conference calls with Second Nature. They attended parenting workshops and family counseling at Bromley in order to understand the ways they contributed to their daughter's illness and to change their family dynamic for good. The couple learned when to back off, how to negotiate instead of dictate and, above all, how to listen to Leigh Ann, even when her words were painful to hear. "They deserve credit for being active partners and helping her become more resilient," says Zimmerman. "Adversity happens. Kids will stumble, but the goal is for them to get back up without turning to substance abuse."

Susan only wishes they had done it sooner. "We made so many mistakes -- assuming her drinking was a phase, trying to police her behavior, thinking that therapy with time-outs, smiley faces, and behavior charts would fix things," she says. "It was an emotional roller coaster, but we finally found something that helps all of us for the long-term. Life is going to throw anything and everything at Leigh Ann, and she has to learn to make the right choices."

Since returning to Jacksonville in January, Leigh Ann has been doing just that. "I stick to people I know are good for me and stay away from strangers and situations I get bad vibes about," she says. But her intuition isn't infallible. On a six-week hiking trip along the Appalachian Trail last summer, Leigh Ann discovered that a friend of hers from Bromley was carrying drugs and alcohol and came right back home. "I worry all the time that this will be a lifelong struggle for her," says David. "We were vacationing in Daytona not long ago, and she asked to stay over with a friend on Saturday night. She is by her own definition a master manipulator, and it's always in the back of your mind that she'll start drinking again. But she's 18 -- you have to let go of the string and turn her loose."

With her life back on track, Leigh Ann is starting to lay the cornerstones of adulthood. She's apprenticing as an electrician's assistant, hoping to save enough money to attend the National Outdoor Leader School in Australia and become a wilderness instructor. Last summer she moved in with her boyfriend, a 21-year-old electrician. "This is the first relationship where I've really let someone get to know me," she says. Having pushed people away for so long, she's yearning to connect, especially with her family. Not all wounds have been healed, but the Nolans are closer than ever. And Leigh Ann is happy, healthy and sober. "I totally know myself now and accept my faults, which is the only way I could have stopped drinking," she says. "I'm one of the lucky ones."

The Prevalence of Alcohol Abuse in the Media

Think of the hours your kids spend watching TV and movies. Then factor in all the boozing going on, whether it's the hammered teens in Gossip Girl or Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist. You get the big picture: There's more alcohol being consumed onscreen than ever -- and it's driving kids to drink. One study found that 95 percent of R-rated, 93 percent of PG-13, and 89 percent of PG films show people downing beer, wine, or liquor; even worse, drinking is depicted as cool and consequence-free. Alcohol is the most common beverage on TV, according to Stanford University researchers, who concluded that for every one-hour increase in daily viewing, there's a 9 percent greater risk an adolescent will start drinking. And kids now see some 300 TV ads for alcoholic beverages every year, a 40 percent jump from 2001.

Parents should start countering the media messages early on. Nurturing your kids' self-esteem, providing supportive family relationships, and being a positive role model will help them make smart choices for life. Discuss the dangers of drinking and prep them for the real world by offering concrete advice on how to handle peer pressure and social situations involving alcohol. (Have them check out TheCoolSpot.gov, a great interactive site for teens.) Make your expectations clear, and be consistent and fair when it comes to discipline for breaking the rules. Learn to recognize the symptoms of abuse. For more information, see the "Make a Difference" parents' booklet at niaaa.nih.gov.

Statistics on Teen Alcohol Abuse -- and What Parents Can Do to Help

If Your Child Needs Help

The best way to combat alcoholism is to join a support or self-help group while receiving advice and guidance from a health professional. Treatment should also involve family members, since recovery can't take place in isolation. Below, some helpful organizations:

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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