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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.
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."