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

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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."