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

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.