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

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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."