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

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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."