Diane Schuler: Secret Alcoholic?

Alcoholism: I know it all -- the secret stashes, the coffee cup that no one questions, the pride when men would say, "Wow, you can drink me under the table." The only solution is abstinence.
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Diane Schuler had a few tokes and who knows how much booze on the last day of her life. She then drove the wrong way on a state highway, crashed headfirst into an SUV, and killed the three men in that vehicle, along with her three young nieces, her 2-year-old daughter, and herself. Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. A broken bottle of Absolut vodka was found under the passenger seat in the wreckage of her car.

Was she an alcoholic? Very likely. You have to have a history of drinking to walk around, let alone drive, with that kind of blood alcohol level. In any case, she is now part of a growing statistic: drunk driving is rising among women while falling among men. The FBI says that, nationally, the number of women arrested for DUI was 28.8% higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while it was 7.5% lower for men.

And women are the ones most often driving with kids in the car. As a spokesperson for MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) said: "It's the ultimate form of child abuse." And that drunk driver could be anyone. In a Chicago suburb, the daughter of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was sentenced to 18 months of court supervision after being pulled over by police for driving drunk; she had three kids in the car.

Alcohol. The great social lubricant. The two-martini client lunch, pina coladas at the family barbeque, the celebratory champagne toast, the college kegger, the cocktail party.

Alcoholism. Choosing friends because they drink. Sneaking another glass of wine when no one's looking. Finding excuses to drink. Drinking alone. Spiking coffee with vodka. Hiding bottles under the laundry. Waking up hung over.

I know it all -- the secret stashes, the coffee cup that no one questions, the quick pick-me-up(s) during the work day, the clients who would join me in a "little something" during a meeting, the pride when men would say, "Wow, you can drink me under the table."

Why can some people enjoy a daily glass of wine and never crave more than that, while others drink a bottle of wine a day and swear they're not alcoholics?

My folks didn't drink because my father had been an alcoholic who stopped drinking when I was four years old.

I started drinking when I was 15, when my roommate from boarding school invited me to spend a week in Las Vegas with her. Her mother's boyfriend took us out to dinner in a casino and ordered spiked Shirley Temples for us. In the bathroom, I looked in the mirror and asked the girl I saw there, "Who are you?" I liked her personality so much better than mine! If only I knew then who I was to become. Research shows that how people respond to their first drink indicates if they will be light drinkers or tend to abuse alcohol.

Then the boyfriend, a man in his 50s, said he wanted to buy me a present. He took me down the hall to the hotel jewelry store and asked me to pick out anything I wanted, grabbed me, gave me a deeply penetrating French kiss (shocking to a girl who'd barely been kissed before), and put his hand up my skirt. Alcohol and sex were immediately joined at the hip.

Back at home, I found out that my older brother and his friends would supply me with alcohol, so getting smashed occasionally was easy. I didn't really lose control of my drinking until I was a young attorney, sitting at lunch with co-counsel during a particularly stressful trial. He said, "You're a wreck, have a drink." Well, it worked like a charm! I told my therapist, "I've found the secret to life -- booze!"

Alcohol made everything so much fun, at least for a while. Like the time after skiing in Tahoe, enjoying half a bottle of schnapps while soaking in the hot tub (it was 10 degrees outside), then getting in my car and driving home -- buck naked.

The descent happened fast. Women have a lower body mass, so alcohol hits us harder and more quickly. Soon I wanted to drink at lunch as well as at night. Then I was pulled over by the police a number of times, and they wound up driving me home. Mostly, it was finding out the next day that I had done things the previous night that were really embarrassing -- blackouts weren't fun. Then there was the morning I called a client to review his settlement offer, and he said, "You did that last night." I was shocked that I had had an entire conversation with a client and didn't remember it.

Finally, my husband, from whom I was separated at the time (who had time to have a relationship AND drink?) said, "Do you think you could be an alcoholic?"

An alcoholic! I called AA at 11 o'clock that night, talked to a woman on the phone for an hour, spent two hours emptying every bottle in the house, even the cooking sherry, and went to my first AA meeting the next morning.

I've been clean and sober for over 25 years now, but I'm still an alcoholic. The siren song of addiction doesn't go away. On a grueling book tour over the last year, my normal, well-controlled lifestyle went out the window. After a few months on the road, I started to unravel. Despite the fact that I hadn't had any sugar to speak of since I quit drinking -- knowing, as I do, the connection between hypoglycemia and alcoholism -- I decided a little chocolate would help with my exhaustion.

At first it wasn't a problem. I'd just have a chocolate bar when I was at an airport, overlooking the fact that I was at airports every day. It's like the alcoholic who says, "I'm only going to drink wine, or drink only on weekends." Soon I found myself buying "one for now, one for the flight." Then I started hiding chocolate in the bathroom, and sneaking it in the middle of the night so my husband wouldn't know.

I was aware of what I was doing, knew all the signs, but hey, I deserved a little sweetness!

When I got home, I needed a new rationale. Okay, whenever I have lunch out, I can have a dessert. So I started finding excuses to go out for lunch. When I finally realized I had to stop, I binged at the Cheesecake Factory with a huge chocolate obscenity. I was sick for a week, and the sugar rush was over.

Addiction hadn't gone anywhere. Put enough stress on someone, and a dormant addiction will come back. It's only when you continue to abstain that you have no cravings.

It doesn't surprise me that Diane Schuler's husband claims he never saw her drunk. After all, he's the guy with a past DUI arrest of his own, a man who admits his wife smoked a few joints, so chances are he's not the best person to evaluate another's substance abuse. Plus, he has a desire to cover up whatever his wife's failings may have been in order to save his family's reputation (by the way, he needs to lose his attorney if he really wants to have any reputation).

If in fact she was an alcoholic -- and the bottle of vodka (an alcoholic's favorite drink as it's not detectable on the breath) speaks volumes -- it is quite possible he had no idea how much or how often she was drinking or using.

It's easy enough to keep the amount you drink a secret. Woman are good at hiding their drinking. It's still not acceptable for a woman to appear tipsy, never mind flat out drunk. You have a drink at the office before going home to have your pre-dinner cocktail with your husband, and no one keeps track of how much wine you drink at dinner. You keep several bottles strategically hidden around the house. You keep a bottle in the car.

We're also real good at denying we have a drinking problem, even to ourselves. And our significant others can be our best enablers, sipping and slipping right into denial with us. Then comes scapegoating others, passing the buck by spreading the blame elsewhere. Addiction is shameful; the addict is a master of appearing "normal." After all, if someone suspects you're an alcoholic, they may try to get you to stop.

Women today are more stressed than ever. They are in the work force (as a single parent or sole breadwinner, or as a necessary second salary), yet still are responsible for the majority of what happens at home -- the kids, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry. They have more purchasing power, and are freer to engage in behaviors that were previously off-limits to their gender. Who wouldn't want a little nip now and again?

It really doesn't matter how many responsibilities we have, if there's a genetic factor involved, or if there's an underlying emotional issue, once you've crossed the line and the substance has become addictive, you can't unring that bell, you can't get that horse back in the barn. Ever. The only solution is abstinence. You're not a bad person, you don't simply have a bad habit, you're not weak willed, but you are powerless in the grips of an addiction to alcohol. You can change your life around. I did... one day at a time.

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