Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Silence = Death - The Diane Schuler Tragedy

I read a news report a couple of days ago about a 36 year old woman who crashed her car, which was carrying her two children ages 2 and 5, and her three nieces, ages 8, 7 and 5, into an SUV carrying three men. She was traveling at high speed, going the wrong way down the Taconic State Parkway for 2 miles before the collision. A little before the crash, she called her brother, the father of her nieces, to say she "wasn't feeling well" and sounded disoriented. He told her to pull over to the side of the road - he was coming to help. She disregarded his advice, and half an hour later she crashed, killing her 2 year old, her three nieces, the three men in the SUV, and herself. Her 5 year old son survived.

As I'm reading this, I'm thinking: she was drunk, or high - more victims to this horrible disease of addiction.

Initial reports did not mention that alcohol or narcotics were involved, only that investigators were looking further into the details of the crash, suspecting an aneurysm, stroke or heart attack were likely causes. Family and neighbors were interviewed, describing Diane as a 'wonderful mother', and 'active, engaged and loving with her children'. When the crash occurred, she was returning from camping - an activity they did often as a family - at a campground they frequented often during the summer. Her husband, who had left earlier to return home, said that when he left everything seemed "fine."

Unfortunately, I was not surprised to read the following report today (from newsday.com) :

"Diane Schuler was drunk and had consumed marijuana not long before driving a minivan with five children the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway, authorities said Tuesday, a stunning revelation that helps explain the collision that killed her and seven others.
Citing blood work results, authorities said the West Babylon mother had a blood-alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 and the equivalent of about 10 drinks. She had enough [marijuana] in her blood stream to indicate that she ingested it 15 minutes to an hour before the July 26 accident, authorities said."

And then, this:

"Tuesday's news outraged the [family of the men traveling in the SUV] and shocked many who knew Schuler...Most importantly, Carey said, they do not know why Schuler - a Cablevision manager whom neighbors, friends and family described as a trustworthy, caring mother - would drive drunk and high with children. State police said they informed Schuler's husband, Daniel, and [Diane's brother and father to her nieces] of the results Tuesday morning and they seemed very surprised......In West Babylon, where Schuler lived, not everyone believed the police explanation. 'I've never seen her drink; I've never seen her smoke,' said neighbor Julie Shaughnessy. 'I don't believe that. There has to be another explanation'...... Friends struggled with the news. 'We're all in disbelief, all of us,' said Sharon Gregor, 51, of Massapequa, who camped many weekends with Schuler."

I want to be very clear that I do not condone or excuse Diane Schuler's behavior. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own poor decisions, our own actions - I believe this to be true with all my heart.

I also want to be clear that I don't know her, don't have most of the details, don't know her history, and can't possibly know what happened that day. But I do know this: she was struggling with addiction. A grown woman, mother of two and aunt to three, doesn't end up drunk and high at one in the afternoon if she isn't struggling with addiction. She didn't spontaneously wake up that day and decide to get drunk and high for the first time. Her disease caught up to her, and, heartbreakingly, those who loved her.

To me, her story is a tragic and poignant example both of the power that addiction has on the addict, and on the people in their lives. This is especially, and tragically, true with mothers. The stigma of being an alcoholic or addicted mother - not parent - but mother, runs very deep. Fathers who admit to addiction face different hurdles than mothers do. Society is quicker to explain away why a man, a father, may turn to alcohol or drugs: his job is stressful, they had money problems, they were in danger of losing their house, it all just got to be too much. People are also quicker to suspect a problem with alcohol, or drugs, when it comes to men.

This does not mean an alcoholic father, or the people who love him, suffers any less. Just differently. Mothers who end up addicted very, very often do so alone and in silence. Most don't sit in bar rooms, complaining to anyone planted on the stool next to them that life is too much. They struggle valiantly to maintain, to appear normal, so that the world can't find out. They are very reluctant to ask for help, because of the fear of being branded a bad mother. Like any other alcoholic or addict, an addicted mother is a sick mother. A mother who needs help.

It doesn't surprise me that neighbors, friends and even family express outrage and surprise. Who knows to what degree they had their own quiet suspicions. But when it comes to women, mothers, who seem to have it all together - maybe some fraying around the edges, some odd episodes - the last thing they suspect is alcoholism or addiction. It just doesn't fit. It is too horrible to think about. So any suspicions are cast aside, odd behavior ignored. Addiction is a disease that thrives on silence and isolation, and in quiet suburbs everywhere there are women behind the whitewashed fences and window boxes who are suffering and addicted.

There is a powerful lesson here. If you think someone is behaving oddly, if you think something is wrong - trust your instincts. Better to be embarrassed and wrong than to have something tragic like this occur. If you suspect someone is struggling with addiction, it is okay to say so. To tell them they need help, and they will have your support if they get it. Because I am in recovery I hear the same story over and over again. "Nobody knew. I couldn't believe nobody knew, but I worked really hard at hiding it. It was my darkest secret. I couldn't stop myself, and I didn't know why. I had to be stopped, be told to get help." Sadly, it usually takes a tragic event, or close call, to bring an addict's struggles to the light of day.

I often see women I think may be struggling - and it isn't because they got all wobbly at the last evening out for drinks. It is often the quiet ones who seem to get sick a lot, who don't return calls for a while, who sort of slip off the radar. Or the woman at the party who seems more intoxicated than everyone else, even though she has only had a glass of wine or two - she started before the party, so she could do her 'normal drinking' in public. Someone who complains of other, more accepted problems - she is just "tired", or "ate something bad" - and this happens more than once. She cancels or reschedules morning playdates. She stops inviting people over. She calls at odd times and pours out her problems, and then seems sheepish or remorseful the next time I see her. All too often things look okay on the outside, but are falling to pieces on the inside.

Diane Schuler, 36, Erin Schuler, 2, Emma Hance, 8, Alyson Hance, 7, Kate Hance, 5, Guy Bastardi, 49, Michael Bastardi, 81, Daniel Longo, 74 - may you rest in peace. May this horrific tragedy help someone speak up about their own troubles, or inspire someone to put out their hand to help.


  1. What a sad story. I live in Alaska and there is a lot of addiction here. When we lived in a small community in the Bush it was common for people to just not show up for work for several days. Everyone knew they had been partying.

  2. That story is too horrible to comprehend. I believe you are right about the double standard for women/men.

  3. Ellie, I know you've heard this before but....your posts are very powerful. I see my neighbor in this post. She does not have children but thinks she is hiding her addiction from everyone. Her family is struggling. I have not said anything to her yet but....I am going to. Your post has given me the courage to speak up.

  4. cnewsome - thank you for sharing this - and good for you in reaching out to your neighbor. We don't have control over how these things turn out, but it is always better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. Good luck.


  5. That story is too horrible to comprehend. I believe you are right about the double standard for women/men.