“How could she?” Well, I have a theory

Drunk-driving mom Diane Schuler's tale is tragic, but her behavior is more understandable than we'd like to admit

Topics: Alcoholism, Motherhood, Valentines Day, Bolivia,

"How could she?" Well, I have a theoryThis undated photo provided by the Floral Park Police Department shows Diane and Daniel Schuler with their children Bryan, 5, and Erin, 2. Diane and Erin were among the eight people killed in a fiery crash on Sunday, July 26, 2009, when Diane Schuler plowed into an SUV while driving the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester County.

At first it was a horrifying mystery: Why did 36-year-old Diane Schuler drive her 2003 minivan for almost two miles the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, especially with five small children in the car?

Then it was a dark, heart-wrenching tragedy. Schuler, the toxicology reports showed, was drunk and stoned on July 26 when she plowed into a Chevy Trailblazer, killing herself, her own 2-year-old daughter and her three nieces, as well as the driver and passenger in the Chevy.

Now it’s an old-fashioned witch hunt.

It feels good to condemn someone else, to say, “I would never do that,” to excoriate people for their wrongdoing. Judging others distracts us from our own behavior. It also makes sensational cover copy. Schuler, once a West Babylon, Long Island, wife and mother, has become an ugly headline: “How could she?” screamed the cover of the New York Post.

For those of us who have ever driven a car after having a few beers, and for mothers who have driven in cars with too many small children, the story is more complicated. “She had a choice,” a family member of one of the men in the Chevy told the “Today” show about Diane Schuler. Yes, she did. Yes, she is responsible for what happened. At the same time, it might be more enlightening to try to understand her, rather than simply damning her.

Diane Schuler was a mother of two small children who loaded her own kids and three others into her minivan for a long drive home from a camping trip. Small children, because they are so tied to our hearts, have the ability to drive us crazy with their complaints and carsickness and impatience. (Small kids are special in this regard.) Perhaps to fortify herself for the drive, Schuler reached for vodka and pot, substances she had probably used in the past. It may not seem obvious to someone who has never had a drinking problem, but for a woman whose most reliable support had become alcohol, it could make a kind of sad, twisted sense.

Schuler’s husband — who was once arrested for driving while intoxicated himself — has publicly said that she didn’t have a drinking problem, but Diane Schuler lived in a culture where drinking and driving was far too commonplace. Especially for women, alcohol has tremendous appeal as a way to calm our fears and blunt our miseries; it is private, portable, available and often very effective. Did Diane Schuler know she had a drinking problem? We can’t know. But one of the ugly aspects of addiction is that the addict’s brain insists there is no problem. Alcoholism is a disease that tells us we do not have a disease.

For years I lived in a drinking family in a drinking world — a world that might have been a lot like Diane Schuler’s world. Booze was my solution. If I was depressed, I drank; if I was celebrating, I drank. I drank whiskey for headaches and beer for hangovers and wine if I was feeling intellectual. Because most people I knew drank more than I did, my drinking was almost invisible. No one thought I had a problem. When my husband and I drove, I was the designated driver, because I drank beer while he mixed vodka martinis in the passenger seat. This seemed like responsible behavior.

Fortunately I live in New York City, so I wasn’t driving much in the years when I, too, might have taken that wrong turn onto the Taconic. Fortunately I never had five children in my car. Fortunately, and this was sheer blessing, the day came when I realized that my drinking was a problem, not a solution, and that I needed to get help. As a sober alcoholic, though, I am often uncomfortable in a drinking world: a world where the president invites feuding parties to the White House for a beer, where liquor ads entice me wherever I turn, where “what will you have to drink?” is the hallmark of hospitality. Often people will express wonderment that I don’t drink, as if drinking were a necessary activity, like breathing or eating.

It’s tragic that Diane Schuler thought it was safe to drink and drive. But I have often heard people excuse driving when they have had a few drinks by saying “they can handle it.” We may rail against drinking and driving after a dreadful accident like the one on the Taconic, but it’s a common practice. We live in a culture dependent on cars; every small town has a bar or two that is not usually reached on foot or convenient public transport. Every day 36 people are killed and 700 injured because of drunk driving, according to the CDC. The damage caused by these drunk drivers is about $51 billion a year. And the consequences for drunk drivers are rarely commensurate with the risks they pose: According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, only one person is arrested for every 772 who drink within two hours of driving; only 17 percent of impaired people injured in crashes are charged and convicted of crimes.

So if we’re going to judge something, why not judge alcoholism — instead of pointing the finger at one sad criminal alcoholic. Let’s mourn for the innocents who died on July 26, and let’s redouble our energy toward saving some of the 36 innocents who will be killed by drunk driving today and every other day. I believe that alcoholism is a force of evil in our world. It kills the alcoholic in uniquely ugly ways, but it also kills, maims and damages millions of innocent families and children. Driving drunk with a child in the car is child abuse, and too many children are subjected to it as a normal part of their lives. If there is a devil, he must be chortling at the way we outlaw smoking and revile obesity all the while having a glass of wine to take the edge off before we pick up the kids at camp.

Susan Cheever is working on her 14th book, a biography pf Louisa May Alcott. She is a prize-winning journalist and teacher who hasn't had a drink in 17 years.

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