After The Accident, The Question: Did They Not Know?

August 17, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,

The horrifying death of the Long Island working mom and the four young girls in her van lingers in the troubled hearts of any woman who has ever ended a tough day with the kids or a tough day at the office with a glass of wine - or three or four.

It was a Sunday morning in July, and Diane Schuler loaded her 5-year-old son, her 3-year-old daughter and three nieces, ages 8, 7 and 5, into her minivan and departed the family's lakeside camping spot near the Catskills. Her husband, Daniel, put the family dog in his pick-up truck and left, too. It was about 9:30.

An hour later, she and the kids stopped at a McDonald's for breakfast. By noon, she should have arrived home, but instead her oldest niece was on the phone to her father, telling him that Aunt Diane was having trouble seeing and talking funny.

Warren Hance, Diane's brother, alarmed, called her and told her to stay where she was, he would come get her. But she dumped her cell phone by the side of the road and kept driving.

Her brother called the state police to ask for help. Neither realized Diane Schuler's van was the same one other drivers were calling police about - she was swerving across the middle line, tailgating, honking, alternately driving too fast and too slow.

By 1:30 that Sunday afternoon, Diane and four of her small charges were dead in a fiery head-on collision that killed the three men in the other car. She had driven more than two miles in the wrong direction on the Taconic State Parkway. Only her son survived.

At first, there was shock and grief. Now there is denial and anger.

Diane Schuler was drunk and high that Sunday morning.

Her blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. There was more vodka in her stomach and a broken bottle of Absolut was found in the wreckage. Toxicology also showed that she'd been smoking a significant amount of marijuana during the last hour of her life.

Toxicology tests also showed that she had been smoking marijuana during the last hour of her life.

Her husband Daniel took the microphone to say that he'd never seen her drunk in all the years he had known her. He said she must have suffered some kind of medical crisis. He then withdrew from cooperating with police.

There was no autopsy evidence to support his claim, and few believe he didn't know his wife drank.

He faces possible civil suits from the passengers in the other car, a man, his son and a family friend. There is talk of a child welfare investigation and of criminal charges if it can be shown he knew she was drunk when she drove away from the campground that morning.

Alcohol tragedies always bring out the same bromide: it is a disease, not a moral failing. But the lingering stigma prevents the alcoholic from seeking help, and that stigma is particularly strong for women.

"Women struggle more, feel more guilty and more ashamed," said Dr. Bernadette Solounias, medical director of Father Martin's Ashley of Havre de Grace, which has been treating drug and alcohol addiction for a quarter century. "Men may have the same feelings, but it is stronger for women."

But it is also true that alcoholics can hide the severity of their condition extremely well because they know that if they are found out, those closest to them may demand that they stop.

It is possible Daniel Schuler didn't know; he worked nights and she worked days.

"What we are seeing is that women with children are expected to be super moms. They are working, taking care of their children and they are competing with men in the workplace," said Charlotte Meck, director of nursing at Father Martin's Ashley.

"And they are competing with men in the workplace. These are challenges women didn't face 25 years ago. They are very crafty when it comes to hiding their addiction."

Diane Schuler's story is particularly compelling for every mother out there who has ever worried that she drinks too much, a concern, I'll wager, that doesn't haunt as many fathers.

There is comfort in telling yourself that 10 shots of vodka before noon is a problem - wine after 5 p.m. isn't. Diane Schuler crossed the line. But how, exactly, does a stressed-out working mom know where that line is?

It is also true that the family of the alcoholic has as much at stake in maintaining the appearance of normality as the alcoholic, if for no other reason than they might be forced to share responsibility for how wrong things have gone. Maybe Daniel Schuler didn't want to know.

I don't know what is worse for those who loved this poor woman - the knowledge that they missed something, or the knowledge that they did nothing.

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