Mommy's Little Secret: The Truth About Diane Schuler
Part of the problem is that compared to men, women are delicate creatures. Because of our smaller size, we are at greater risk than men for alcohol-related problems. We have less body water to dilute alcohol as it passes through our digestive track. We have less dehydrogenase, a liver enzyme responsible for metabolizing alcohol, so our bodies are exposed to more alcohol (and its toxic byproducts) and for a longer time than men.
Women who drink more than the government guidelines for “moderate drinking”—one a day—are at sharply increased risk for many cancers, for diseases of the heart, brain and liver (cirrhosis and hepatitis) and for miscarriages. More than half of all domestic violence incidents involve alcohol as well as half of reported rapes and many more assaults. The 30% of women who drink during pregnancy may cause Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in their children, the leading cause of intellectual disability in the West with a lifetime cost as high as $800,000 per child. And of course a child with an alcoholic parent is far more likely to become an adult alcoholic and have other psychological problems.
Alcohol is more deadly for women than for men, but women often hesitate to seek treatment. “We have a double standard for women,” Marty Mann, the first woman in Alcoholics Anonymous, wrote in 1970 in an analysis that is still very true. “In some areas behavior that is permissible for men is absolutely unacceptable for women…. This means that when a woman feels uncertain about her drinking…she goes underground.”
Some 5.3% of American women drink in a way that threatens their health, but it is still hard to wrap our minds around the fact that the frazzled mother of three, or the sexy, stalled mistress of a married man, or the business exec who can’t seem to live on her salary, might actually all have the same problem—alcoholism.
Another reason alcoholism in women often goes unnoticed is that we tend to spread our addiction among several different substances at once. To be slightly addicted to a lot of things is far more acceptable than to be enslaved by addiction to one thing. An alcoholic woman can “pass” as someone who (1) occasionally gets drunk and (2) is always struggling with her love of sweets and a bit of extra weight and (3) can’t quite live within her budget or balance her checkbook and (4) sometimes sleeps with the wrong man, and no one—not even the woman herself—spots this as classic addiction strategy.
Such a woman would likely recoil from the label of alcoholic (she only drinks too much every now and then) or food addict (it’s just 10 pounds) or a money or sex addict. But addicts are known to frequently switch from one substance to another—one recent study found that a significant number of post-bariatric patients who could no longer act out with food acquired new addictions like gambling, smoking or alcoholism. Alcoholism in women often goes unnoticed because we tend to spread our addiction among several different substances at once. To be slightly addicted to a lot of things is far more acceptable than to be enslaved by addiction to one thing.
This was my method for hiding addiction, and it may also have been Diane Schuler’s. She struggled with overeating. She smoked pot at night to “get a good night’s sleep,” according to her sister-in-law. And she clearly understood and depended on the benefits of alcohol. Like Schuler, I succeeded so well that I hid my addictions for years from almost everyone, including myself. I had no idea that the problems in my life—the failed marriages, the financial struggle, the late-night eating, the idiopathic fainting spells, the occasional embarrassment after too much wine, the fender benders—had anything to do with alcoholism. I did well at work. I was a good mother.
Alcoholism may have been a problem formy father and my third husband. It certainly was no problem for me. My father had several heart attacks and suffered from delirium tremens so bad he sometimes couldn't hold a glass in his hands, my husband often passed out at the dinner table. They both drank huge pools of gin. If they were examples of alcoholism, how could I possibly be one as well? For women asking themselves this question today, the tragic story of Diane Schuler—who was clearly a good mother and a good worker and an awful alcoholic—provides an acute, dreadful incentive to look in the mirror.
Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.