The Secret Alcohol Epidemic Among America's Women | The Fix
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Diane Schuler and the
Female DUI Epidemic

What the ongoing obsession with Diane Schuler's bizarre and tragic death trip reveals about the soaring spike in drunk driving by American women.

Image: 

Diane and Daniel Schuler with son Bryan and daughter Erin.
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Diane Schuler may have felt isolated in the last minutes of her life as she sped the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway with four children and a half-empty vodka bottle in a minivan in July 2009, but as a woman driving drunk she was far from alone.

Arrests for drunk driving among women have increased 36% in the past 10 years, even as those for men have plummeted, according to FBI statistics quoted in a study released last month. Inspired by Schuler’s tragic 2009 accident in which four children and four adults were killed, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) reviewed 20 years of statistics on female Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) arrests from many sources.

What they found is truly alarming. In 1980, nine percent of drivers arrested for DWI—drinking with a blood alcohol content (BAC) higher than 0.08—were women; by 2007, women comprised more than 20% of all DWIs. Also steadily increasing are both the number of women jailed for drunk driving and the number of women involved in drunk driving fatalities, according to the TIRF study.

What do women arrested for DWI have in common? Most of thhem are experiencing alcohol problems of both “gravity and complexity,” the study says. (The same is true for men who arrested.) In other words, the vast majority of DWI busts are not one-offs—they are caused by a person's serious, often chronic, abuse of alcohol. In theory, one DWI could indicate one mistaken assessment that you were not too intoxicated to get behind the wheel; in practice, people who get arrested for drunk driving are generally drunks.

Many women alcoholics, like their male counterparts, are confident that their drinking is under control even once they're behind the wheel. Like Diane Schuler, who was an attentive PTA mother with a six-figure executive career (“she did everything, she was the boss,” her husband, Daniel Schuler, told New York Magazine), in most circumstances they betray few signs of their disease. In fact, they put considerable energy into maintaining this deception. How can we spot them? The female alcoholic will often drink when others are not drinking—at a ladies lunch, say, or a bridge game—or be unable to resist the urge to order a third glass of wine. Sometimes her eyes may be red or her breath may smell of alcohol or breath mints. Often her plans go awry, whether for the children’s summer camp or a job interview.

She thinks of herself as a "social drinker"—or, in more realistic moments, a "functional alcoholic"—and yet she can be seen weaving all over the road on the way home from the supermarket with the kids carefully strapped into their car seats. She is sometimes identifiable by what recovering alcoholics call the “dark promises,” symptoms of alcoholism that are detailed in Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book: “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people.”

In theory, one DWI could indicate one mistaken assessment that you were not too intoxicated to get behind the wheel; in practice, people who get arrested for drunk driving are drunks.

Alcohol is more dangerous for women than for men. Three or four drinks can have a very different effect on a 120-pound woman than on a 180-pound man. Women develop alcoholism at an older age than men, and they also develop it faster. The average age of first DUI arrest for women is 31, while that for men ranges is 23. Women are not only older when arrested but have higher levels of education than men, although they also have lower-paying jobs (go figure). Many women arrested for drunk driving are single, divorced or separated—or are likely to be living with a partner who is also an abuser of alcohol. They are also far more likely to have a mental health diagnosis, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD. Despite all these demographic differences, however, the rate of recidivism is about the same for men and women.

It is far more shameful for women to admit to being alcoholic than it is men. A drunken man is a “hard drinker”; a drunken woman a “lush.” Indeed, for a significant number of females, being drunk often results in being physically and sexually abused. A man can admit he’s too drunk to drive without raising too many eyebrows—after all, his wife can cover for him—but when a woman makes the same admission, she invites criticism not merely of her lack of control but of her overall performance as a dutiful wife, a responsible mother. As a result, the pressure to keep a problem with alcohol hidden is more intense and insidious for women, making treatment and recovery less of an option.

Because we don’t want to sully our idea of what it means to be a good mother, wife or worker, we use circular logic to avoid the problem. Alcoholics can’t be good mothers; therefore good mothers can’t be alcoholics. It makes perfect sense until an accident like Schuler’s or a study like the TIRF study temporarily shatters our delusions.

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