Caring Currents

A "Perfect Mom," a Bottle of Vodka, and 8 Dead: Why We Must Learn to Recognize Alcoholism in Women

Last updated: Aug 12, 2009

Smirnoff at Avebury
Image by electricinca used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

I've been very sad this week as I've followed the tragic case of Diane Schuler, who died, along with her 2-year-old daughter, her brother's three young daughters, and three unrelated adults in a fiery crash on a Hudson Valley highway. But I'm not, as everyone else seems to be, mystified. An empty jumbo-size bottle of vodka was found nearby, and her blood alcohol level was double the legal limit. (And there was evidence she was high on pot, too.) Take into account that the accident happened in the early afternoon on a weekday -- not a time most of us are imbibing double shots of vodka or lighting up joints -- and anyone experienced with alcoholism will recognize these as risks that only someone addicted to alcohol would have taken.

What's possibly even sadder than the death of four innocent children and three innocent adults? The motherless 5-year-old boy who alone survived the crash, and the husband and brother still proclaiming they'd never seen Schuler drunk. Those of us familiar with the family dynamics of alcoholism can picture all too well the forces tearing this family apart behind the scenes, as they mourn their tragic losses.

This is the real tragedy, in my mind -- the way we still fail to recognize and confront alcoholism in women.

I should know. I'm the daughter of an alcoholic. And yes, for many years my mother drank vodka. Why did she drink vodka? Because vodka, when poured in a tumbler, looks just like water. And yes, since you asked: My mother drove drunk, regularly, with me and my three younger sisters in the car. How else was she going to get us to school, music lessons, and everywhere else we needed to go?

Alcoholism experts know all this -- they also know that when a woman has graduated to drinking straight vodka, she's a full-blown alcoholic, not a "social drinker" or any of the other euphemisms we like to use. And that, at the stage of alcoholism it's likely Diane Schuler had reached, many alcoholics can "hold" their liquor so well (the official term is "maintenance drinking") that typically those around them may not perceive them as drunk, or even tipsy.

One more thing alcoholism experts know, and the rest of us need to learn: Alcoholism in women is more difficult to spot, more difficult to bring into the open, and more difficult to treat, than alcoholism in men.

The reasons for this can be summed up in two words: shame and guilt. It makes perfect sense if you think about it -- women alcoholics have a lot more to lose from other people finding out. While our society understandably frowns on alcohol abuse, we view men's drinking through a very different lens than the one we turn on a woman who drinks too much. And a woman with young children? We can't even acknowledge the possibility, it's so reprehensible.

Sinking deeper and deeper into a deadly spiral of shame and despair, women tend to drink alone and in secret. And terrified of exposure, women alcoholics can be very clever in their cover-ups, going to great lengths to prevent others -- especially those close to them -- from knowing what's going on.

But here's the thing: It's even more important for a woman alcoholic to get help, because she's more likely to endanger others when she gets reckless, which she inevitably will. (All alcoholics do, because alcohol impairs the brain's ability to judge risk.)

Women are the caregivers in our society, more likely to be driving their -- and others' children around, more likely to be providing transport to aging relatives, more likely to be driving carpools, church vans.

And let's face it, women are responsible creatures, so when a carpool needs to be driven or a parent has a doctor's appointment, is a shame-ridden woman really going to make the call saying "I'm not safe to drive?"

What can you do? Boost your knowledge and awareness so that if a family member or friend is drinking too much, you'll recognize it.

Watch for these warning signs and danger signals:

"¢ Drinking before or after a social event rather than during it.
"¢ Ostentatiously not drinking when others are.
"¢ Calling attention to abstention, such as saying "I haven't had a glass of wine in two weeks."
"¢ Alcohol stored in odd places, such as in the bedroom closet or under the bathroom sink.
"¢ Alcohol disguised as other drinks, such as added to coke or iced tea. (Taste surreptitiously when you get the chance.)
"¢ Liquid levels in bottles that seem to change mysteriously, such as bottles that seem to get fuller or never need replacing.

If you suspect that a woman you love is abusing alcohol, what next?

"¢ Speak up, gently but firmly. Don't be talked out of your observations and instincts.
"¢ Buy her a book on women and drinking and get informational materials for yourself as well.
"¢ Ask others what they've noticed.
"¢ Keep a record of worrisome incidents.
"¢ Don't let your loved one drive when you suspect it's not safe.
"¢ Educate and empower children to speak up when they don't think mom's safe to drive.
"¢ Organize an intervention.
"¢ Research treatment programs and suggest that she attend one, and that you'll support her while she does.
"¢ Attend your local meetings of Al-Anon, a support group for family and friends of alcoholics. This will be a great source of information and support.
"¢ Invite older children and teens to attend Al-Ateen.

Let's all remember that for every Diane Schuler, there are countless other alcoholic mothers, sisters, daughters, and grandmothers out there who only through the luck of the stars haven't been in a highway accident that killed eight people. Together, with more awareness and honesty, we might prevent the next one.