This article explores the plausible connection between binge eating and binge drinking as a possible explanation for Diane Schuler’s mysterious drunk driving accident that killed herself and seven others.
On Sunday, July 26, 2009, 36-year-old Schuler drove a Ford WindStar Minivan for 1.7 miles the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway, a scenic highway in New York. Witnesses say she was driving in a perfectly straight line at about 70 mph. At exactly 1:35 pm, Schuler crashed head-on into an SUV, which then hit another car.
Schuler, her two-year old daughter, Erin, and her three young nieces, Emma, Kay, and Alyson Hanse, were instantly killed. So were Guy Bastardi, Michael Bastardi, and Daniel Longo, the passengers in the oncoming SUV. Schuler’s five-year old son, Bryan, survived the accident with serious injuries, but all he recollects is that mommy had a headache and she couldn’t see. There were two other survivors in the third vehicle, but they escaped with minor injuries.
This was the most deadly accident on a New York Westchester County highway since 1934. Of course, all the deaths were tragic, but public sympathy ignited around Schuler’s brother because all of his children died in the accident. Picture three smiling, long-haired girls all under the age of nine. However, the feeling of tragedy quickly morphed into rage when the toxicology report showed that at the time of her death, Schuler was high on marijuana and had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her blood (and even more undigested alcohol in her stomach). How could this happen to a woman responsible for transporting five children home from a happy weekend camping trip?
Schuler’s husband, Daniel, steadfastly proclaimed that Diane was no drunk. In an effort to clear Schuler’s name, Daniel immediately lawyered up with Dominic Barbara, a high-profile attorney, and he hired Thomas Ruskin, a public investigator, to help make the case for Diane’s innocence. Then, as now, Daniel paints a wholesome picture of Schuler as a perfect wife, an outstanding mother, and someone who didn’t have a drinking problem. It’s still unknown how and why a dearly beloved, reliable mom from West Babylon (Long Island) who held a six-figure management job at Cablevision ended up drunk, high, and dead and took seven others along with her.
Schuler’s haunting story is chronicled inSomething’s Wrong With Aunt Diane, an HBO documentary by Liz Garbus, which is now available on DVD. The documentary provides a timeline and some video capture of events on the day of the accident. Garbus tells the story from the controversial perspective of Daniel and his sister-in-law, Jay Schuler. Daniel and Jay elected to participate in the documentary to somehow prove that Schuler’s behavior was atypical. Both were passionately convinced the accident was caused by an undiagnosed medical problem of some kind or there was a mistake in the autopsy report. Many people, for example, reported seeing Schuler rubbing her jaw in the days before the accident, which led to the idea that she might have been sick. Daniel also claims Schuler was a diabetic and that she had a lump on her leg. By the end of the movie, however, it’s conclusively proven that the autopsy report matched Schuler’s DNA and it was interpreted correctly. Schuler didn’t have a stroke or a heart attack.
The biggest, most complicated mystery surrounding Schuler is whether she was an alcoholic. Ruskin claims he interviewed 50 people, and no one officially identified Schuler as an alcoholic or even having an occasional drinking problem. That said, there are a couple of unofficial statements floating around on the internet. Daniel’s sister, Joan, is attributed with saying Diane drank heavily on a regular basis. And an anonymous co-worker says something similar. Then there’s that’s jumbo 1.75 liter bottle of Absolut vodka found under the front seat of the crashed minivan. Daniel says he and Schuler drank infrequently, and the same bottle of vodka was transported from camp to home because Schuler was too frugal to buy a second one. It’s possible, though, that Schuler purchased replacement bottles of vodka without Daniel’s knowledge.
The most shocking revelation was that Schuler regularly smoked pot before she want to bed at night to relieve stress, deal with insomnia, and self-medicate. Schuler didn’t look like a pothead, and she didn’t present herself as one, either. It’s possible that the intuitive hiding skills she used to keep her pot habit private are the same intuitive hiding skills she used to keep a drinking habit private. In every observable way, Schuler had the lifestyle and the demeanor of a normal suburban mom. The question to be answered is whether she was a mom with an unwanted behavior secret.
A hidden alcoholic is someone who controls his or her drinking so well that it isn’t noticed. There are no obvious clues or red flags. One organization estimates that for every alcoholic who admits his or her drinking problem, there are nine more who remain hidden. Most are women, and vodka is their preferred hard liquor of choice. Vodka, after all, looks like water and is easily disguised or added to other drinks. It doesn’t leave your breath reeking, and it doesn’t have a strong or objectionable flavor. Because Daniel worked a late shift, from 4 p.m. to midnight, Schuler had the freedom and the privacy to do whatever she wanted whenever she wanted to do it. Daniel would never know.
All we can do is theorize about what happened to trigger Schuler’s out-of-control drinking and driving episode. One angle that hasn’t been previously explored has to do with the scientific link between out-of-control binge eating and out-of-control binge drinking. Schuler was 5’3”, and at the time of her death she weighed 204 pounds. That is a mere 10 pounds shy of being in a severely obese weight category. Even though it’s much harder for short people to keep their weight proportional to their height, Schuler was more than a little overweight.
Obviously, she was challenged by food and by eating too much. Or said another way, Schuler may have used food for reasons other than physical nourishment. She may have been an out-of-control eater, engaging in a more or less socially acceptable behavior that doesn’t have the same stigma as being an out-of-control drinker. Then there’s the fact that the more you weigh, the more you can drink without feeling or appearing drunk.
Binge eating and binge drinking go hand in hand. A 2009 study conducted by the University of North Carolina examined 13,000 women, and found that 72% of the women addicted to alcohol also have an eating disorder. That’s almost three out of every four. There’s a national trend (or better reporting) that also shows eating disorder patients tend to have corresponding binge drinking disorder problems. More specifically, someone with an eating disorder is five times more likely to have alcohol problems than someone who doesn’t have an eating disorder.
Binge eating is defined as an excessive indulgence in food over a short period of time. Like alcohol, it enables the person using food (or any other substance) to numb out and experience emotional relief. In fact, binging “lights up” the same brain pathways as alcohol, and there’s a correlation between a high BMI (body mass index) like Schuler’s and a family link to alcoholism. Alcoholism and binge eating are both thought to be induced by the same underlying triggers: high levels of stress, unresolved psychological issues, and an unrealistic belief system. I didn’t mention earlier that Schuler’s mother ran off with another man when Schuler was nine, and Schuler never forgave her or spoke to her again.
When you put all this together, the probability that Schuler had a secret issue with binge drinking becomes higher. From a spiritual perspective there’s absolutely no difference between binge eating and binge drinking. They’re both expressions of the same impulse to self-destruct, and it’s an easy leap to substitute one for another. That said, typically, binge eaters destroy only themselves.