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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

Diane Schuler's Demons

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If only the dead could speak. Instead, as in the case of Diane Schuler who killed eight people including herself on the Taconic Parkway last weekend, the living are speaking for her. Clearly, they didn't know all of her. They say what people frequently say when interviewed after a tragedy, "She was a lovely woman. A devoted wife and mother. A wonderful aunt." Perhaps all those definitions of her are true. Perhaps it was what she harbored inside, what she didn't tell them, what she was afraid to confront in herself that ended in disaster. What perhaps she didn't even know about herself.

The one word that has been floating around as broadcast journalists interview her widower, her family, the family lawyer and the private investigator is "logic." It makes no sense, they all say. Her family disputes the blood alcohol and marijuana levels in her system. They contend she wasn't a drinker. The admit she smoked a little pot now and then. And still, they say it makes no sense. Finally, this morning, Meredith Viera, pointed out that "logic" may not be a contender here when it comes to explanation. Point in fact: this was neither a logical act nor a logical situation. Whether born out of alcohol or madness, it was patently irrational.

As a life coach, I am cautioned not to even dip a toe into the psychological realm. And I don't. Ethically and morally, I can't. The purpose of coaching is to take the client forward by helping them to establish self-awareness thereby confronting the demons and gremlins that are holding them back, preventing them from living better and more satisfying lives. There are times, however, when my gut screams out - and I will say what my gut feels. Instinct, once you've developed a relationship with a client, is an essential and powerful. The client tells me if my gut is incorrect. I must admit, so far my gut has served me and my clients well.

In the case of Diane Schuler, my gut is screaming that the woman was not a closeted drinker or alcoholic, but a woman who was grappling with severe depression -- finally destroyed by undiagnosed, unnoticed, and well-hidden mental illness? Unfortunately, mental illness still carries a stigma.

The press often drives the story. In this case, they have pre-determined that we have another epidemic on our hands -- that of the "Secret Mommy Drinker." The Today Show went so far as to have a Diane Schuler near look alike (in my estimation) on the air this morning, confessing her secret alcohol abuse: She would drink during the day, and come night fall when her husband got home, drink wine with him and he just thought it was her first drink of the day. Sure, there are closeted drinkers, pot smokers, cocaine users, pill poppers, and the maritally unfaithful out there. This isn't news. But why take a tragedy now and spin it into yet another "profile" that will give the media fodder for voyeuristic news until this story fades back into the landscape?

Andrea Yates, for example, was the loving Texas mother who drowned her five children in June 2001. She had a history of depression, was taking medication, and was in therapy. Her depression seemed to increase with the birth of each child and was profound after the fourth child's birth. She thought she was a "bad mother." No one around her -- not her extended family, her husband, her doctor -- recognized the depths of Andrea's depression and illness.
Is it possible that Diane Schuler was hiding her illness until she swigged enough alcohol from that open bottle found in her van that allowed her inhibitions to give way and end what was an extraordinary pain?

I have often contended that mothers can be an invisible lot. Biologically and socially we remain the ones on whom children -- and husbands -- depend. We have little room for error, and much of what we do goes unnoticed and taken for granted. As enlightened as we think we are as a society, we're not. Speak to any mother who holds down a job and she'll tell you that she's the one who typically shuttles the kids back and forth, makes the meals, does the laundry, does the grocery shopping, knows the kids' schedules, speaks to the teachers...the list goes on and on. Anne Tyler describes this condition with perfection in Ladder of Years as Delia Grinstead vanishes one day as the family takes their annual beach vacation. Once Delia's husband and teen age children realize she's gone, they can barely give her vital statistics to the police - arguing over the color of her eyes, her height, her weight. Delia, unlike Andrea Yates and Diane Schuler, simply walked away from that which was overwhelming her.

Is it possible that Diane Schuler wasn't hiding a drinking problem, but hiding a problem that became so painful she ended it all, able to carry through her only way out of the pain by blinding herself with pot and alcohol? Everyone's question is, "But why did she take the children with her?" Perhaps because the irrational doesn't account for logic. In the same way that Andrea Yates, a self-described "bad" mother could have simply left her children and walked away.

There is no reasonable answer for the irrational.

As a culture and society, we accept those with medical disorders that might result in tunnel vision -- another buzz word used to describe Schuler's state as she drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway. Witnesses who called 911 reported she was honking her horn, tailgating and flashing her headlights -- was that a cry for help or rage? What is the reason her family and our society eschews mental illness as an explanation? Diane Schuler's family is intent upon finding a medical reason for her actions: What if the reason is that mental illness is just as viable an explanation for behavior that unwittingly ends up in a disaster?

My gut tells me that Diane Schuler was overwhelmed, sickened and ultimately strangled by demons so powerful they swallowed her, leaving her in madness, perhaps even unaware that her children and three nieces were the unwitting victims of the demons as well.

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