Secret Addiction in Taconic Crash? It's Possible

Husband denies wife drank to excess. Could she have hidden a secret habit?

Aug. 8, 2009— -- The husband of the driver in a wrong-way crash that killed eight people, including herself, on a New York highway insists his wife was not drunk and high behind the wheel, despite overwhelming evidence in the case.

"My heart is clear," Daniel Schuler said Thursday. "She did not drink. She is not an alcoholic.

"I never saw her drunk since the day I met her," he added of his wife Diane Schuler, 36, blamed for killing her daughter, three nieces and three men in a head-on collision on the Taconic State Parkway July 26.

Instead, Daniel Schuler and family suggested his wife's diabetes, a sudden stroke or a tooth abscess may have caused her to drive the wrong way down the highway.

But could a secret as serious and deadly as alcoholism be kept secret from someone so close?

Experts say it's possible to hide even the worst of habits.

"Any good addict, over time, becomes better and better at hiding and sneaking their use," said Brenda Iliff, clinical director of the Hazelden Women's Recovery Center in Center City, Minn. "What generally happens with addiction [is that] at some point somebody may say something, and people go into shame, they may pull it in and control it and keep it from other people."

Alcoholism is on the rise, particularly among women. In fact, five times the number of women will die of alcohol-related illnesses than of breast cancer in the United States. And many of these women are keeping their drinking habit hidden.

Later this month, the Department of Transportation will kick off "over the limit, under arrest," an Internet and radio campaign that will focus on educating the public that women are drinking and driving at a higher rate.

For many years, Diana, who didn't want ABC News to use her last name, hid her alcoholism from those she loved the most.

"If you keep it a secret," she said, "you don't have to give it up even though you have a problem. You know, if nobody knows that you have this problem, you don't have to give it up."

Diana sells insurance and has a vibrant social life. But when "Good Morning America" first met her, she said her drinking was out of control. She sometimes even drove while intoxicated.

"It's really scary driving home and not remembering how I got home," she said.

Living With a Secret Shame

No one in Diana's family knew until she went public in March on "Good Morning America" to face her alcohol addiction with the help of William Cope Moyers, an addiction expert with the Hazelden Women's Recovery Center.

"Is it shameful for you to consider yourself an alcoholic?" asked Moyers.

"Yeah. I think it is. Yeah," she answered.

Such shame often forces female alcoholics underground and make dangerous decisions, experts say.

According to FBI figures, the number of women arrested for DUI was 28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was a decade earlier, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower. Men still are responsible for more drunken driving cases, but the gap is narrowing.

Just two weeks ago, a Mahopac, N.Y., 13-year-old called 911 to say her mother had been driving erratically. Susan Rogge was driving a car full of teenagers and allegedly ended up on the wrong side of the street. She was charged her with aggravated DUI.

Rogge's lawyer has stated that she suffers from alcoholism and has entered two separate rehab programs.

"Growing Pains" star Tracey Gold has admitted on "Oprah" that she drank and drove nearly five years ago. Gold lost control of her SUV in Ventura, Calif., veered off the freeway, rolled over several times down an embankment, injuring her husband and two of her three kids.

"I made a horrible, horrible, horrible choice that evening," she said on the show. "I can't even explain what that feeling is like to see that the people you love the most that you're responsible for this. It's a horrific, horrifying moment."

Gold has since dealt with her issues with alcohol; Diana's treatment is off to a strong start.

"It's hope that I'm going to take the steps," Diana said. "It's one big step and then maybe tiny steps, and I'm going to be healthy again, and that's what I want."

Diane Schuler's family and lawyer have continued to say they are baffled about what happened.

Schuler was driving home to West Babylon, N.Y., from an upstate campground with her two children and three nieces in the car when she crashed on the Taconic in the early afternoon of July 26. After dodging oncoming cars for 1.7 miles, she slammed into an SUV. Her minivan tumbled down an embankment and burst into flames.

Schuler's 5-year-old son, Brian, survived the crash, but daughter Erin and nieces Alyson, Emma and Katie Hunce were killed, along with three people in another vehicle.

Schuler's blood alcohol level was 0.19, more than twice the legal state limit. The toxicology reports from the Westchester County medical examiner's office showed Schuler had the equivalent of 10 drinks in her stomach and elevated levels of THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

Lawyer Questions Toxicology Findings

Investigators found a broken 1.7 ounce bottle of vodka at the crash scene, but Barbara's private investigator Thomas Ruskin told "GMA" that "we don't know if the vodka bottle was in the car or out of the car," because the car rolled.

Her lawyer also called the official findings into question.

"I don't say that the [toxicology] report is accurate or not accurate," the Schulers' lawyer, Dominic Barbara, told "Good Morning America's" Chris Cuomo Friday. "What I say is that none of this case is logical. This is a woman who leaves a campground at 9 a.m. absolutely sober. ... We have video, we have tapes, we have people we spoke to. She had no alcohol in her system."

The lawyer said that in one of four phone calls made from the Schuler's minivan before the crash, one of the children described her aunt as behaving strangely.

"We now have information about one of the phone calls where the child [in the car] says that her aunt is having problems speaking and seeing. Not slurred, but actually having trouble," Barbara said.

Barbara asked anyone with information about Schuler or the events leading to the crash to contact his investigators at the CMP Group in New York.

"The issue is what happened to this woman and how it happened," Barbara said. "It's not logical to just believe that these events occurred the way they did. It isn't who she was as a person."

Experts don't agree with Barbara's proposition.

"If they found elevated alcohol levels in her blood, she must have ingested it," said Dr. Pierre Fayad, chairman of the University of Nebraska Medical Center Department of Neurological Sciences. "Unfortunately, alcoholism and drug addiction are often missed or underestimated by family members."

Alcoholism, which affects 9.6 million people in the United States, disproportionately affects men more than women -- 6.9 million men compared with 2.5 million women, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism -- but women are uniquely susceptible to the effects of alcohol.

With less water in their bodies, women take longer than men to break down the toxic compounds in alcohol, with the result that the same amount of alcohol exposes a woman to more alcohol for longer periods of time than for a man.

Attempt to Control Diabetes?

Thursday, Barbara suggested that Schuler may have ingested alcohol in an attempt to raise a low blood sugar level, a theory experts said demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both diabetes and stroke.

"Blaming the accident on a stroke preceding it is possible, like anything else, but not plausible," Fayad said. "Having high or low blood sugar acutely does not cause a stroke. It is the long term effect of diabetes that increases the risk of stroke."

Low blood sugar can mimic stroke. The brain is reliant on a consistent supply of sugar and oxygen from the blood, without which it may begin to lose function.

But a diabetic person's blood sugar level is higher than normal because it is not well regulated by insulin. Left untreated, as Diane Schuler's type 2 diabetes condition was, blood sugar will remain high.

Without proper medical controls, a diabetic person's blood sugar can increase enough to put the body in a crisis situation. Extra sugar seeps into the urine, drawing water along with it. The body becomes dehydrated and blood potassium levels climb, causing the brain and other vital organs to suffer.

Similarly, alcohol is a diuretic that draws water out of the body, causing dehydration, and can compound the effects of elevated blood sugar.

Fayed pointed out that infections, like the abscess in Schuler's mouth that the family described earlier in the week, can also elevate the blood sugar and precipitate a crisis situation.

"There is no way that having a stroke or the diabetes prompted her to drink. There is no medical explanation that would explain that assertion," said Dr. Aman Patel, director of the Neurosurgery Residency Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center.

ABC News' Radha Chitale, Lemita Steel, Katie Escherich and Michael S. James contributed to this report.