NEW YORK — At one point during her quarter-century as an alcoholic, Carol Colleran would down at least 10 beers each weeknight, more on weekends. Then she would show up the next morning at her job in hospital management, feeling fuzzy and lousy.
But she would cheerfully wander the halls greeting people — “It felt a lot better than sitting down,” she says wryly — and she is sure that nobody, not even the staff at the hospital’s addiction treatment center, suspected she had a drinking problem.
Colleran, now 72 and sober, was that good at hiding it.
We may never know if Diane Schuler — the Long Island mother who packed five kids into a minivan and drove the wrong way under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, killing herself and seven other people — was an alcoholic. Her husband insists she wasn’t.
But if she did have a drinking problem, addiction specialists and doctors say, it is indeed plausible that she succeeded in hiding it from colleagues, friends, even close family. Alcoholics, they say, become pretty good at covering their tracks.
“It’s more common among women to hide their drinking because of the social stigma of it,” says Dr. Robert Swift, an addiction psychiatrist and professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. They might choose vodka, for example, which produces less of an odor on the breath, he says. (A broken bottle of vodka was found in the wreckage of Schuler’s car).
Or they might choose to drink at times when people aren’t around — in the morning, for example, when the kids are off at school. They might use colorless alcohol and put it in sports bottles. And they might find creative places to hide booze.
“I’ve known people to hide alcohol under ceiling tiles, in hollowed-out parts of mattresses, behind books on bookshelves,” Swift says.
Women in particular feel an extra responsibility to keep their drinking secret, because they need to keep the family running smoothly, says Dr. Petros Levounis, director of the Addiction Institute of New York at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center.
Because they hide it more often, frequently drinking alone, the problem is not only harder to spot but more acute when it is discovered.
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“Women are often deprived of the normal red flags that the rest of the population enjoys,” says Levounis, also a professor at Columbia University. “Men who work 9 to 5, they often come home late, and sloppy, and people notice. They may lose a job, but their lives are saved.”
There are many tricks. Over about 20 years of drinking and using illegal drugs, William C. Moyers says he “did a pretty good job of covering my butt,” though he uses a slightly stronger word.
Family in denial?
One device: For every drink in a public setting, such as a party, “I’d have another in the bathroom,” Moyers says. “One openly, one secretly. And on and on like that.” As for cocaine and marijuana, he would do those by himself.
“My spouse at the time had no idea that I was a full-blown addict and alcoholic,” says Moyers, now executive director of the Center for Public Advocacy at Hazelden, an addiction treatment center. (He is also a former journalist and the son of broadcaster Bill Moyers.)
But family members also tend to engage in a bit of denial, Moyers adds.
“Alcoholism is often an illness of denial, not just for the person involved, but for their family,” he says. “There are dots there to be connected, and nobody connects them.”
Colleran, who has been sober for 27 years and serves as executive vice president of the Center of Older Adult Recovery at the Hanley Center in Florida, also recalls a healthy dose of denial — a refusal to believe she was an alcoholic — from those around her, partly, she thinks, because she was a mother.
“My neighbors later told me they had no idea,” Colleran says. “But they saw me with a beer can every day! I had barbecues where I’d screw up completely, not cooking the chicken for example, and still people didn’t think I had a problem.”
Both Colleran and Moyers look at the wrong-way tragedy in New York and shudder to think that it could have been them, in an earlier time.
“I drove drunk, yes,” Moyers says. “Fortunately in my case it wasn’t too late. I didn’t kill anyone and I wasn’t killed.”
Despite the broken bottle of Absolut vodka found in Schuler’s car, and the devastating autopsy report — a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit, and high levels of the key ingredient in marijuana in her system — experts interviewed for this story were careful to note that her husband may be right: She may not have been addicted to alcohol.
“It’s possible she was trying to self-medicate something else, and doing this on a one-time basis, and because she was inexperienced, didn’t understand the consequences of drinking that much alcohol,” Swift says. He recalls a case where a patient had panic attacks, and on a very stressful day, drove with a bottle of vodka to stave them off.
“Obviously not a good way to do it, but this was someone who didn’t drink commonly,” he says.
It may be impossible to know which category Schuler fits into. Her husband, Daniel, insists that he never saw her drunk even once, and that there must have been other medical problems that led her to drive that way. The medical examiner, for his part, says his office has ruled out a stroke, heart attack, or aneurysm.
For now, the case remains a mystery to those who study addiction.
“For all I know this, woman was very adept at covering her tracks,” says Moyers, who also stresses that Schuler may not have had an addiction. “But we don’t know. Her family could be in denial, lying, or blinded. Maybe they didn’t see it. Or maybe they didn’t want to see it.”