Maggie Schmitt, 83, was my mom’s good friend in high school. She went to college with my dad, but they all got married and grew apart. My mom died when I was 17, and I never heard of Maggie until decades later, when my 64-year-old dad was dying and Maggie came to visit him.
Since then we’ve grown close, and she’s become my Ya-Ya — as in the book and movie, “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” It’s about a group of older women who’ve been friends since childhood, when they dubbed themselves the Ya-Yas. They help the daughter of a Ya-Ya when her own mom can’t.
Knowing Maggie now, I marvel at how she nearly died before getting sober 44 years ago. She’s letting me tell her story in the hope that someone might recognize their own addiction and know they can recover from it.
Circumstances Not Genetics
Maggie wasn’t much of a boozer. Even at Whittier High School, then Fullerton Community College, she’d have a beer or two while her pals drank until they got sick. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley, Maggie never saw a relative with alcohol. Her heavy drinking would start relatively late.
She met a Canadian railroad engineer and they got married when she was 21. The marriage was OK for the first few years. She had her son at age 22 and her daughter at 25. But soon after, her life turned treacherous as her husband started hitting her. There were shrieking fights and torrents of degrading emotional abuse — and the neighbors heard it all, right down to her sobs. Nobody saw the bruises, and her shame for years was suffered secretly.
If she cooked beef and failed to serve horseradish with it, the family dinner table would be toppled in anger. If she loaded the toilet paper on the roller the wrong way, he’d strike her. “He had me convinced I was a terrible housewife,” she said. So Maggie started to hit the vodka, up to a fifth a day. “I really don’t remember what I did all day until the kids came home. For the next 8 or 10 years, I was drinking heavily,” Maggie says. “That was my escape.”
A Housewife Gone Wrong
Years went by and the only hint of domestic abuse that her relatives witnessed was the nasty insults her husband hurled at her at family gatherings. The Maggie I know is outspoken, vibrant, and still hosting big luaus for 70 friends and family. “It’s the first thing people say when I tell them about it,” she says. “‘I can’t believe you, of all people, allowed that.’”
She wanted a divorce but her husband refused, and she was afraid of him. It was the late 1960s and being a single mom was not something her circle of friends did in the class-conscious suburbs of Whittier and La Mirada. She drank so much that over time the alcohol became syrup in her veins. For a year she was treated for diabetes, and even her brother-in-law, a pediatrician, didn’t suspect the real cause. At 5-feet-4, she barely weighed 90 pounds.
When her son was a senior in high school, he returned home one day to find his mother incoherent and fall-down ill. “I was completely drunk,” Maggie says, “but I’m not sure he knew that.” He rushed her to the closest hospital emergency room, where she was probably suffering ketoacidosis: blood sugar so high it can be fatal.
A well-known endocrinologist at the hospital was consulted and he admitted her. From her hospital bed, she came clean about the beatings and her despondent heavy drinking. Medical personnel prevented her husband from visiting her. They even caught him trying to sneak up hospital stairwells. Her family now knew and also protected her. But it was the blunt endocrinologist who saved her life.
“He was walking out of my room, turned around and said, ‘You know what I think? You’re not diabetic. You’re a drunk.’” And with that he disgustedly stomped off. But he’d sent two women from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to visit her. She realizes now that her lengthy hospital stay was effectively her detox. She went home to her house in La Mirada, the abusive husband now gone. “I don’t remember any of it, but I booted him out,” Maggie says.
Within a couple of hours, her phone rang. “It was one of the women from AA. She was in her 60s or 70s and had owned a bar in San Francisco before she got sober,” Maggie says. “She told me to pick her up for the AA meeting at 7:30 p.m. that night at the corner of Milton and Greenleaf. I said, “‘I’m not going to that.’ And she said, ‘Sure you are. I have no other way to get there.’ And that was it — my start in the program.”
How Has She Stayed Sober All These Years?
It’s no secret technique or method, and different approaches may work for others, but Maggie’s path was the 12-Steps of AA: support-group meetings, a sponsor, and finding a higher power.
“At first I didn’t think of myself as a drunk or an alcoholic,” Maggie says. “In the first year of my sobriety, it was easier for me to go to AA, even though I didn’t particularly want to, because I didn’t have to start my story over and over. All of us had chosen the wrong path, and it got down to whether you wanted to change your life or not. We can say ‘getting sober,’ but that takes changing most of your life, and that’s very hard. But I felt like, ‘I’m not alone, I’m not a bad person,’” she says.
Soldiering On Through Sobriety
Maggie likes to talk about how she and other newcomers to AA expressed fear that their social and sex lives would end when their drinking did. But they quickly found a place called The Serenity Hall, a dry gathering place where they could go after work to talk and drink soda. They found that together they weren’t going to stop living life.
Maggie hadn’t had a drink since landing at the ER on June 14, 1971. She was 41 and shapely, with huge blue eyes and a blond pixie cut. Six months after that day, she was at The King’s Retreat dance club on Whittier Boulevard with a group of AA friends and she met Sonny Schmitt, the sales and service manager of a truck dealership. They were married 13 months later.
Maggie advises others to heed the common advice of not to make any major life decisions in the first days of sobriety. “I did every single thing AA tells you not to do: I got a divorce, sold my house, met someone and married him,” she says laughing. “But he was something. He was so different from anyone I’d known. My husband was a Canadian and a bastard. Sonny was a Hawaiian and mellow.”
Sonny, 80, has a glass of wine occasionally, but it’s never tempted Maggie. The good news, she says, is that after a while in recovery, you’re probably going to feel secure in places such as a wedding or a business dinner where others are drinking. But that’s just what works for this couple.
They live in Huntington Beach, both suntanned and poolside most days. Sonny retired from his corporate job and started working for a contractor. Maggie only recently retired from her career of counseling DUI court defendants. They have grandkids and great grandkids.
Maggie still attends AA meetings, but not as frequently. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says. “It only took me once to quit for good, and I hope others who take longer don’t give up. It’s been 44 years sober for me. I still can’t quite believe that, but it’s possible.”