Sober­ing up to con­fess the truth

SA­MAN­THA COWEN is the long­est-serv­ing woman morn­ing show host in the coun­try, a TV host, a best-sell­ing au­thor – and an al­co­holic. Now, in a no-holds-barred mem­oir re­leased this week, she breaks the si­lence on her long-se­cret ad­dic­tions to liquor, food an

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

THE DAY it all fin­ished be­gan as a very or­di­nary day. It was De­cem­ber 22, 2001. Martin and I were go­ing to my par­ents for a drinks party. I made a dessert and I went over early to help my mom put chips and dips and nuts into bowls. She had a glass of wine on the kitchen counter and, with­out think­ing, I poured my­self one. She looked at me cu­ri­ously.

“You said you weren’t go­ing to drink un­til Christ­mas Day.” I laughed. “It’s near as dammit.” I don’t re­mem­ber any­thing else un­til I got home. I lost six hours. I don’t know what hap­pened. Well, I’ve been told what hap­pened. I’ve been told that no one re­alised I was any­thing more than a lit­tle tipsy. I’ve been told I was the life and soul of the party. I ap­par­ently asked the next-door neigh­bour if he would teach me how to take the top of a cham­pagne bot­tle off with a sword. I don’t know if he agreed.

The next thing I re­mem­ber is stand­ing in the drive­way of my home, my hus­band in tears in front of me. We were in front of our re­spec­tive cars.

“Do you know you drove home all the way on the right-hand side of the road?” he de­manded. I didn’t. “Tell me what to do, Sam,” he begged. “Tell me what I can do to help you be­cause you are go­ing to kill your­self.” And pos­si­bly some­one else. “I can’t go on like this,” he said, rub­bing his eyes. “I can’t go on wor­ry­ing about you. I can’t keep fight­ing you on your drink­ing. I don’t know what to do! Tell me, Sam, be­cause I will do any­thing. Any­thing.”

And, in that mo­ment, I did know what to do. I knew I had run out of choices. “Take me to AA.” He stopped. “What?” “Take me to AA. I don’t know how… I don’t care how, but I have to go.” And now I was cry­ing. “I’m so sorry, dar­ling. I’m so sorry.” And I was so sorry. I was sorry for all the hurt. I was sorry for his sleep­less nights and his worry and his frus­tra­tion, and I was sorry that I’d put our re­la­tion­ship in jeop­ardy time after time be­cause I couldn’t stop do­ing the one thing he hated above all – get­ting drunk. And I was sorry that he was in so much pain and that I had caused it all. And, as much as I was sorry for him, I was sorry for me too. Be­cause it was over. My best friend, my life sup­port, the gas in the tank, the water in the bath, the food on my plate, the peace in my soul – be­cause that’s how it felt – had to go. And in that mo­ment I didn’t think I could live with­out it. Or maybe that I could, but not alone. He took me in his arms.

“It’s all right, Sam. It’s all right,” he soothed. “Let’s get you in the house and we’ll talk to­mor­row… We’ll go and get help to­mor­row.” I broke away from him. “No!” I yelled. “It has to be now. It has to be tonight.”

He shook his head; he didn’t un­der­stand. How could he?

“If I don’t go tonight, Martin, I will never go. By to­mor­row it will be too late.”

What would be too late? Why would 12 or 14 or even 24 hours mat­ter? Be­cause it would. Be­cause I might not be this des­per­ate to­mor­row. No. I had to go there and then. While I was watch­ing my mar­riage tee­ter­ing on the brink of fail­ure as my hus­band tried to work out if he could live with a woman who loved some­thing more than she loved him. While I reeked of my own vomit. While I was ly­ing bruised and bro­ken on the rocks at the bot­tom of a wine well of my own cre­ation. There and then. So I couldn’t turn back.

“Please, Martin,” I sobbed. “It has to be now.”

He stood there and looked at me, un­cer­tain. Did he know then that this time it was dif­fer­ent? I had cried and apol­o­gised be­fore, but I had never asked him for help.

“How do I find them?’ he said, be­wil­dered. “Who should I call?”

“Call Pam,” I said. “She will know what to do.”

Pam was a re­cov­er­ing al­co­holic. She had been sober for about eight years at that point. She was a cool al­co­holic. She never minded other peo­ple drink­ing near her or around her. She drank more Diet Coke and Snap­ple than any­one I knew. She smoked like a chim­ney. She swore enough to ripen fruit. She wasn’t some sad, drink­ingS­cotch-out-of-a-pa­per-bag al­co­holic. If you could get an Ad­dict Cal­en­dar, she would be Miss De­cem­ber for sure.

“Are you sure?” he said. “Are you ab­so­lutely sure you want me to do this?”

His un­spo­ken words hung be­tween us. Was I sure I wanted to cross the line be­tween heavy drinker and full-blown al­co­holic, with the hon­esty and the shock and the other con­se­quences of get­ting clean, with all it would en­com­pass? Was I sure I wanted to come out of a closet, know­ing that the door would close swiftly be­hind me? I don’t think ei­ther of us back then had a con­cept of what it would be. But, yes, I was sure. I was sure this couldn’t hap­pen again. And I was tired. I was tired of ex­cuses and hang­overs and half-truths and heart pal­pi­ta­tions and cold sweats and hand tremors. I was tired of all of it. I didn’t know how I would live with­out drink­ing. But I knew I couldn’t live with it.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I said. “Please call her. Please call her now.”

And he did. He called her there and then, stand­ing in the drive­way next to the car while I slumped down next to the front tyre and cried with re­lief and sad­ness and fear. And then he put me in his car and we drove to Pam’s house.

Pam’s house smelt of vanilla, I’ll never for­get that. She was all busi­ness-as-usual, very ef­fi­cient was Pam.

“There’s an open meet­ing up the road in an hour,” she said. “So we’ll have some­thing to eat and then go. Sam, have you eaten?” “No, she hasn’t,” Martin told her. I didn’t know whether I had or I hadn’t. “Could you eat some­thing? Be­cause I think you should.”

She eyed me doubt­fully. I was used to those looks from lots of peo­ple. The “what will she do next?” look. “I don’t know.” I ate rice. Pam’s hus­band, Bruce or­dered Chi­nese take­aways and I ate rice. Ev­ery­thing felt as if it was in slow mo­tion and maybe it was.

Bruce was very good to Martin. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “AA will help, it re­ally will. You can go as well if you want, at least to the open meet­ings. Or they’ve got a group for fam­ily mem­bers as well.”

“Shall I come with you tonight?” Martin asked. “No.” I didn’t have to think about it. This was not a road I could share. I had to close this door firmly on my own. Any­one else’s help would di­lute my own re­solve. I didn’t want to wake up the next day and won­der if I had taken this step alone or be­cause some­one had helped me. And I knew I would latch on to that as an ex­cuse the next time a glass of wine pre­sented it­self. That lit­tle voice would say, “You see, Sam, you only did it for him. You don’t re­ally want to stop, not when it makes you so happy.” I couldn’t leave any loop­holes. Pam gave me a clean T-shirt. “Would you like to shower be­fore we go?” she asked.

“No, I’m okay,” I said, think­ing that I would never be okay again. “Sam, you have puke in your hair.” It was dif­fi­cult to laugh at that one, but some­how I man­aged. “I don’t think any­one will no­tice.” I re­ally didn’t. I hadn’t no­ticed. How would any­one else?

And so Pam and I sat in a crowded mu­nic­i­pal hall, me in a clean T-shirt with vomit in my hair, and I lis­tened and cried.

PIC­TURE: BOXER NGWENYA

TV and ra­dio per­son­al­ity Sam Cowen re­lives the or­deal of her re­cov­ery from al­co­holism.

This is an ex­tract from From Whiskey to Water, by Sa­man­tha Cowen, pub­lished by MF Books at a rec­om­mended re­tail price of R240.

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