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
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.
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.