Despite being a public figure, there is one alarming facet to Samantha Cowen’s life which her listeners never knew, writes Kevin Ritchie
SAMANTHA Cowen sits down in a Johannesburg coffee shop.
Blonde, beautiful, with a great welcoming smile, she’s the epitome of the girl next door made good.
Part of Johannesburg’s legendary Rude Awakening radio show on 94.7 for all of its 14 years, she’s an accomplished TV host, best selling author and celebrity mom.
This week she added a new one – recovering alcoholic.
Fourteen years ago she stepped into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, her hair caked in her own vomit. Now she’s written her story.”I knew the time had come to write it when I heard my daughter speak to her friend about it in the back of the car. I didn’t want her going all chirpily to show and tell with mommy’s bottle in her hands,” says Cowen.
The result is From Whiskey to Water, a memoir of addiction seguing from hard drinking and blackouts to over-eating and stretch pants and then ultra distance swimming in temperatures that make your eyes water.
Exquisitely told, engagingly candid, her story is compelling, horrifying yet never submerged in a morass of moralising in a public purging of guilt as so often happens.”I didn’t want this to be a tortured memoir,” she says.
Her addictions might not define her, but equally they can’t be wished away.
The other reason for writing it is practical, the urge to embrace sobriety in all its glories often comes with an urge to shout from the rooftops – a common pitfall for many recovering addicts, bringing an extra added and unreasonable public burden to stay the course and not relapse.It’s part of the reason Cowen waited so long, but also because of the reality that everyone knew, but didn’t.
Cowen’s circle of friends and relatives might have, but her innumerable fans had no idea.As of this weekend, the secret – such as it was – is no longer.
Her husband still has to finish reading the book. “Martin was shocked,” she says, “he forgotten a lot of it and he didn’t know some of the stories. I’d been hiding bottles around the house; it’s what alcoholics do.”As it is, she hasn’t put all the stories in, “the kids have to still deal with it and the consequences”, she says.
So far though, the reaction’s been good, particularly from her brother, who is flying out for the launch on Thursday, and her husband thus far.
“Martin’s a saint. He’s been on every diet with me. He would have gone to AA meetings for me if he thought it would have helped. The only thing that’s been difficult is the swimming and the absences.”
Her father though hasn’t read the book.
“I don’t think he will,” she says.
Her mom, who died 18 months ago after a battle with cancer, would have been pleased, she thinks.
“I don’t know if she would have read it, but she’d have liked the eulogy.”
In fact, writing the book was less about a catharsis from her cross addictions and more about making sense of losing her mom.
The alcoholism though is an ever present guest in every part of her life, sometimes in the background, sometimes a very real craving.
She dare not slip, even though it is irritating explaining to people who don’t know, why she doesn’t drink or rationalising why even a single drink could be the end.
“I don’t have another recovery in me,” she says.She’s philosophised about alcoholism, she’s researched it; she still doesn’t have the answer.
“I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, I didn’t grow up poor or neglected. There was no reason for me to drink. I enjoyed how it made me feel, I enjoyed the way I made friends.”I believe there’s a switch that can be flicked on in individuals.”And therein lies another reason for writing the book.
“I know so many people like me. They’re not good, they’re not bad but they drink too much, or eat too much, or even swim too much – and they’re hiding it, because they don’t know how to deal with it.”
Cowen learnt to deal with it finally, one winter’s evening in the Zoo Lake swimming pool.
“I was swimming in 18 degrees water. I could have been in the pool at the gym near where I live, but there I was far from home, swimming for 90 minutes at a time in the cold and I thought: I know this isn’t normal. I know I’m different. But I’m okay with that.’ And so I surrendered.”