By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times
From Whiskey to Water
Sam Cowen (MF Books Joburg)
In January 2014 Sam Cowen came around after her first blackout in 12 years. She was facedown on the bricks of the Big Bay Surf and Lifesaving Club in Cape Town. It was all too familiar: her mouth was dry and tasted of vomit, her body hurt and she had no idea where she was or how she had got there. This time, though, there was no alcohol involved. This time she had passed out from hypothermia, having swum 7.5km from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand.
How she got there makes for riveting reading.
Cowen is one of the country’s best-loved media personalities: for many years the witty, laconic foil on the Highveld Stereo breakfast show, warm host of the TV show Great Expectations and author of several irreverent books on mothering. So there was some disbelief when it was announced that she had written a memoir of alcoholism and addiction. No one could be as sharp and sassy day in and day out if they had a drinking problem.
But she did, and in From Whiskey to Water she details epic benders and blackouts, crippling hangovers and a near-rape. “I was a high-functioning alcoholic,” she says. “I hate labels but this one is true.” She managed because she lived within a set of rules. “I was never drunk at work, for example, I never drank before lunchtime. I had hundreds of rules.”
Once she set out to drink a case of red wine in front of the television and almost succeeded before she passed out, another time she woke up on the floor of her study with the computer mouse in her hand, having tried to order a French maid’s outfit online. There are many such anecdotes illustrating what became a yawing free fall. It ended one night in her driveway, after she drove home on the wrong side of the road. She had vomit in her hair and a husband in tears, and that was it.
“I knew I’d broken every rule,” she says, “and I was going to lose my husband.”
With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous she began what is now 14 years of recovery, but that is by no means the end of the story.
She stopped drinking and started eating. And when she had ballooned to 102kg she started dieting obsessively and unsuccessfully. And then she started exercising manically, which became yet another addiction, and finally found long-distance swimming.
“It’s the numbness I like,” she says. “There’s a peace to it, an oblivion. It’s what I looked for in the alcohol, and what I sought and couldn’t find in food.”
Not content with simply swimming for health and enjoyment, though, she lashed herself ever further and faster, setting her sights on the Robben Island swim.
Why does she punish herself so? “I can’t answer that. I suppose if it’s not a challenge it’s not worth it. I can only be excessive.”
She’s quick to point out, though, that she lives on a regimen of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications. “I was anxious before I started drinking and I’m still anxious now.” It seems a state of serenity will always elude her. “I have pockets of it, but I don’t think that’s possible for me. I just wasn’t built that way.”
Stringently honest, at times funny and at others frightening, From Whiskey to Water is an admirable story. And if Sam Cowen were to lift her head out of the water for long enough, she’d be deafened by the cheers.
Follow Michele Magwood on Twitter @michelemagwood
Listen to Sam Cowen’s interview on the Magwood on Books podcast: