From Whisky to Water with Sam Cowen


My guest today is a household name here in South Africa.  After a successful career as a radio presenter Sam Cowen wrote a book called “From Whisky to Water” which documented her struggles with alcohol.

Sam came close to killing herself, often driving home so drunk that when she woke the next morning, she had no idea how she got home, let alone what she had said and done the night before.

She managed to ditch the drink but then became addicted to food, piling on 25kgs in her early sobriety.  Her salvation was swimming – which is where she found serenity – and training as a recovery coach has brought purpose into her life.

In this Episode

  • Sam didn’t drink at university but when she had her first whisky at the radio station where she worked she loved it – and felt like she had “come home”.
  • Broadcasting was very male dominated and Sam struggled to connect – apart from when she was in the bar with her colleagues.
  • She got a reputation for being able to “hold her drink” which she wore like a badge of honour.
  • Over the years Sam had been producing or presenting radio shows and her voice was well known throughout South Africa.
  • One day she did a TV appearance and was devastated to receive an email from a viewer saying “we thought you’d be really pretty”.
  • She hadn’t really thought much about her looks before but this nasty comment rocked her self-confidence and exacerbated her drinking – after all it didn’t matter what she looked like when she was drinking.
  • Her drinking escalated and she started doing things that were “not normal” – she would have to pull into a multi-story car park for a sleep as she knew she shouldn’t be driving.
  • Sam talked of the “golden 15 minutes” of clarity before closing down in a blackout while she was driving.
  • She told us about waking up and finding blood in her car – the result of taking an injured man to hospital during her blackout.
  • We discussed blackouts and the fact that they happen because the brain is so soaked in alcohol it can’t even make memories – it’s not that we have simply forgotten.
  • Sam got sober 20 years ago when AA was the only option. These days of course there are many alternative ways to get help, including
  • She felt that the AA meetings were like “coming home” – the warmth and the support of the community enabling her to stop drinking.
  • There is a quote by CS Lewis in Sam’s book that summarises the connection we feel in the recovery community – “Friendship is born in the moment that one person looks at another and says – You too? I thought I was the only one” – the relief we feel when we realise we are not alone in this is deep.
  • She read a lot of memoirs in early sobriety and the book by Caroline Knapp – “Drinking, a Love Story” made a great impression on her.
  • I thought it was so interesting that Sam had been sober for 14 years but had still not found serenity.
  • Her time at AA had left its mark and she felt that she had to keep “doing penance” or she might drink again.
  • Like many of us, Sam experienced a “void” in early sobriety – that feeling of “now what?”
  • She decided to fill the void with ice cream and put on 25kgs in process – then she became “invisible” due to her excess weight and actually enjoyed the fact that she was still “on air”, still being funny but could go unnoticed in public.
  • Her excess weight was causing her a lot of joint pain. A doctor prescribed a whole list of meds to deal with the pain which made Sam decide she must lose the weight instead.
  • She discovered swimming which was when she felt she had “come home” for the third time.
  • If you are in early sobriety and dealing with the “void” then please have a listen to the Tribe Sober podcast episode 55 with Dr Loretta Breuning. Loretta explains that we need a project to keep our happy brain chemicals triggered.
  • Of course, for Sam that project was swimming and she trained and took place in long distance swimming events – in freezing cold water which of course provides more health benefits!
  • Training as a recovery coach enabled her to find her place in the world. She realised that she could help people and she’s been able to find her purpose.
  • During the next 6 years she moved forwards and began to thrive in her sobriety and to finally find serenity.
  • Sam did her training with David Collins at the Ubuntu Academy of Coaching. He is a renowned international coach and has been interviewed for this podcast so watch this space!
  • She explained that recovery coaching is complementary – it’s not therapy and it’s not treatment but it will help people in early sobriety reconnect with themselves and figure out what they really want out of life.
  • To learn more about Sam and her coaching go to and of course her book is essential reading if you are thinking about giving up drinking or in recovery.
  • It’s called From Whisky to Water and there is a link to it on her website.

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