columnBy Valentine Njoroge
We drink... we party... we are Kenyans.
The Tusker logo is one of our national icons and we look at you funny if you make a statement like "I don't drink". So, how do you make the distinction between 'life of the party' and a party that has gone on for too long? Social drinking and addiction?
You could take the World Health Organization (WHO) Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) below and find out; or you could meet Clara and Jeremy then take the quiz.
Jeremy is a handsome 33-year-old Nairobi businessman and he has been sober for five years. Despite feeling like an awkward social misfit, anyone who has partied with Jeremy would describe him as the adrenalin that kept the party going.
To camouflage his social discomfort, he drank-a lot. He says, "once I had my first drink, I would drink until the bar closed or I ran out of money. I do not have a stop button."
His family believed in him and invested heavily in his education, sending him to the UK and the US for tertiary education. He came home empty-handed.
Having nothing else to do and being unqualified for a decent job, Jeremy enrolled in a local university and finally managed to graduate at the age of 29.
"I was drunk but I finished," he smiles.
While writing his final paper, it hit him that he would not be making much money with his undergraduate degree so he would have to go into business.
He realised that he did not know many drunken entrepreneurs, in fact the men he admired like Richard Branson and Warren Buffet advocate health. Jeremy's own father hardly drinks.
Around the same time, he promised himself that he would give up drinking a few months just to see how it went. He lasted a mere two weeks and that is what got him thinking that he had a real problem with alcohol.
With a lot of support from his family, Jeremy looked at various treatment options and settled on going for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings daily, whether he was drunk or sober.
"I felt that I had cost my family enough money and time with my drinking. Rehab facilities are really expensive so I chose AA," he says. Five years later, he is still attending meetings about five times a week. He does not go to bars and has had to change his entire social life including the friends he used to drink with to maintain his sobriety. Now a two-time marathon runner and a gym rat, Jeremy says, "AA is great because you meet people who are struggling just like you and for the first time, I felt truly understood. We have all done things to be ashamed of, things we regret but we are trying to do better. Being listened to without judgment is priceless. I have learnt to forgive my past and I also enjoy the community."
Clara is an athletic pint-sized 43-year-old divorcé. This former expat just moved back home eight months ago and according to her, things are just falling apart.
"I got divorced more than seven years ago and soon after, I stopped drinking," she says.
"My ex-husband is a huge guy and he and I used to drink together. I used to match him shot for shot, drink for drink, then after we split up, I decided I didn't want that in my life.
I was living in India at the time and I tried to attend AA meetings there but it was really uncomfortable. There were no women in the room and I felt that I was making everyone uncomfortable because they had to speak English when I attended meetings. So I gave up drinking but I started smoking marijuana almost daily.
"I have been seeing a naturopath for a few weeks now and I realise that though I am alcohol free; I am not sober because I am high on another substance.
I didn't really deal with the issues that were making me drink in the first place so I am seeking another high in weed to avoid those feelings. Being in this environment is bringing all those issues to the foreground. I don't know how long it will take me to heal or to deal with these issues," says Clara breathlessly.
"I realise that I am an alcoholic but even saying those words... they just stick in my throat. I do not want that to be a part of my identity and I do not want to keep calling myself that like they do in AA. 'I am an alcoholic...bleaghh!'. I have heard that all addicts have a problem with self-acceptance and clearly, I fit right in," Clara laughs tearfully and mirthlessly. It is clear that she is clutching at straws trying to make sense of life choices that seem disparate at best.
Just like roads to Nairobi, there are many paths to recovery. Pascal Mwita is an Addictions and Shame Therapy Specialist who founded The Amuka Pilgrimage. He recommends that everyone starts with the audit, score it carefully and then email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mwita also urges that you do not diagnose yourself as an alcoholic. Here is the test and good luck:
I scored 12 on my test which means that I am at moderate risk for harm. Because I scored 'more than 4' in questions 4 to 6, Mwita said that I should be assessed for dependency to alcohol.
After a candid conversation about when, why and how often I drink, he suggested that I stop drinking when I am upset and find healthier ways of dealing with my feelings of hurt and anger.
Mwita is clear that Kenya has a lot to offer when it comes to treatment of alcohol dependency:
1) The Amuka Pilgrimage offers a sui generis service that entails one-on-one therapy, development of physical health through diet, nutrition and exercise; and home visits to support you as you re-create your world to facilitate a new sober life.
2) Therapy with an addiction specialist.
3) Alcoholics Anonymous - this is a 12 step programme in which you go for free group meetings. The typical format entails identifying yourself with "Hi my name is so-and-so and I am an alcoholic." You then share your story with the group. You will get a sponsor, typically someone of the same gender who has been sober for longer than you and he or she will mentor you through the 12 steps. To find a chapter near you may check out http://www.aa-kenya.or.ke/ or call the AA Kenya hotline 0727-234092; or email email@example.com.
4) Rehabilitation Centres - The first of these was founded by former American First Lady Betty Ford. She was trying to give up drinking and an addiction to painkillers but found that there were no treatment centres that catered to addiction. Once she got sober, she started the first Betty Ford Clinic.
There are several rehab centres (as they are fashionably called) around the country. They give you an opportunity to get out of your environment, abstain from alcohol and focus fully on healing. Most will offer a combination of one-on-one therapy and group therapy. Patients are frequently required to perform chores, the idea being that work creates self-esteem and self-respect.
Pascal Mwita points out that healing is not something that one can do alone, rather it is a lifelong journey that demands self-acceptance, compassion with oneself and a great support system. He says, "It takes years to create the life you are trying to change, so be patient."
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org