Road to sobriety: I regret my first sip of alcohol

Luqman Ntarangwi was 16 when he first tasted alcohol and he assumed he could just quit when he wanted to.

It was, after all, all fun and games and it was just curiosity that made him take the first sip when his friend offered him vodka.

Luqman, 26, thought he was in control, but what he didn’t know is that the tiny sip was going to cost him his health, money, time, and even relationships.

He is just one of the many young people who have dealt with alcohol addiction, some successfully and others still struggling.

National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) surveys describe alcohol as one of the most abused substances in Kenya. As of 2017, 12.2 per cent of Kenyans between 15 and 65 years were actively taking alcohol.

Exposure to alcohol starts as early as 11 years among Kenyan children. In 2019, Nacada conducted a survey that sampled children from grades five to eight.

Least likely student
Respondents mentioned alcohol as one of the most available drugs.

The survey also revealed that 7.9 per cent of pupils had tasted alcohol at some point in time. While tasting alcohol may not be synonymous with addiction, it is often the genesis.

At the secondary school level, the statistics are even more shocking.

Nacada conducted a survey in 2016 involving secondary school students in which alcohol still topped the list of most abused and available substances.

The survey revealed that over 40 per cent of students knew a friend or schoolmate who used alcohol. Those who had tasted alcohol acquired it from friends, non-teaching staff, relatives, parents and teachers or they bought it from bars and kiosks.

Simply put, alcohol is not so hard to find or buy among young students.

These alarming findings could explain why Luqman, the least likely student, ended up taking alcohol.

Luqman was born in Meru County.

His childhood was idyllic. He attended Chogoria Complex, a primary school in Tharaka-Nithi County.

The school was founded on staunch Christian values, which were to set him on the right path. His mother was also quite strict, so he barely strayed from the path of obedience.

“She raised me in such a way that I would never be late for anything.

I was always the first pupil to arrive at school for about five years in a row,” he recalls.

As a Muslim, he attended Madrassa classes, where he learned values and the importance of maintaining good company. Besides, alcohol is regarded as haram in the Koran. All these factors combined formed the perfect recipe for a bright future. He even had a pen pal from Scotland, the ideal way to network at a tender age.

“My fondest memory was back in Class Six when we toured the Rift Valley for a week, with our visiting pen pals from Queensbury School, Edinburgh, Scotland,” he recalls.

He later joined Ikuu Boys High School. His high school days were filled with fun, learning, and experimenting.

He was quite athletic despite his small size. He played basketball alongside his classmates, and at some point, their class won crates of bread for winning a game.

He was destined for success. But why did he accept to taste alcohol? According to Mercy Wanjiru, an International Certified Addiction Professional at Support For Addiction Prevention And Treatment In Africa (Sapta) and the founder of Badili Maisha, parents may do everything in their power to shield their children from exposure to substance abuse, but external factors play a huge role. While Luqman seemed to be on the right path, he was dealing with peer pressure. The media was also shaping him.

“We used to watch movie series like Blue Mountain State, which encouraged reckless behaviour. Besides, drinking alcohol seemed so cool at the time,” he says.

Blue Mountain State is a comedy series based on American college football life. The series depicts college students engaging in drinking games, sex and football. There are barely scenes of class lectures despite being set in a college.

In one of the scenes, students play “beer pong” which entails throwing a tiny ball into a beer cup. If the ball falls into the beer cup, the cup owner has to drink the beer and the thrower makes new rules.

At some point, one of the throwers asks everyone present at the game to strip themselves of everything except the inner wear. The series clearly deviates from normal college life while focusing on students’ side shows.

As Wanjiru explains, other factors that expose children and teenagers to alcohol include cultural practices, such as drinking during ceremonies, living in an environment where adults drink frequently or where access to alcohol is easy. She adds that the road to addiction starts with only one sip.

“Depending on an individual’s first experience with alcohol, some will drink again, while others will find it distasteful and avoid it altogether,” she says.

Interestingly, Luqman describes his first sip as very bitter. “It burned, all the way to the liver. But I still wanted to fit in, so I drank again,” he explains.

Breaking bad

According to Wanjiru, it’s quite easy to notice signs of a loved one sinking into alcohol abuse.

In Luqman’s case, rumours started doing the rounds that the once good boy was breaking bad. At first, his mother was in denial, given that Luqman was quite bright, so she assumed he would know better.

However, his bad company of friends was giving him away.

“Hell broke loose when I passed out at the entrance of our home, very late in the night immediately after high school, after a drinking spree.

That’s how my mother found out that I was drinking,” he narrates. Like any other parent, she took steps to help her only son.

The mother would ask friends, religious leaders and relatives, especially his grandfather, to counsel him.

From high school, Luqman proceeded to Moi University. He had managed to score a good grade that earned him a spot at a Graphics Design and Communications class.

His entry into university did not just mark his first step to a career in the arts. It also paved the way for addiction.

Wanjiru explains that addiction takes place in five stages. The first stage is known as experimentation.

“Ordinarily, when someone taste alcohol, the brain releases pleasure hormones, which act as a reward,” Wanjiru says.

“If the feeling is too good, someone might be tempted to try again and again and soon they enter the second phase of addiction which is known as the social stage.”

“People at the second stage tend to drink occasionally in the company of friends. It could be a Friday affair, or drinking during parties,” she explains.

Drinking buddies

By the time Luqman joined university, he was in the second stage, characterised by drinking with friends from time to time. At this stage, he was still in control of the drink.

However, ‘Operation Tengeneza Monday, Haribu Friday’ was birthed once he settled into campus life. He had drinking buddies, who stuck by him throughout the years, and that was their slogan. They would drink all weekend, starting from Friday and sober up on Monday for classes.

“I would receive upkeep money weekly. Needless to say, I wasted it all on alcohol,” he explains. In addition, he had freedom and easy access to bars.

The aspect of drinking buddies, according to Wanjiru, is a classic sign of someone sinking deeper into addiction. She says: “Addicts tend to surround themselves with people who understand and support their habits.”

Due to frequent drinking, they may feel judged and even get defensive whenever someone calls them out for excessive drinking, hence their choice of friends.

“I broke ties with friends who criticised my lifestyle, but deep down, I knew they were right,” Luqman says.

He was at stage three, often referred to as the Instrumental Stage.

People at this stage experience increased tolerance levels and can handle more liquor than they used to. Their brains need a higher dosage to release the reward, hence the need to drink more.

The signs, however, become clear as an individual moves further down the stages. Changing priorities and neglecting duties is another crucial sign of addiction, which signifies entry into the fourth stage, also known as the habitual stage.

For Luqman, this stage came later in his fourth year of university. He started ignoring his classes and dedicated a lot of time to drinking.

“While most people converged at the lecture halls for classes in the mornings, I would start my day by heading to the campus shopping centre, where the clubs and alcohol shops were located. I would literally walk past masses of people headed for classes, but I was not bothered,” he narrates.

“My drinking problem worsened by the day, and eventually, I turned to cheap liquor. It was pure misery.

After four years, I had cemented my reputation as an alcoholic who needed urgent help.”

The misery and uncontrollable drinking are characteristic of stage four. During this stage, individuals don’t necessarily make the decision to drink or not to. It just happens.

Trying to stop drinking at this stage leads to withdrawal symptoms. Personal grooming
Stage four is also characterised by lack of personal grooming and often, change in physical appearance.

During his first year of campus, Luqman would invest in good clothing and shoes, but when alcohol became a priority, he stopped.

He also hints that his physique changed slightly as his eyes reddened and his lips acquired a darker hue.

“At this stage, turning over a new leaf without help is impossible,” says Wanjiru.

Though Luqman never got to the fifth stage of addiction, known as compulsive drinking, he went far enough. Going back home after completing his studies at the university marked the first step to recovery.

Addiction would soon end, but not so fast.
After university, his life changed from miserable to living hell.

First, he had gone back to his village with an incomplete final year project. That meant graduating was a distant dream despite having spent over four years at the university.

Besides, he had left his drinking buddies behind and it was time to grow up, on his own. He was not fit enough to work in any organisation due to his addiction.

With no pocket money to finance his addiction, he developed withdrawal symptoms and was admitted to a hospital for three months.

As Wanjiru explains, addiction is a chronic illness, just like diabetes or cancer.

“It is not something you snap out of because it changes the way your brain operates,” she says.

Therapy and counselling
This explains why Luqman fell ill.

Alcohol had damaged the normal functioning of his brain. He had learned a behaviour which then became the norm over time. Unlearning it was not only uncomfortable but it was going to take time.

“Falling ill was an eye opener.

For the first time, I admitted that I needed help,” says Luqman.

This is where his journey to a sober life began. The statement “I need help” can be quite powerful in an addict’s life.

It signifies a strong will to end the misery. Luqman underwent therapy and counselling. He also changed his company of friends and quit all the WhatsApp groups which had influenced his behaviour through the years.

After eight years of abusing alcohol, he was finally seeing the damage it had done in his life — from a young, innocent boy with a bright future, to a miserable young man.

Disappointed his mother

A lot of money had been poured into regaining his dignity through therapy and treatment. He had lost opportunities during the eight years, not to mention the many phones he lost in bars.

Most importantly, he had disappointed his mother.

“I always regret the pain I caused my mother, who is very fond of me. I owe her a lot and I’ll make her proud by being the God-fearing, well- behaved man she raised,” he says.

After months of intensive therapy, he finally sobered up, finished his school project, and earned a spot in the graduation booklet.

He later on ‘tarmacked’ — Kenyan lingo for job-searching — for a year and a half.

Finally he landed a job. He had eventually come of age, but even so, staying sober is a task he has to fulfil every day.

As Wanjiru explains, relapsing is part of recovery.

“Simple things such as the thought of old drinking buddies or old memories, seeing a beer bottle, or even an alcohol advert can trigger the

desire to drink again,” she says.

“I managed to stay sober for a year and three months after treatment, but I relapsed three months ago,” the recovering alcoholic confesses.

“I, however, got in touch with my therapist, and I’m now three months sober after the relapse,” Luqman says.

Relapse is, however, not the only challenge recovering addicts face.

The first few months after quitting alcohol are characterised by withdrawal symptoms such as thinking too much, isolation and grief over the loss of friends.

It is, however, possible to develop coping mechanisms such as changing one’s routine.

Luqman had to change his hobbies from drinking to taking walks, designing, listening to music and meditation.

Relocating also helped.
Today, he can confidently say he is living his dream.

He is a graphics designer, experiencing a lot of progress and growth daily.

Circle of friends

Having escaped the bottle-necked life of alcoholism, he has a few tips for those who are still struggling with addiction; “First, change your circle of friends. Nowadays, I keep a circle of friends, who push me to pray and achieve my dreams.

I avoid people who would ordinarily offer to buy me drinks. Also, there’s nothing wrong with spending some time alone.”

“Second, seek help. Therapists can work magic if you lend them your ears. It’s also important to stay busy and change hobbies or recreational activities. Finally, stay close to God and be optimistic. You can do it.”

By Mercy Wanjiru

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