Tales of courage: Rising from the murky waters of alcoholism

Mwendwa Mbaabu

Mwendwa Mbaabu is a recovering alcoholic. She is a coach and author of several books on healing and self discovery.

Photo credit: Pool

Mwendwa Mbaabu’s father died young, at the age of 43. He was an alcoholic. She first noticed her dad’s drinking problem when she was just five years old. He would come home drunk and beat up her mum. The next morning when he sobered up, he would apologise profusely only to beat her up again when he came home in the evening.

“I was angry at my dad for his violent behaviour. He turned mum into his punching bag. His drunken stupors and how he staggered home after his drinking sprees embarrassed me.”

The time Mwendwa joined high school in 1996, she was suffering from undiagnosed depression. She resented her dad for choosing liquor over his family. This realisation made her sad and caused her self-esteem to plummet.

“Unlike now, there wasn’t much information on trauma and depression back then. I thought what I was going through was normal, part of life. I thought people grew up in fear and shame.”

From the outside, Mwendwa’s family seemed pretty normal. They were middle-class, living in Donholm. However, the pain caused by her dad’s addiction marred any chance of happiness in the family.

One night, in 1998, Mwendwa’s dad came home drunk as usual. He was in a foul mood and as soon as he got into the house, he began causing chaos.

“This time, he wasn’t beating mum but instead, he tried to strangle her. Mum was able to free herself, barely. The next day, we had an intervention with extended members of the family and dad was asked to move out. We moved to a different estate, Phase 5 in Donholm.”

The incident happened in August. In December same year, Mwendwa’s dad came to visit them seeking reconciliation. Although her mum was convinced that he had changed his ways, the rest of the family remained sceptical.

“That December was the last time I saw my dad. In May, the following year, we received news that he had committed suicide.”

The first drink

Mwendwa loathed alcohol. She saw it as the source of all her misery and thus vowed never to sip the nasty drink. It had robbed her of wonderful childhood memories, and eventually of her dad. Unfortunately, her resolve to be a teetotaller was about to get tested.

It started with meeting a boy. Mwendwa had just completed high school in 2000 when she met a dashing young man who was a student at Daystar University.

“We used to meet during weekends when he came home from the university. One day he decided we should go out and that was when I had my first sip of alcohol. After that, our outings became more regular, one every two weeks and I always had a drink or two.”

Mwendwa was 18 when she began drinking socially. Despite sticking to a drink or two, she would blackout and have zero recollection of how she got home or what happened during the outing. While this was a red flag, Mwendwa brushed it off perhaps caught up in the whirlwind or romance. For once, she had some semblance of happiness in her life and so no point in ruffling any feathers.

She enrolled at Daystar University later in 2000 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Commerce. The proximity to her boyfriend didn’t help strengthen the relationship but in fact it became rocky leading to a heart wrenching breakup a few months later.

“I figured the best way to dull the pain was to drown it in alcohol. I bought a quarter of Chelsea dry gin and drank it in my room at home. I finished and went out to get some more. I felt like I was on top of the world.”

After having a few more drinks, Mwendwa told the house help that she was going to catch some air at the rooftop.

“The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors and nurses. My mother was leaning on my bed sobbing. I was told that some neighbours found me on the stairway, passed out. They alerted the house help and rushed me to the hospital. I was admitted for two days recovering from what the doctors called an alcoholic coma.”

Relatives who came to visit Mwendwa in hospital were told that she had been drugged at a party. The incident terrified her and she decided to turn over a new leaf.

“I decided to get born again. I resumed school and steered clear of alcohol. I was sober for two years despite battling with depression and childhood trauma. However, at the time, I still didn’t know why I was feeling sad all the time.”

Becoming a mother

In November 2004, Mwendwa graduated from the university. She went back home and after a short while, caught the attention of a guy from her neighbourhood.

For the first date, the guy asked to meet her in a local pub. At first she was hesitant but seeing that the guy was interested in her, she decided to go to the pub. She had been sober for over two years and figured a drink would cause no harm. He asked for a bottle of Guinness and she said she’d have the same.

“I took three bottles and blacked out. Next thing, I woke up in this guy’s house and couldn’t remember how we ended up there. I left hastily in panic. Little did I know that I had conceived.”

A few days later, Mwendwa felt something was amiss. She was too anxious to wait for her periods so she decided to take a pregnancy test. It turned out positive.

“I was terrified of what my mum would say. I imagined what people would say about me. There was only one solution I could think of and that was to run away from home. I started planning for this carefully.”

One day, when Mwendwa was out of the house, her mum found the pregnancy test kit which had accidentally slipped and fell on the floor.

“When I got home, I found mum sitting on the sofa with the test kit in hand. ‘What is this?’ she asked me. I was too stunned to utter a word.”

Once the shock wore off, Mwendwa and her mum talked everything out. Thankfully, her mum came around and supported her all through the pregnancy. She gave birth to a baby girl.

“I regained sobriety during this period and in 2006, I landed my first job. I was making money, going on some dates once in a while and it felt like I had things under control. However, I could still have blackouts after a casual drink and often had no memory of what happened when I woke up. Yet, I never saw this as dangerous or unusual. I just thought my body simply couldn’t handle alcohol. We would go out with friends and they would dance while enjoying their drinks. I, on the other hand, would pass out on my second bottle only to be woken up when it was time to leave. Sometimes, I would have to be carried home.”

Mwendwa saw herself as a social drinker, going out twice a month at most. She knew she wasn’t an alcoholic, after all, she never staggered home every night like her dad used to. Even her mum agreed that she was not an alcoholic, and often described her drinking escapades as ‘a young person exploring the world.’

“I always told mum when I had an outing planned. I felt this was responsible of me and it made our relationship very smooth.”

In 2010, Mwendwa began thirsting for alcohol a bit more than the social drink. She started drinking during her lunch breaks while at work. At this point, she had figured out that she was depressed and consoled herself that the drink was simply a way to take the edge off.

“But I had grown up with an alcoholic father so it got to a point when I realised that I needed help. I was drinking regularly for a while now. I decided to seek help in church.”

At 29, Mwendwa got saved again and threw herself into church activities. For three years she was the poster child of a born again believer. She stayed sober, soaked in the word and prayed to be delivered from depression and suicidal ideation that sprung from her childhood trauma.

“But in 2015, I stopped going to church because I was still struggling with depression. I thought being saved and active in church would help me but nothing much had changed. I even met a guy in church but the relationship was short-lived.”

Off the bandwagon

After Mwendwa exited the church, she got into a romantic relationship with a guy from work. She didn’t know it at the time but the man was an alcoholic.

“We would hang out in his house and drink for hours. I would black out but it felt safe because I was in the house. This relationship fizzled out very quickly, all we did was drink and watch movies so it never grew.”

By now, Mwendwa was hooked to liquor and she even enjoyed drinking by herself in the house. In 2016, she started drinking everyday with great enthusiasm as if to make up for the ‘lost’ time when she was a church girl.

“One time I boarded a matatu while drunk and ended up in Kitengela instead of Mlolongo where we lived at the time. It was quite embarrassing, and dangerous as it was almost 11p.m. To prevent this from happening again, I bought a car.”

At first, Mwendwa needed excuses for her drinking; to cope with depression, to heal from a broken relationship, to manage work stress but as time went by she was content with just drinking for the sake of it.

“One time we were attacked by thieves while drunk in town. I somehow managed to escape the mugging and got home safely. However, I learnt about the incident from my friend as I couldn’t remember a thing. From that time, I decided never to drink in town.”

Interestingly, Mwendwa’s drinking never got in the way of her work. She called in sick a few times but managed to be productive in the office. None of her bosses suspected she had a drinking problem, at least not to the extent of it threatening her job.

Hitting rock bottom

One day in May, 2018 Mwendwa decided to quit her job. With plenty of free time on her hands, she spent days on end drinking at a pub near her home.

“Alcohol was cheaper in those dingy bars. I got in at 11am and left at around 3pm just before mum got back from work. I was drinking up my savings.”

Then in 2019, Mwendwa was diagnosed with h-pylori and the doctor advised her to quit drinking.

“I stopped taking the hard stuff and settled for Guinness and wines. Being a woman in a club meant getting some free drinks so I was able to keep indulging despite the drinks being more expensive than the other hard stuff.”

All this while, Mwendwa’s relationship with her daughter was strained. Even with her own mother, things were not as smooth as before. She had no job and spent all her time drinking. One day she fell while taking a shower and hurt herself badly. Her daughter was worried but this wasn’t enough to waken Mwendwa from her drunkenness.

“The wakeup call for me came towards the end of 2019. I had drunk up all my savings. My mum and daughter were constantly worried about me and I knew it was time to get help.

“I got a support group that helped me stay sober for about a month. I also learnt how to minimise my drinking so I drank thrice a week and only in the evening.”

Then Covid-19 struck in 2020. Mwendwa’s daughter was home because schools shut down and somehow this helped her tone down her drinking. She even found herself diluting drinks with water to curb the unease of drinking in front of her daughter. Spending time at home and being mostly sober gave Mwendwa ample time to work on a manuscript and towards the end of 2020, she published her first book. To celebrate the achievement, she went out for some drinks and ended up relapsing.

Early 2021, she got into another relationship. By then she was drinking heavily and the guy, who was well off, funded her drinking sprees. They both drank a lot and the relationship became toxic.

“We would quarrel heatedly and I would demand he takes me back home in the middle of the night. After some time, I broke up with him and went back to drinking by myself. Whenever my mum or my daughter talked about my drinking problem, I would get all defensive.”

Around October, Mwendwa who was now 39, developed a new interest. She started drinking with younger men in their 20s, age mates of her daughter who was 17 at the time. At first, she hang out with them for fun but after a while, she began dating one of them.

“I started disappearing from home for days, something I never used to do. One time, my daughter was home for midterm but I was away and came back just one day before she had to resume school. I was so ashamed of myself and blamed it on my young lover.”

Mwendwa felt bad enough to end the relationship and even blocked the guy. One day, she bumped into him and they decided to grab a drink and talk.

“I switched off my phone and we drunk for four days straight.”

When she published her book in 2020, she also launched an online coaching business. The venture suffered greatly when she fell off the wagon.

“I would disappear for a few days then come back home and apologise, promise to change. Then after a week, I would relapse and they cycle continued.”

At this point, Mwendwa’s daughter began writing her letters, calling her out on her reckless lifestyle.

“I felt guilty and ashamed. My depression made me feel suicidal. On December 1st, I went to visit my aunt in Nyeri. I stayed there for two weeks thinking about my life and praying about it.”

Mwendwa came back to Nairobi a new person. She cut links with her drinking buddies, blocked the young guy she had been seeing and told her daughter that she had quit alcohol.

“On new year’s eve, I found myself in a pub catching up with some friends. The urge to drink was strong, temptations all over. But I managed to stay on course.”

In March last year, Mwendwa got a message on Instagram from her ex-boyfriend. He informed her that a mutual friend had passed on and two others were in hospital.

“The three were involved in a road accident and one of them had died at the spot. The friend who died was 23 years old and they had come from a drinking spree before the accident happened in Mlolongo.

“We drove to the hospital to check on the other guys who had survived. Afterwards, my ex asked me to join him and a few other friends in a bar to eulogise our friend. That is how I relapsed.”

For the next three months, Mwendwa drank like never before. Her daughter stopped talking to her. In no time, she ran out of all the cash she had made over the past two years.

“I got back with my ex and we drunk together. We often slept in my car and I spent a lot of money buying drinks and fuelling the car. Sometimes when sober, I could think of my dad and how he died at 43 because of alcohol. I was 40 and such thoughts should have sobered me up but they didn’t. Friends warned me about drinking with younger people but I felt they didn’t understand me. When drunk, I thought my ex and I loved each other but we had nothing to talk about when we were sober.”

Breaking free

One day, after spending some time at a neighbourhood pub, Mwendwa decided to go home early and catch up with her daughter. As she was walking towards the house, she passed out right there on the road. A local butcher saw her and called her mum to pick her up. By the time her mum got there, she had regained consciousness and began wailing, begging God to deliver her from alcohol addiction.

“Mum first took me to get some counselling. I relapsed after a week and when I returned home after a few days, she decided to take me to rehab. I remember drinking the night before going to rehab. Somehow it felt like my last time drinking alcohol.”

On June 2, last year, Mwendwa checked into the rehab facility. She was there for one month and joined a support group right after leaving the facility.

Although one doesn’t become an alcoholic overnight, the subtle progression can escalate rapidly. Mwendwa says some of the tell-tale signs to look out for are excessive drinking, reckless behaviour and lying.

“I have been sober for almost 10 months now. The support group has helped me recover wholly and make new friends. My relationship with my daughter has improved as we get to spend more time together now. My relationship with God has cushioned me, especially through prayers and meditation.”

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