We meet Judy Wambui outside her home in Kiserian on a warm, sunny Saturday afternoon. She looks relaxed as she chats with Bernard, her husband of three years.
A book, ‘Sober Again’ by Stella Mathu, is on her lap. It is perhaps the only signal of the seedy drug past that Judy, now an addiction counselor, harbours.
“Love can blind you to the point of destruction,” she says of the primary reason why she dabbled with cocaine, heroin and marijuana in the first place.
“I never imagined that I could sink so low.”
It all began in 2002 at a restaurant along Moi Avenue where her friend, Jennifer, introduced her to a man of West African origin called Chooks for short.
“His friend was dating Jennifer,” explains Judy. Chooks told her that he was in town to handle a big shipment that was stuck at the port. Before parting ways, he asked her for a coffee date.
“I was awed at first sight. He was tall, dark and handsome.” For the next few days before their date, she could hardly get him off her mind. “I longed to see him again,” she says.
After their first date, they began to meet frequently as their coffee dates turned into cosy dinners. Before long, Judy began to date him. “I was head over heels. I even moved in with him at his Kileleshwa house.”
To her surprise, Chooks was already staying with another woman called Elizabeth. “I was alarmed at first, but he explained that she was just a friend whom he was staying with while his clearance got processed.”
Apparently, Elizabeth was a clearing and forwarding officer for a freight company in Industrial Area. Judy cautiously settled in and with time, her fears over Elizabeth’s position in his life dissipated.
“We even became friends!” However, as days went by, Judy noticed that Chooks and Elizabeth often talked about drugs.
“They seemed to agree that there was a lot of money in the world of drugs.” Whenever a drug peddler got nabbed by cops on TV, they would quip that he or she had just been unlucky, and that many other peddlers went by without getting noticed.
Judy began to suspect that something was not right. But while her instincts screamed that something was fundamentally amiss with Chooks and his friend, she was already deeply in love with him.
Her fears were confirmed one day in late 2002 when she came home early and found Chooks smoking crack cocaine on the balcony.
“He and Jennifer’s boyfriend would go to the balcony and smoke. All along, I assumed they were just smoking cigarettes.” Judy says that she stood there aghast, shaking.
“I’d been feeling that something was wrong. But in my wildest dreams, I could never have imagined that he was doing drugs. Later, she confronted him about it and he did not deny.
“Cocaine was just the tip of the iceberg. He was a drug peddler who also traded fake traveller's cheques. The cheques were usually stolen, and Chooks would forge his own details on them. He also did heroin.”
According to Judy, Chooks tried to lure her into the business, claiming that it had minimum risk and brought in huge, quick cash. The drugs would be sourced from Pakistan, and would come into the country through the local international airports or go to Tanzania first, then get smuggled into the country by road.
Even with this knowledge, Judy did not leave him. “I loved him too much and couldn’t bear to leave him. He splashed a lot of love and money on me.
He’d done nothing wrong to me except that he was a drug trafficker. If anything, I told myself that I could turn him into a good man.”
Instead, Chooks and Elizabeth began to assemble drugs at home in her presence. Sometimes, their customers and fellow peddlers came to fetch the drugs there.
“They sniffed and sometimes they rolled them into cigarettes.”
Chooks and Elizabeth began to woo her to try some. Initially, she refused. But it wasn’t long before she gave in. “I’d just come home after a bad day at my salon. I was tired and out of psych.”
Elizabeth, who was at home, noticed this and advised her to take a puff of marijuana. “She claimed that it would uplift my spirits,” she says. Reluctantly, Judy took the roll and smoked. Thus started five years of addiction to drugs.
She began to take cocaine, heroin, bhang and over-the-counter sedative pills. “There was a drug called Rohypnol, which kept me perpetually ‘high’,” she says. The pill is also a widely known date rape drug.
The addiction began to take a toll on her. She could hardly stay at work, and always went home where she took more drugs. “Things fell apart. Chooks’ health deteriorated and business became difficult to push through as security officers tightened their noose.”
It was while in the middle of this mess in 2005 that Judy travelled to visit her parents in Thika. ‘I was high and weak. My tongue was overly blue and my eyes were literally hanging from their sockets.”
Her folks thought she had taken alcohol, but on a closer look, one of her uncles determined that it was not alcohol but drugs.
“He called my mother and they cornered me. And after prodding if indeed I’d taken drugs, I admitted. I still don’t know if I did it due to drugs or whether I was subconsciously looking for rescue,” she says.
Judy’s family searched for a rehab centre that would work in her best interest and in mid-June, she was admitted at the Asumbi Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Homa Bay, Nyanza.
“I did not go back to see Chooks and for the next three months, I did not see or hear about him.” As much as she knew that she needed help, she still wondered how he was and if his health had improved.
“I finally managed to get word from Elizabeth in October. Chooks had been arrested and after a few days at the Industrial Area police cells, he had been taken to Kenyatta National Hospital where he died from drug-related complications.”
The news dented the effort she was making at regaining her life. She left the rehab and nine months later, lapsed back to drugs, this time in more earnest. “The stress was too much. I felt hopeless and beyond repair.”
With no friend, no home and no job, life for her became worthless. Yet, her family kept tabs on her whereabouts as they tried to get her back to the rehabilitation centre.
“Their persistence made me think that perhaps the dice was not yet cast for me. I could still regain my life.”
One morning in early 2006, Judy woke up and headed for Jorg-Arch Drug Rehabilitation Centre in Limuru. After a six month stint at the rehab centre, she joined the House of Grace church.
“I looked for friends and accountability partners who’d walk with me on my way from addiction.”
She admits that recovery was not easy. “At times I’d feel like crumbling. My body would thirst for cocaine and my tongue would long for pills. But I held on.”
Love once more
Having loved a man who nearly became her destruction, Judy was afraid to trust men again. “I did not want to be a mess again. Moreover, I was not sure there was one who could love me in spite of my past.”
Then along came Bernard. “We knew each other back when I was still an addict. He and two of his friends had attempted to get me to stop in vain.
Yet, he’d been patient and understanding. It made me feel secure around him.” Judy decided to accept his proposal for a relationship. They began to date and in August 2009, the two lovebirds married.
Today, Judy runs her own addiction treatment centre, Recovery Option. Looking back, Judy says that though she’ll never undo the pain she went through, she knows that her experience can turn someone’s life for the better.
“I may not be able to turn back the hands of time, but I know that my experience can be a lesson, an encouragement to someone out there who’s on the verge of doing drugs, or who’s struggling to regain her life afresh. It is the little things that make life better, and this is my little thing.”
Recovery is hard work
Judy Wambui’s counseling at her drug rehabilitation centre in Nkoroi, Rongai, extends to the close families of the patients.
“My parents were not counselled when I was admitted for drug addiction. In a way, I felt alone; abandoned and beyond repair,” says Judy.
“When I relapsed, they were not well equipped to help me out of it. I don’t want the same to happen to these patients.”
She adds that she has learned that addiction extends its destructive tentacles to close relatives of the addict as well.
To cushion her patients from desperation and relapses that are work related, Judy is careful to instil some work disciplines in her patients.
“Soon, they will leave this place. I don’t want them to relapse due to job-lack frustration. Painting or pruning while they are here helps them know that no matter how hard life is, there is always something decent that can be done to generate income.”
To find out more, we spoke to some of her patients. Here are some of their responses:
Jesse, recovering from drug addiction
“My greatest moment in recovery has been the interaction with someone who has been there and yet managed to come out. It sounds easy when someone tells you to quit drugs, but it’s not.
I have tried to stop many times to no avail. But when you meet someone with the same problem as you have, then you get a sense of assurance that indeed, quitting is possible. And that’s because they won’t read a quitting theory from a textbook but use their own experience. That’s what I have learned from Judy’s past drug addiction.”
Fredrick, recovering from drugs and alcohol addiction
“I descended into drugs and alcohol as a stress suppressant. I had lost my job and couldn’t provide for my family. Taking tablets and lots of alcohol became the only resolution for me such that I didn’t bother to look for jobs.
I couldn’t just do anything. But come to think of it, informal jobs are just as good as formal jobs. They provide reprieve where there’s none. For instance, before I came here, I couldn’t do anything else.
But now, I am a good painter. And job or no job, I know that I can get out there take a brush, do some painting and make a living. I don’t need to be an alcoholic or drug abuser to get over problems.”
George, recovering from alcohol addiction
“I never thought I could be sober. I was just too deep into alcohol. It reached a point where I began to sell household items just to get a drink. In turn, I consumed everything I had; family, income and even friends.
But after coming here, I have interacted with many other drug addicts, some with even bigger problems than mine.
Interestingly, our counsellor is a former addict. And look where she is! The sense of being in a family environment has made it possible to pull together and help one another where we struggle.”