Ian Kanyi, 32, was eight years old when his grandmother, Agnes Kanyi, taught him a life lesson that, in retrospect, was his beacon as he navigated through the stormy waters of alcohol and drug addiction much later, in his twenties.
“One day, I asked cucu to buy me a mountain bike, but she said she would only get me one if I raised half the amount needed,” he says, smiling fondly at the memory.
The bike cost Sh12,000.
It took him two years of hard labour, picking coffee at his grandmother’s farm to raise the Sh6,000 he needed to make his dream come true.
“Many of the things that I have gone through and survived have been hinged on that profound lesson: that if you are willing to work hard for it, then good things will eventually happen.”
Ian’s mother left for the proverbial greener pastures in the US in 1992, having separated from their father two years earlier, leaving him and his sister in the hands of their paternal grandmother.
“I realised only much later that part of the reason I started using drugs was my parents’ separation and my mother’s subsequent absence,” he explains.
He never forgave his mother for leaving them, and has only recently forged a functional relationship with her after confronting the root of his resentment and sharing his sentiments with her.
“She understood where I was coming from,” he simply says, with the acceptance of a man at peace with himself.
His mother still lives abroad, but they speak weekly.
Despite his mother’s absence, Ian had an idyllic childhood with his grandmother, in Nyeri County.
“We lacked for nothing, and I only realised how much she was struggling much later, after I completed high school, when I had to move in with my aunt because she could no longer afford to pay my school fees and that of my sister.”
His aunt enrolled him at the Kenya Institute of Management (KIM), where he studied business management for a month before dropping out due to lack of school fees.
He met Kijiji Records owner, Kanjii Mbugua, while still dealing with the ‘failed college attempt’ label that was hanging like a cloud over his head. Kanjii offered him an internship opportunity - he was in charge of bringing in new artistes to the music label.
“My high school had prepared me for a career in audio engineering because it had a fully equipped music studio where we experimented with music.”
He left a few years later, but by then, Kanjii had helped him register for an online course in audio engineering and helped pay his way through the KIM business management diploma.
He took a one-year break, and thereafter, got a gig as a junior copywriter with an advertising agency. He was 24 at the time and had started experimenting with alcohol four years earlier.
“Agency life is crazy. We had a bar at the office compound, in retrospect, this was the time that everything began going truly South. I drunk every day, even when I didn’t have money. I was allowed to drink on credit, up to Sh25,000 a month. Two years later, I was poached by Nation Media Group. I excelled at my job, and with the new plum job came more money, and more money meant I could spend more on booze.”
The heavy drinking made it glaringly impossible to be productive at work and he started to experiment with cocaine to, as he puts it, “level me out” and enable him to function at work.
His boss had noticed his declining productivity, and advised him to see “someone”.
“He eventually got me to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with severe depression. It made me feel worse about myself, it made me feel useless. I felt like I had wasted my life. I was now on anti-depressants, mood stabilisers and tranquilisers, which I took alongside the alcohol and cocaine.”
By this time, he was going through two litres of vodka a day and a gram of cocaine almost daily.
He sunk deeper and deeper into depression.
“I got so frustrated that one day, I simply did not show up at work. Instead, I withdrew all my savings of over Sh500,000 from the bank and rented a villa in Mombasa. I spent all the money in a crazy three weeks. Nobody, including my girlfriend, knew where I was.”
This depression diagnosis would also lead to the first of three suicide attempts.
He emailed a suicide note to his then bosses at NMG, informing them of his intention to take his life.
“I still have that email and even I get so moved whenever I read it. There was such a sense of finality in it. I was really intent on killing myself,” he says, sighing at the memory.
“After sending the email, I swallowed all the pills my psychiatrist had prescribed. Some were mood-stabilisers, some tranquilisers. I swallowed all of them and washed the deadly concoction down my throat with vodka. I then lay in bed, waiting to die”
WAKE UP CALL
He woke up the next morning to find that he had vomited all the pills that he had swallowed.
“I was annoyed!” he says.
A series of strange events happened in Mombasa that made him come face-to-face with what he had become: a raging alcoholic.
“One day, after maybe two weeks; I was always super high I can’t really remember, I woke up at 6am and went to the washroom for a short call. Something compelled me to look down at the toilet bowl and I saw that my urine looked like the colour of very strong black coffee. That is when I knew something was horribly wrong, and I decided that I was not going to drink that day to give my body a break.”
He opted to drink water and nap, but woke up violently sick, burning with a high fever.
It was not until the housekeeper at the villa pointed out that there was a previous guest who suffered from the same “strange disease” that he saw his “sickness” for what it was: withdrawal symptoms.
“She urged me to take a glass of alcohol to help me with my “disease”. I resisted at first, thinking it would make me sicker, but I had nothing to lose and she was quite certain of the cure. After an hour, I was back to my old self. That is when I knew for sure that I was indeed an alcoholic. The housekeeper urged me to seek help, but I was too far gone.”
His second suicide attempt came soon after.
“I was staying on the top floor of the villa; one evening, I decided to take my life. I spent the morning tying up a rope to one of the wooden rails and got very drunk in the evening. I tied the rope around my neck and jumped to my ‘death’.”
He was overweight, 115 kilos at the time, so the rope broke and therefore did not do its job. He fell back hard on the stool he had been standing on and blacked out. He woke up the next morning with severe back pains.
But he was on a suicide mission and was not about to give up.
Third time round, he decided that a bullet would do it, once and for all.
“I had befriended one of the beach boys that hovered around the beach area near the villa. He had struck me like one of those people that could get you anything. I decided to ask him to get me a gun. Surprisingly, he did get me one, by evening of the same day. I paid Sh40,000 for it. No questions were asked. I did not ask him where he got it and he did not ask me what I intended to do with it either.”
The gun had three bullets.
After a night of binge drinking, Ian sat in front of the TV watching a James Bond movie, sipping his drink, thinking it was going to be his last when his phone suddenly rang. He had changed his number several times to avoid being traced and was surprised at seeing the familiar number.
“I think I had called my sister with the new number in one of my drunken stupors, and she must have shared it… I’m not sure.”
It was his grandmother, the woman who had been both a father and mother to him.
She asked him how he was doing, and he responded by starting to cry.
“That phone call was one of the miracles of my life. Cucu says she called the number she always had… miracle? Chance? Coincidence? You tell me. There was something about hearing her voice that just made me break down. I told her about everything that had been going on in my life and she reassured me that whatever it was, it could be resolved. She sent my brother-in-law to get me, and I agreed to go to rehab.”
Ian was checked into Avenue Hospital for an “absolutely brutal” 10-day detox programme. His liver and kidneys, he was told, were in bad shape.
The psychiatrist that had diagnosed him with depression was summoned to the hospital.
That is when a bombshell dropped.
“My doctor told me that what I was suffering from was, in fact, not depression, but bipolar disorder.”
The bipolar explained his mood swings: He remembered that he would be in high spirits one moment and want to kill himself the next. But he still had to deal with his addiction problem.
He asked his girlfriend, Eva, to get in touch with his boss at NMG. He had been away from work for three weeks and had not bothered to update them up to this point.
He spent 120 heavily medicated days at The Retreat Rehabilitation Center, Limuru, before going back home to Eva, who had stood by him through all the “crazy” moments.
“We felt like strangers by this time, but we were determined to see if there was going to be life after all that we had gone through.”
His employer kept him on payroll for the three months that he was in rehab and checked on him on a weekly basis through the HR office.
“They must have been very vested in my well-being especially after that suicide note; I was kept on full salary and benefits for the time that I was in rehab and was only let go after I got clean.”
Something happened at the rehab that made him hopeful about recovery: he took a blood test and the results flickered a dying light of hope in him.
“I had done some seriously stupid things while living the life of addiction, so I decided to do a full blood test while still at rehab. When I tested negative for every possible test they could do, I started thinking that maybe I was going to make it after all,” he recalls.
Despite his determination to stay clean, the addiction monster started preying on him again barely three months after leaving rehab.
“I relapsed. A friend invited me to a bar and I drunk two tots of vodka and two beers before I fully let loose and drunk throughout the night. Eva saw me next at 2am in the morning and simply burst into tears. She could not believe I had done it again.”
He went back to his daily drinking routine (this time keeping off drugs) until his family intervened and took him to rehab again. This time it was nothing fancy, just a good old-fashioned rehab centre called Asumbi Treatment Centre with only the basics. This time though, he was determined to walk away a free man. So determined and optimistic was he, in fact, that he requested to get off all the anti-depressants.
“I wanted out. I knew the drugs were blocking my ability to be creative and to conceptualise anything, and with the help of my psychiatrist, I managed to get off them.”
But something else also led him to his epiphany and edged him closer to victory over alcohol and drug addiction: it was a book.
“One of the counsellors at the rehab centre handed me a book by Eckhart Tolle called A New Earth. I couldn’t put it down after I started reading it. It taught me a lot about meditation and living in the moment. I couldn’t get enough of it, and when I left rehab 90 days later, I had not only bought the book off the counsellor, but also looked for every title Tolle has ever written.”
Tolle’s books became the life compass that he needed all along and their messages helped him sharpen his focus in life.
“In my search for more material along the lines of this newfound way of life, I discovered a documentary called “The Secret”, based on a book by the same title by Rhonda Byrne. My life would never be the same again.”
He spent a few years working as concept developer, first with his aunt’s company and later with Kanjii Mbugua’s, before starting his own company in November 2015, Conceptual Grey, a content and digital marketing startup agency based in Nairobi.
“To be the person that people used to shun, and who lost friends when he went to rehab, and who is standing here today as a father, husband and business owner in charge of 15 employees is humbling.”
Ian is married to his long-time girlfriend, Eva, and they have been blessed with a daughter, Kena, who is three years old.
So, what made his wife stay with him when it was easier to walk away?
“I asked her the same question one day. People sometimes ask me why I treat my wife like a queen, but I tell them that she stood by me when no one else would. When I ask her, she tells me that she still saw in me the man she fell in love with and was willing to fight for him. She always knew I would come back.”
Kanyi documents his life through a vlog (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FN2a93dfVQ) under the brand name, Jeged Life as a way of reaching out to people who have gone through a similar experience as he has in the hope of impacting their lives.
“I was given a second chance and I am not going to waste it. Statistics have it that out of every 10 people that go into rehab, only one successfully manages to stay on track. Four of the people I went into rehab with overdosed on drugs and died. Others relapsed. I know I was not saved for myself only, but also for others,” he says with the wisdom that only a man who has been to hell and back can muster.
He will be celebrating five years of sobriety in August 2017.
His life, he says, is testament to the fact that there can be life after addiction for those who want change desperately enough to work for it.