First came the fun; alcohol gave him an intriguing feeling of elation. Then an irresistible urge to keep going; his friends were on hand to urge him on. Dependency followed; Gitau could not put his bottle down.
When a tempest shook his life, he woke from his stupor. Ten years had passed him by, and left behind important lessons.
Gitau recovered , and today, he is a certified addictions professional by NACADA. He is a member of the International Society of Substance Use Professionals and the World Federation Against Drugs.
Gitau is the director of Uhai Centre Limited, a counselling and consultancy firm in Thika.
You have a past relationship with alcoholism…
I started when I was in Form Two in 1993. This was fuelled by the desire to assume adult roles and become independent. In college, I drank casually with peers to socialise. After graduating and failing to find a job, I started binging, and soon, drinking became an all-day affair, leading to addiction.
Why are the youth most at risk of drug abuse?
Adolescence is a developmental period when youth are exposed to new ideas and behaviour through increased association with people and organisations beyond their background. Significant changes occur in the adolescent brain, often leading to poorly thought-out decisions.
What was the turning point?
After some time, I was taking alcohol, not for fun anymore, but for my body to function ‘normally’. I could get sick, experience tremors but soonest I drank, this would peter out. My health had deteriorated as I became disoriented. Family and friends stopped trusting me. I had also neglected my obligations of a father and husband. My life was literally tearing apart. I had to abandon alcoholism lest I lost everything.
What do you specifically do to address the problem of substance abuse and alcoholism?
I run a drugs prevention programme using preventive communication and motivational mentorship strategy. My approach is diverse and targets all social settings.
As an addiction counsellor, how do you help addicts recover?
I conduct one-on-one counselling sessions. Depending on the extent of the problem, I may refer the person to in-patient treatment. Most importantly, I advocate for prevention. Notably, many rehabilitation centres that are not accredited by NACADA have commercialised treatment, which is unethical and condemnable.
What is the extent of your activities?
So far, I have had interactions with various government agencies, corporate institutions, schools and churches, where I have also conducted sensitisation and training on alcohol and drug abuse. I have visited all public primary and secondary schools and tertiary institutions within Thika Town Constituency with the support area MP Hon. Eng. Patrick Wainaina.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve?
It is worth acknowledging that fighting alcoholism, drugs and substance abuse means promoting inclusive development. I am, therefore, determined to ensure that all people have access to information on harmful effects of drugs, by reaching out to the most vulnerable populations, particularly among youth and children. With concerted efforts, it is possible to achieve alcohol and drugs-free communities.
In what significant ways has your life since changed?
I have restored the community’s trust in me; people seek for my advice. I have mentored many young people and adults alike and helped them to transform. I am now a responsible family man, who contributes to community development. In 2017, I graduated with a Master in Project Planning and Management from the University of Nairobi. I have my life firmly back on track.
Drawing from your own experience, explain why recovery from drug abuse is not an easy process...
The slide to alcoholism and drugs takes root gradually. Trying out drugs is usually a voluntary decision, but after repeated abuse, it becomes involuntary because scientifically, drugs change the brain! At this stage, it is possible for an addict to imagine that they are bewitched, cursed or mentally ill, and even seek alternative healing instead of professional help.
How can the process of recovery be made smoother?
Firstly, we must acknowledge that addiction is a brain disease. It is, however, manageable, and recovery is a reality. Let us stop the stigma, labelling and name-calling. Instead, let us help victims the same way we do with other ailments. If one person suffers, the society suffers.
Tell us about your book…
In my remarkable recovery journey, I published a book “Surviving an Addiction”. In the book, I narrate my own experiences with alcoholism and how I survived. I provide tips on prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration of the recovered addicts into the community. I have also outlined the ramifications of drugs on an individual, family, society and country.
Is there something about drug abuse that we are not often told?
Yes, that abuse of alcohol and drugs leading to addiction could start as early as during pregnancy when expectant mothers drink alcohol, nicotine and drugs, affecting the developing foetus. It is also unknown to most people that that alcoholism is hereditary and that the environment that children grow in affects them later in life.
Besides drug abuse, what is the main challenge that Kenyan youth contend with? What can be done about this situation?
Recently, there are many quick money making schemes such as gambling and betting that have led to non-chemical addictions. Lack of proper mentorship is also a major concern.
There is also a lot of frustration from unemployment even after completing school and attaining requisite employment skills.
The solution would be to provide business mentorship and to develop self-reliance skills such as entrepreneurship instead of relying on employment.
What three things would you change about your past? Why?
I would not drink at all. My problems started with my first drink. I would also change my peer group; they influenced me into this destructive habit. I would also seek different sources of pleasure apart from alcohol.
What measures do you propose for addressing the scourge of drug abuse in Kenya?
There are two scientific approaches that are highly recommended. First is demand reduction through drug education and sensitisation by equipping populations with relevant evidence-based information. The second is supply suppression, by cutting all supply lines and to prosecute culprits.
The Alcoholic Drinks Control Act of 2010 (Mututho Law) should also be implemented diligently to the letter. Additionally, corruption greatly contributes to the escalation of drug abuse.
It is absurd that some prison warders, for instance, would allow substances in jail instead of helping to rehabilitate and reform inmates. We must also enact and adopt workplace policies on alcohol and drug abuse and take parenting seriously.
How can someone find you?
I have an active website www.uhaicentre.com where people can find more information on the services I offer. My mobile phone number and email address are also available on the website.