Question: “My 25-year-old son was admitted to a rehabilitation centre a while ago and I am just beginning to learn the terms around the topic of addiction. I am surprised by the things I could have picked up before hell broke loose. My entire life is on its head and the confusion is beyond comprehension. Is mine the typical scenario?”
Sadly, you are with the majority in the sense that most parents are caught by surprise by the finding that their son or daughter has been using drugs or alcohol to a point of admission to a hospital.
Even more tragic is the fact that some families lose their loved ones to drugs without ever being aware of the fact that substance abuse was involved in any way in the death. Deaths by hanging, road accidents, overdose, and acts of violence involving young men are common examples.
The world over, the problem of drug use is both common and growing. America, for example, is overwhelmed by the opioid crisis that continues to cause havoc.
The Russians have a runaway problem with alcohol while we in Kenya continue to fight the big war with alcohol, bhang, miraa and injection drugs such as heroin. More challenges are posed by drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines among others. All are in Kenya today.
Some people have argued mistakenly that the drug problem belongs to rich and affluent families of the city and that poor people in rural Kenya are somehow spared this problem.
When I was chairman of Nacada some years ago, we travelled across the country and can sadly confirm that no part of Kenya is safe from the problem. At the Coast region for example, the people have to grapple with all the drugs mentioned but have a particular challenge with heroin and in particular injection of this drug. This injection practice leads to high transmission rates for HIV/Aids.
In northeastern Kenya, the problems caused by miraa have led mothers in the region to tears for the lost lives of their sons and in many cases their husbands.
In central and western Kenya, the problems most cited related to cannabis and alcohol. The problems caused affected families. The difficulties within the educational sector led to much agony in the communities.
In a nutshell and in answer to your question, no family or region in Kenya is safe from the problems of drugs and alcohol, and like you, few are prepared to confront the grim reality this problem causes.
Additionally, the problem is so democratic that it spares neither the rich nor the poor. It also goes to both rural and urban areas with equal vengeance and knows no religious boundaries.
In the course of your contact with the experts at the rehab centre, you might have heard them talk about the fact that the addiction problem evolves in stages.
Taking alcohol as an example of this progression, they might have said that your son might have started off by experimentation.
In this first stage he would be tasting alcohol in sips either at home or in teenage birthday parties. Chances are that you would not be aware because at this stage all else would seem fine.
In the next stage he would have become a regular user and would regularly be out drinking which would then become a way of life for him. Depending on his age, you might notice an increase in the amount of money demanded and or a drop in school performance. New friends might appear on the scene and he might appear more secretive hiding his phone and always locking his room.
In the next stage in the journey to addiction, the full syndrome might be in evidence. Daily heavy drinking might be the order of the day, and as is the case with your son now, it might be clear that he is now no longer able to function normally because he is drunk all the time, and when he does not have alcohol in his system he gets withdrawal symptoms that could include extreme irritability, epileptic-like fits and in some cases could lead to death. This can be a life-threatening situation. Detoxification is often advised.
You might have heard them say that like many parents, you have been an enabler. That simply means that you have failed to act on the clear telltale signs of addiction, such as change of friends, increased need for money or even school failure.
Many parents make excuses for their children, sometimes blaming the teachers for the problems. Some blame themselves for not loving the children enough and tend to buy their love with money.
Nearly all blame the proverbial ‘peer influence’ while neighbours are nearly always at fault. In other words in many cases everybody except you and your lovely family!
Aa you can see, getting your son to the rehab marks the first day in the treatment and recovery journey of this chronic disease called addiction.
Dr Njenga is a psychiatrist and mental health consultant. [email protected]