I’m seated at an insipid reception, below a massive painting of The Crying Shepherd. The settee is purple. There is a flower vase on the coffee table before me and some gorgeous flowers lean in it. I’m the kind of woos who loves flowers so, on my way to take my seat I sort of touched the petals of the flowers. Plastic. There are no magazines in the room. No calendar. No clock. The walls are bleached white and across from me is a huge window which lets in a flood of light. A rotating fan lethargically chops at the dead air above this ensemble.
To get in this room I had to write four emails, make five phone calls then I had to cajole and when that was proving fruitless I resorted to lying. At some point I had to meet some cynical lady at Java on a drizzly early morning and make promises I wasn’t sure I would keep. Then one morning – weeks later – I had to drive out along Langata Road, into Magadi Road then down past Banda School and some half hour further down that road to a location I promised the lady at Java I wouldn’t reveal on this blog or on any media. Then I had to stop at a nondescript gate where a guard checked his clipboard to see if I was expected. Now am here – in a green pristine compound, teeming with trees and birds – staring at the plastic flowers and feeling sorry for all those people who have sat in this very room and thought they were real.
The only other settee in the room is occupied by a woman and a man. The woman looks like she is in her mid 50’s but you can tell she is much older than that because she has money. Boatful of money. She sits upright, regally, defiantly. Her spine straight as a runway. She has an expensive watch, gold. I can smell her purse all the way from my seat; it smells like a cow. Genuine leather. It’s rich brown leather, with a nice simple golden buckle. You can tell a lot about a woman by the kind of purse she carries.
Her skin is like milk. Her hair is pulled back severely against her face which makes her look handsome. She avoids my eyes. But she is sad, I can tell. Sad and weary. I can tell sad people when I meet them. I can tell them even when they laugh (hollow) or from their eyes (windowless) and how the corner of their lips curl slightly in silent stoicism. But she looked like a woman who tried very well to keep her troubles under her hat; I could tell from her Victorian posture. She dignified her problems.
And one of her problems sat next to her.
The gentleman looked like one of those guys you will find at Tamasha Hurlinghum at 9am on a loose Saturday, having a hair of the dog. Those folk who look like they live from one hangover to the next. Those folk who wear Hush Puppy loafers and Lacoste polo shirts with collars constantly turned up.
This cat is light and a little heavy on the midriff. He looks 36 and broken. A thin gold chain dangles from his neck. It’s morning but he is perspiring. He cuts the imagine of those yuppies who follow safari rally to Nyeri in their turbo charged Subarus. Those fellows who drive down to Naivasha “for golf” even when their true handicap is not in golf but their untamed hedonism. You must know one, surely, those folk who will tell you in a raspy voice that betrays years of relentless bingeing, how last week he went to Naivasha for this exclusive party at a country home belonging to his buddy. You must know these out of town homes where Nairobians throw parties in; homes full of “imported” chicks (campus) that mill about the swimming pool, their perky breasts, yet to be persuaded by gravity and age, pushing against their flimsy bikinis while spoilt, self entitled middle-aged yuppies ogle at them with beers in their hands and the sun on their potbellies.
He has a wedding band, this chap. One of those thick white gold jobs that costs and arm and a toe. He slouches on the chair next to the lady who I could have bet is his mom, or auntie. His eyes are red and he looks like he hasn’t slept a wink since he got his national ID. He looks knackered. Smashed. Wasted. Effed. And he looks sadder than his mother. He looks like he has been crying, or is just about to. They don’t say a word to each other; the lady stares ahead at The Crying Shepherd and he sits next to her, staring at the floor and sometimes sighing loudly.
In my head (and perhaps because on my way here I was listening to it) the song Stop this Train by John Mayer offers the soundtrack to this bleak tableau. It’s one of those songs that will certainly play during the Second Coming. It’s a song that splits your heart, and those two had their hearts asunder.
I was in a rehab center.
It’s one of those exclusive posh nosh rehabs where the rich go to hide the shame of the family. It’s where the upper middle-class go to hang their dirty linen to dry; 80k the first month and then 50k for a month for the next three months. I was there to do a story. I was there because I was naïve; naïve at my expectations of what a rehab was, naturally informed by television and books.
The lady I meet, the one who “speaks” for the rehab is a motherly, almost grandmotherly, lady whose first words to me when she meets me are; “Do you drink?”
“Yes, but not in the mornings,” I say tongue-in cheek as if she was about to offer me something stiff. Of course I mean it as a joke but she doesn’t crack a smile. She is cold; a talking ice cube. I almost feel sorry for making light of something like that, especially in a place like this.
“What do you drink?” She asks as she leads me to her office.
“Wine or whiskey, depends on the time of the month, where am drinking it and who’s buying, ” I say, taking another stab at light humor but my efforts are thwarted when she ignores me again. I then make a point not to say the first thing that comes to my head. I stare at the back of her white hair as we walk into her office which is as cold as her.
“How often do you drink?”
“Uhm, not much. Three glasses of wine…four?” I say and then add quickly, “My job demands that I attend cocktail dos and what not. Plus I review bars, so…”
“Let me guess, you have it under control,” she says. Oh, okay, so she’s allowed to be sarcastic and I’m not? I say nothing because I assume that statement was rhetorical.
Every month, she tells me, they receive about eight men and women to the center, most of whom they turn away. The facility holds 25 people at any given time. They don’t advertise. They don’t make noise about what they do because to shadow their door, is a private decision. You have to want to be there. You have to ask for help. “Do you want to be here,” is the first question they ask their “patients” during the pre-admission interview and if the answer is no, they will thank you for coming and see you to your car.
They receive broken men and women. Men sick from alcoholism and drug addiction. They receive men who are at the edge of hopelessness, where what remains for them is the ultimate fall; death. They are brought in by their mothers mostly because only your mother would take you when you are broken and written off. Because only your mother would want to fix you when everything else has failed. But sometimes they are brought by wives or brothers or sisters. Hardly ever by friends, she tells me, which should tell you something. And once in a long while, she told me, a man will drive through their gates unaccompanied and ask to be saved.
As she showed me around the facility (as she calls it) I saw these guys and I felt like I knew them. I really did and later it occurred to me that I felt like I knew them because we are in the same age bracket. They are the same guys you would see seated at Slims in their work shirts, fiddling with their Blackberries. Or at Pitch and Butch, still in their Ksh 35k suits, loosened ties and a cigarette burning between their fingers. Or at Porters House in town, nursing a whiskey as they watch the 7am news. I know those guys because we all grew up together, we all drink in the same bar, we all have dated the same chicks at some point, we all go to the same carwash and we all try to reconnect with God every Sunday.
“The biggest problem is in the age bracket between 25yrs and 42yrs old. You people drink too much, smoke too much. You are headed for a painful reality in future,” the lady told me glumly as we passed two guys seated on a lawn playing chess. One was smoking a cigarette. They looked normal but their normality on existed within the confines of that compound, if they step out of the gate before they have completed their program, they will no doubt head straight to the bar, she informed me.
The sobering truth, one that I left the facility with, is that we are dying slowly. We are all dying from booze. We are drowning in hedonism. We spend too much time in the bar washing down our lives. We imagine that tales of drunkenness are medallions that we should hang on our walls and show off to our friends. We drink because we fear who we are, who we have become and we can’t confront that reality sober. We hope that at the bottom of the bottle lies redemption, or validation, but soon we realize that at the bottom of the bottle lies nothing. That when we look at the bottom of the bottle, we will only see our bewildered reflection.
And booze, as I witnessed at the facility, strips a man down to nothing. Booze turns you into a zombie, with red lips and watery eyes and sad pathetic eyes. But it doesn’t walk up to you, it sneaks up on you. One day you wake up and realize that you want a drink at 9am. You know you are in trouble when you realize that your hands shake slightly when you hold something. When you stop looking at your watch when you are in the bar. When you eat less and drink more. When you smell like a brewery when you belch. And you know the first thing that will go? Your hard-on. When that flies out the window your self esteem will follow next and after that your boss will call you and ask you to do something about your work. Then from that point, it will all go to hell in a hand basket. Quickly. The lady walked me through this process slowly, like you would a child, and when she was done, I truly needed a drink.
You are probably thinking, hell, I don’t want to read this glob of glum on a Monday. If it’s hard to read this on a Monday I can assure you it was harder to write it on a Sunday. I bet it’s even harder to read it when it doesn’t speak to you because you know how to handle your drink. But we all know someone who isn’t handling their drink well. Share this with them; maybe, just maybe they might be tempted to get help, or another drink, who knows.