I don’t think it is the weak who stay in toxic marriages, I think it’s actually the strong ones who do. The strong only leave when they have no more strength left, no more will. My younger sister packed her bags five years ago and walked out of her apartment – and toxic marriage – took a freaking bus in the cold winter of Zurich, Switzerland, holding her son’s small gloved hand and a suitcase with only the possessions she absolutely had to leave with. She found her way to the airport and fled from the ruinous horror of what was left of her marriage. Coming back home was something of a miracle because I had stopped thinking she would do it. And when I laid my eyes on her – a shell of a woman; motherless, jobless and with the self esteem of a homeless mutt- I knew the hard part was over and that she was going to be all right. And she is. It has been five years since her son stopped asking her, “Mom, why do you keep crying?”
And so when I got an email from a reader saying her best friend who just left her 14-year marriage and is undergoing divorce has a story to tell because she is in her 40s I thought, “Argh, good for her but her story is so ‘dog bites man.’” So I emailed her back asking her what she thought was unique about her friend’s story and she said, that she is a doctor, a successful policy-maker, a breadwinner and yet hadn’t had the emotional intelligence to leave. That piqued my interest; the collision of academic/ professional strength and emotional strength. Sounded to me like a ‘man bite dog,’ story, so I got her number.
Then came the important question; will she talk freely? Will she ask me not to use her real names (Oh God!)? How do I make her feel comfortable enough to get the raw stuff out? Whatever the case, she had to be completely relaxed.
Then I remembered that someone called Nellah from Entim Sidai Wellness Sanctuary in Karen had contacted me a while back inviting me to go for a complimentary spa treatment at their sanctuary in Karen. I didn’t go because, well, it gets so busy, plus I was just too lazy to drive to Karen. So I called them and spoke to Lucy, the manager. I asked them if I could go and treat someone and they said sure, I could.
So I booked Vallery Njeri in.
Entim Sidai Wellness is not what I had expected. First, it sits on a massive 20 acres that is full of indigenous trees. Once you have gotten off Tree Lane which is about 150m after that Karen roundabout as you head towards Ngong, you will plunge into a rich tapestry of all kinds of trees, drive under a canopy of green and on a road carpeted by leaves, past a wonderful quaint cabin to the right (I’m a sucker for those) and get immersed in the silence of the compound. The sound of your car seems so intrusive here, so you quickly kill it in the parking and close your door without a bang. Here, nature commands respect.
Entim Sidai means “beautiful forest” in Maasai.
Dr. Njeri shows up a few minutes to 1pm straight from work in wearing high heels, a dress and natural hair. She’s bubbly. When she disappears for her spa treatment, I decide to take a walk in this forest. I shuffle down a path and pass a glass house, which is a spa area for couples in the middle of the woods, complete with a jacuzzi and steam, and a table outside to enjoy green tea after your treatment. (If you are ever asking guys, “by the way my chic’s birthday is next week, any ideas? This here, is an idea.)
I walk through an orchestra of chirping birds, stand near a massive tree and look up. It’s one of those showy trees that go on and on right up to heaven’s door and up there I see something bright blue. On closer inspection I realise- to my amusement – that it’s a monkey’s testicles. The monkey stares at me as I stare at its testicles. I’m being rude and the monkey knows it. But monkeys don’t have rights not to be stared at, I mean, if you know you have blue testicles you shouldn’t be sitting on branches because people will look up! So I stare at his blue testicles as he stares at me, neither of us ceding to blink first – until my neck gets tired and I walk away. The monkey wins. He probably went home that evening and told his son, “Son, please don’t ever grow up with the manners of humans. It will break my heart.”
I turn right and I see – through the trunks of trees – another glass structure that looks like a restaurant. I walk there and realise to my consternation that it’s an all glass nail studio. A very snazzy one at that! While I’m standing there ogling, a beautician comes and asks, “Do you like it?” I say, “I love it! This is very creative. Women really know how to treat themselves!” She says, “You can treat yourself too. Would you like a manicure?” I’m a bit shy to do a manicure because, well, the monkey might see me doing a manicure and think, “what’s worse than blue testicles is a man doing a manicure,” so I say, “Maybe a quick pedicure?” So I remove my jumper and shoes and sit on this high chair and while she is folding up my jeans, Lucy shows up and says, “Give him a paraffin wax pedicure. You will love it, Biko.” So I do a paraffin wax pedicure which involves a normal pedicure but then you dip your feet into some molten wax up to your ankles then they wrap them in polythene paper and you slip into plastic shoes. After 10mins they washed your feet and massage them; it feels so damned good because all you hear in the silence are those wonderful birds and the occasional plane flying far above. It felt so good that I asked her if I could get a manicure as well. While doing the manicure, I see a monkey staring, it shakes its head and walks away and that makes me feel slightly bluer than his testicals. Monkeys can be so judgmental.
We are now settled at a table in the front lawn of the main house under a massive mugumo tree that looks older than Kenya. Herbal tea is served. It’s coincidental that this house was built in 1924 by another doctor, a Scottish missionary doctor who migrated to Kenya in 1916. It’s one of those very elaborate old stone-houses that even though restored, still seem to possess tons of history, moments and secrets.
Dr. Njeri will later have some fish (she barely ate it after she started talking) and I, chicken wings. (People who eat chicken wings and burgers with forks and knives will all burn in hell. Mark my words. God is watching you.)
Her story begins like all stories. Girl meets boy in uni. Girl likes boy, who is charming and all that. They date for a year after uni. She falls preggies. They wed. While she gets her feet wet in medicine, doing her second degree, he starts his own business but it doesn’t pick up as fast as they hope and so she bears the responsibility of carrying them on her back.
“I come from a family where solid marriages are a thing.” Dr Njeri explains. “My parents share a lot, they never seem to hide anything from each other and so since I had a steady income I shouldered the responsibility of taking care of the home. So I did everything; rent, food, school fees, clothes, I took loans and bought the two cars we had, I took loans to put money into his business. It was natural and I didn’t mind.”
She says her mental problems sort of sneaked up on her. “Maybe it’s because I was so busy pursuing my masters and having children that I didn’t really think I was being abused. Too much was going on to think about myself,” she laughs. But then things started becoming clearer after her third – and last born – child, what she calls ’clarity of thinking.’
“I think he felt emasculated because of my financial responsibility, and the abuse started coming in form of hurtful comments. He would talk to me carelessly at first and I thought it must be pressure from the business and all. But then it became more personal and more brutal – comments about me as a person, comments that implied that I was nothing, that I was stupid. He would get upset if my colleagues didn’t notice him. He didn’t like their husbands. He stopped hanging out with me saying I was too expensive, so I would give him my debit cards to go hang out with his friends. He’d snap at me without reason.” She unfolds her legs under the table and pauses. “Look, we both drunk alcohol, but he would come home drunk and really go at me for hours, talking at me and making me feel really small and foolish. So at some point I would pretend to be asleep whenever I heard him come home.”
This continued for a couple of years and one day she started having migraines that wouldn’t go away. Her eating habits became poor. For the first time her monthly periods became painful. They would go on for two weeks and she would plunge into severe menstrual stress. Then she started losing weight, flesh falling off her body, her cheeks losing their vitality, her eyes seeming to sink under heavy shadows of exhaustion and stress. Her light began to dim day by day, and before long, her days were reminiscent of stumbling through an endless corridor of darkness, just feeling her way through it, not even looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, just getting by.
“Did you tell someone, talk to someone, your Mom?” I ask.
“My parents didn’t know. How could I tell them? I was keeping a united front, covering for him, because I wanted a marriage like theirs!” she says. “You know, looking back I think my spirit was dying when I even stopped taking interest in the things I enjoyed doing, like gardening. We had a lovely garden which I would tend to daily but at some point I let it die. I couldn’t be bothered with it. When you lose interest in the things that give you life, you know there is a big problem.”
She then started hating the way she looked. She would look in the mirror and think there was nothing about her that was beautiful. “I felt ugly. I felt ugly and stupid because he would tell me that I was nothing, a nobody and I wouldn’t go far and when someone you share your life with keeps telling you these things it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you break and you start believing that you are what you are told. At some point I couldn’t even make any decisions anymore. Here I was, a strong career woman who believed that she was nothing.”
“Did all this spill over to your career?” I ask.
Her brow sinks in thought. “I couldn’t sleep. In fact, two years before I left, I didn’t sleep well.I would stay up all night, thinking and waiting for dawn and at dawn I would go to work because work seemed like the only place I found some respite because at home I was a nobody. I was nothing. My self confidence became so small. My relationship with men at work changed, I had this internal fear that I would get insulted, or put down. I questioned my decisions at work.”
“And how did it affect the children?”
“They changed too. My nanny of 10-years started telling me how the kids were changing; how they would fight against each other, an aggression they didn’t possess before.”
Things got worse, of course. Her sisters suspected something was very wrong given that she was losing weight and withdrawing and becoming this pale shadow of who she was. She didn’t open up about her troubles, instead she bottled them up and kept a strong front in the face of the raging turmoil within. The sex went through the window. Her garden started wilting; the leaves all fell off and what remained were dry, gnarled stems that seemed to reach out to clutch at some semblance of life. She tells me of something amazing that started happening to her. She started veering off the road while driving. Like all the time.
“The only time my mind would be completely blank was while driving and since I wasn’t even sleeping enough I would fall asleep at the steering wheel.” She says. But it wasn’t the conventional sleep with eyes closed – it was an open-eyed sleep, where your whole body slumps into a sleep but your eyes remain open. “Many times I would wake up in time to find my car veering off the road. A few times I would ram into the back of matatus in traffic. I’m lucky I didn’t have a major accident,” she says.
“What about your pals? Didn’t they see what was wrong? I mean if I started behaving strange, I’m sure one of my friends will pull me aside and say, “Boss, what’s wrong, your cheek bones are showing and you are acting very strange?”
“Remember the lady who emailed you? That’s one of my closest friends and she noticed and begged me to see a doctor because of my weight loss and my headaches but I’m a doctor and I thought I would know if I had a serious problem. As a doctor you are convinced you know it all. I also didn’t imagine that my marriage was the cause.” She grins. “Plus what doctor would I see? I didn’t want my business out there in the profession. I didn’t want to be a case study.”
She continues. “The thing with abusive men is that they are extremely charming, people on the outside think they are angels. My parents wouldn’t have believed me had I told them that he was who he was, they would probably have thought that I’m the psychotic one.” She laughs and I laugh too because I don’t know when I will next be able to laugh.
By the way, can I just say that at this point she has stopped eating while I stuff my face with these delicious chicken wings? I feel shameful to be honest, that amidst this story of doom and darkness I can still muster an appetite for chicken wings. And those chicken wings are many, but everytime I pick one I feel less guilty. I’m just a terrible person feasting at the feet of tragedy.
Anyway, the first doctor they went to see with one of her friends diagnoses her with depression and she thinks, no way. “Do you know how you know you are depressed?” She asks me.
“They ask you one simple question;’How do you see yourself?’” She says. “A lot of it is self image, self love, how you see yourself as a person.”
Anyway, she doesn’t take the antidepressant drugs she is given. Things get worse and later on she calls a friend crying and she takes her to see another doctor in Hurlingham who worries that she is grossly underweight. She is put on new drugs and psychotherapy and the drugs make her stronger and more energetic.
“I knew I was a bad case when I would meet people I know and they would wear that shocked look on their faces,” she says. “I’m the kind of person children are drawn to. Children see me and they want to hug me. So when children began to be repulsed by my sight I knew that I had lost it.”
“What did your husband say about your medication?”
“He never accompanied me once to those doctor sessions and he would ask me why I was taking those drugs, asked if I wanted to die!”
This one time she is in the States travelling for work and she is just roaming about, blue as a girl can get, when she stumbles upon this cathedral. She goes in and puts a prayer request in an envelope (health, happiness and peace of mind), lights a candle, prays and leaves. She comes back to Kenya and slightly over a month later, she receives a handwritten postcard from the cathedral’s chaplain telling her that they had prayed for her and that they had her in their thoughts.
“I was so, so touched. I have not mastered the strength to write to that chaplain and thank him because everytime I sit down to write it I break down. I think during this time is where I felt a shift in my life.” She looks away and I’m thinking, don’t cry, please don’t cry, I wouldn’t know what to do. I would probably have to leave the table and my lovely chicken wings and go look for the monkey. Because monkeys don’t cry.
She doesn’t cry. The scare passes quickly.
Because she was taking her drugs and seeing her therapist and feeling stronger and better about herself, she started standing up to her husband. She started pushing back. “He was used to my cowering, so my refusal to do things took him aback. Saying, ‘no, I won’t take another loan’ wasn’t something he was used to. Neither was I. The happy person he met a long time ago was coming back and I don’t think he knew how to deal with that, so he started pushing too. He would talk at me before the watchmen and my kids and the nanny and even in public. He was trying to pull me down to the place he liked me, a place of weakness, but this time I was fighting back. Then the threats of violence started. He would threaten me with violence and that’s when I remember my sister talking to my mom about my situation. We all had a meeting – myself, my parents and my sisters and I remember my father talking about raising us to be strong and to be happy and I completely broke down and cried and that’s when I also saw my father cry, for the first time.”
“What’s that thing that eventually made you leave?” I ask.
“This one time he was out drinking and he had been threatening to beat me up and I remember walking around the house hiding anything sharp that he can use to stab me with; forks, knives, scissors and so on and then I remember going to bed thinking; hang on, what kind of life is this where I’m hiding sharp things that he can use to harm me with? What point was this that I had reached that I was condoning the possibility of being harmed violently? Soon after I left.”
So two years ago, when she had just turned 39, she left with her kids; packed and moved into a smaller house. She cut the dreadlocks that she had had for many years. The day she moved out she lost all her anti-depressant pills. “I’m not the kind of person who loses things, but that day I lost my medication during the move and I never took them again. I think that was symbolic.” She then adds, “I was scared that first night I moved out, and I cried so much. But that night I slept so deeply, like I had not slept in the past two years.”
“I find it so hard to reconcile that on one hand you were this kick-ass professional woman, doing big things at work but when you went home you were a mouse.”
“You know, when you are educated you use your brain to theorise and you use it to suppress your conscience,” she says. “Those two are different…” Lucy comes at this point and I offer her the clean bones of my chicken wings. When she is gone I ask Dr. Njeri. “Do you think you were an enabler of this situation you found yourself in, what was your role?”
“Definitely, I was an enabler!” she says. “I was a meek wife. I’m not the kind of person who likes confrontation…but saying no isn’t confrontation, is it? I think I was letting him get away with treating me like that. I was too concerned with pleasing him. So, yes, I enabled my situation.”
I stare at the old-tiled roof of the aged stone house. It’s getting to 4pm and the sun cuts through the branches and trees in what photographers call the golden hour. It’s a wonderful warm glow that lights up the greens of the grass. A bird like a dove calls somewhere and behind us, the treetops go on and on. Beyond, Ngong Hills loom. Small droplets of rain fall on my shoulder, but it doesn’t rain.
“What kind of a place are you in right now?”
“Stronger. I can make decisions that are good for me and my kids. You know as women we don’t take care of ourselves first. I remember that every time I travelled I would shop for the kids first, then shop for him and it is only when money ran out that I would think of Njeri. I think there is nothing wrong with thinking about yourself first, it’s only when you love yourself that you can extend that love to others.” I almost say Amen, but catch myself. I’m in the presence of a learned person, after all.
“I also think that married women, professional women, should be more forthright and honest when talking about their marriages. Too much sugar coating is going on – people lying about their marriages for the benefit of other women, women who keep a brave face to save the perfect image of a happy marriage. It’s not sustainable.”
“What does this divorce mean for your children?” I ask.
“You know daughters and their fathers… they were devastated when I left but I talked to them and told them we don’t love each other anymore but they can see him whenever they want to,” she says. “I think that environment can’t be good for children’s upbringing. The teachers have seen tremendous change in my children; they say they are more confident and articulate than they were before. I noticed that when he used to deride me before the children they also started to disrespect me.” She pauses. I stare at her fish sadly. No fish has to suffer that level of neglect. It breaks my heart.
“What is the divorce teaching my daughters?” she poses. “I think it would be ironic that I give them a great education to be strong women and leaders in future yet they see their mother, a professional, being abused in marriage. If your mom took it, why can’t you? My friend tells me that growing up they saw their father do the same to their mom. Now they don’t have a relationship with their mom, it’s like they blame her for taking all that abuse.”
She feels liberated two years after leaving. She just turned 42 years and she is getting back into her old skin. She climbed Mount Kenya and she is planning on climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. (“It’s metaphoric, this quest to climb mountains. You are telling yourself that you can overcome great challenge and adversity,” I tell her.) She also has a garden where she lives in Karen and she spends every evening in her garden, pruning, watering her lilies and carnations and orchids because she loves flowers and she loves the feeling of feeding her spirit into the spirit of nature and what nature gives her in return.
She takes out her phone and shows me a picture. It’s of an Amaryllis flower with large white petals. She says the flower has a story. “I bought this flower seven years ago when I was still married and it bloomed the first couple of years and then it never bloomed again. I tried everything I could to make it bloom but it wouldn’t,” she says. “But then I left my marriage two years back and it’s only recently that it bloomed again after a long spell.”
She then turns to looks at me to see if I get the significance of this.