Here is how I first met him. Let’s call him Njoro. Research on a mental health piece I was writing led me to a Dr Kigamwa, Consultant Psychiatrist at Nairobi Hospital, who – perhaps based on how distracted I was by his lovely lime tie and the mementos on his desk – invited me to do a quick ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) test, which I barely passed. And he then gave me the name of a psychologist – Lambert, on Theta Lane – who I went to see and discovered that he didn’t look anything like a psychologist.
“You don’t look anything like a psychologist,” I told him. I pictured psychologists to have long hair and woolen suits with things bulging in their pockets. He was youthful, slim, tall and wore a fitting well-cut suit. He looked like a well-to-do financial analyst who loved clothes a little too much. It also turned out that he was a psychologist for addiction, which seemed like an opportune moment to bring up my chapati problem but I thought it would have been a tad inappropriate.
Sadly, there was no couch to lie on in his office, just a chair stacked against a wall. He sat by the window, legs folded, jotting notes as I spoke. The setup was a tad disappointing. I thought I’d kick off my shoes, lie down on a yellow couch and talk to my socks as he sat over there with a severe poker face, like in the movies. I’d never been to therapy before. Ninety percent of what I do professionally involves listening to people talk about themselves and so it felt surprisingly refreshing to talk about myself to someone who didn’t know me. (Kinda). Turned out that talking about oneself seemed very selfish, but innately human. It was also quite surprising that he never cut in to talk about himself, as normal conversations usually go. I mean, you could be telling someone about a near death accident you had – your car flipped in the air twice and landed on a tree that happened to have a napping leopard – and most will chime in with a story of their own. “Oh yeah, reminds me of the day my cousin’s car plunged into a river and this crocodile with a nose ring slipped into the passenger window…” People seem to want to up your story with their own.
Lambert just sat there in his proper suit, smiling, nodding, sometimes chuckling at something I said, often asking open-ended questions, writing shit down. I told him a long tale about my grandfather, Jackson, and his guitar and he never once cut in to tell me about his own grandfather and his tractor. Which was perfect because I wouldn’t have been hot to hear about his grandfather, not when I was paying 5K for that session! But I will be willing to hear about his grandfather if we ever run into each other at a wedding.
I told him that it all made sense – this ADHD – because in primary and high school I seemed to have spent a great deal of time staring out the window during lessons. I was a dreamer, creating silly dreams in my head. I got nothing in the second lesson of the double lessons. Adulthood brought impatience. I get bored easily. I get angry fast. I have a thousand tabs on my laptop. I don’t queue – I go back. My leg always shakes under the table; tap, tap tap. I’m forgetful – I leave the fridge door open. I’m anal about time (never missed one single flight in my life) and don’t wait for latecomers. I hate itineraries – creating and following one. I love the Mourning Dove. (Not related).
But he felt that my ADHD was very mild and didn’t need medication. “But to understand ADHD better, perhaps you should attend one ADHD group therapy at Bustani (Chiromo Lane Medical Center)?” He suggested. Group therapy. What came to mind immediately was a group of people seated in a tight circle, in a grey-walled room staring at their shoes and being vulnerable. That Saturday afternoon I found myself seated in a circle in a gazebo at Bustani. It couldn’t have been a more eclectic group: There was a girl with a thousand bangles, a teenage boy with grills on his teeth (accompanied by his supportive parents who sat in and looked at him tenderly as he spoke). A middle-aged tattooed guy who refused to declare what he does, a guy with one lace-less sneaker, a waif oldish Somali guy with a nice watch that didn’t match his outfit. A sulky lady with black lipstick, a hatted fella who said very little – probably with the secret police, a guy with an old wrinkled t-shirt written in very small print that I had to squint to read, “My Life, My Rules.” A lady wearing Obama jeans. Then the therapist, a lady.
How it went was that you said your name and “something small” about yourself. Some talked more than others. Some hardly talked. Some talked in timid tones. Others were brave – staring into eyes. I heard wild stories. Folk who had abbreviated conditions; ADHD, PTSD, ADHD, BDD, AVPD, ATS, PPD, bipolar, and who medicated to create balance and equilibrium. I sat there listening to them and thought, damn, this is the very deep end; suddenly my inability to wait seemed extremely trivial. One thing they all had in common; they seemed highly intelligent and highly aware.
Now, the gentleman to my left was a bear of a fellow who when his turn came to speak said, “Guess what birthday present my wife gave me on my 30th birthday?” We all stared at him. I wanted to say, “A French kiss?”
“She left me,” he deadpanned. “Took our children and left me.” Nobody gasped. I suspected it would take a lot to make that group gasp. “I can’t blame her,” he added. “I was a mess.” Somehow, we started trading notes with this fellow during the session; he’d write something on his pad and pass it to me and I’d write a reply and pass it to him. Basically, primary school all over again:
“Wait, a minute – Biko? Are you the writer guy?”
“Yeah. What do you do?”
“I’m an energy engineer, a budding nuclear scientist.”
“Atta boy! You must be good in math and things.”
“I’m very good with math and things.”
“I sucked at math. Sucked!”
“Do you give autographs, by the way? If so, please?”
“I will do better. How about I autograph my book after this? I have a copy in my car.”
That’s how I met Njoro; he had been diagnosed with ADHD and Bipolar II. “Bipolar disorder is just the worst. It’s like the scrapings of ‘stew’ you get when you arrive late to a wedding,” he said. “It involves switching between two extreme moods of depression and mania, continuously. These changes happen over time though, weeks to months and stay there for extended periods as well.” I didn’t even know there was Bipolar II.
His marriage was over. He was running away from anxiety, abuse of alcohol and hard drugs, suicide ideation, thoughts of violence (“I’d have vivid violent thoughts of murdering my boss”), pain and anger…a cocktail of it. He had been in and out of rehab a few times, he told me.
I never went back to the group therapy but we continued to chat intermittently on WhatsApp. I found him extremely intelligent, quick witted and fun to chat with. He told me how he’d struggled to stay employed, his depression, how trouble followed him like a lost dog, how his marriage was “total bullshit, a complete farce.” How they’d kiss with the wife and hold hands in public functions and then drive home in complete silence. He’d tell me things that sounded like fiction. How one day, after drinking and driving for many hours, his ex-wife called him at around 4:30am and asked him, “Uko wapi?” and he was upside down, held by the seatbelt of his car that had overturned, and he was too drunk to crawl out so he lay there waiting for the morning light and a good samaritan. “I’m in a ditch, upside down, next to that supermarket 500m from our gate,” he told his ex-wife.
“Do you know what she did?” he asked me.
“No,” I said.
“She went to work.”
“I give her full marks, there are many things I could say about her, but the one that is most true is that she is a certified bad-ass,” he said. “Just to expound, she’s the type of lady who will listen to me park my car and tell me ‘Dude, check the bearings on your CV joint…front left. I can take it for you’.”
He talked of the drugs he has taken; antidepressants (Sertraline HCL) and Methylphenidate, that he said was “straight from Jesus’s pantry. “When he said he is the way the truth and the life, he also forgot to add that he is the plug!” he said. At one point, he was taking 84 tablets every single week. As his mental health deteriorated, everything around him seemed to crumble like a pack of cards. “It was the long nights drinking and chopping the drugs in the toilet in the club, and sniffing through a rolled up note. Then dancing and drinking the whole night.” he says. “There is an overwhelming sense of euphoria when you are on drugs, which we would go have in the toilet after every two hours. Before long it would be morning and the club was closing, so we’d move from Westlands to a famous club in Kilimani, Now the drugs would be wearing off and I’d be headed for a serious crash. So I call my doctor and I tell him I need to see him. I take an Uber to his clinic when he opens. He looks at me and says Njoro how are you, what brings you in so early? I tell him, ‘Doc, I’m drunk and possibly high. But most definitely high.’ He looks at me with a mixture of disappointment and amusement at how shitfaced I am. This time my eyes are teary from fatigue, I have a cold chill and shiver and my mouth is dry. I may have overdosed a little.” He takes a pause. “We discuss the events of the previous night at length and finally I tell him, ‘Doc, I have no regrets abusing street drugs because it felt really good’ and he says, ‘Of course it felt good, that’s why they are drugs, but we need to stop this cocaine business, okay?’ I say I will try. That was a normal life for me.”
He has a psychiatrist and a psychologist. The psychiatrist is a fatherly gentleman, the age of his parents he says. He likes him because he is compassionate and they discuss his mental health like equals and he explains his medication and why he needs to take them. He’s on a plethora of medication from mood stabilizers to antipsychotics, currently he’s taking 101 tablets a week. The meds work by taking the edge off his most extreme thoughts. (“Not long ago I threw a man who tried to rob me over a bridge,” he said nonchalantly.)
He’s able to compose himself emotionally better than before. “However, these meds have taken over my body. I am an emotional zombie, incapable of experiencing extreme joy or rage, guilt, jealousy, inspiration and reward for a decent job done,” he says. “I know my drugs are helping, but goodness, I hate them. I am living in someone else’s body. And the side effects: weight gain, hand tremors, loss of balance, balding, acne, increased thirst, trouble peeing, sensitive vision, just to name a few. These drugs are trashing my organs and every month I do an organ function check.”
The psychologist – “she’s a sea of tranquility” – helps him figure out new thinking patterns that undo the negative behaviour he had before. “However, of late, I have started pushing back on some of the tenets of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy); like working on the things I have control over and letting go of those that I do not. That applies to a vast majority of cases, but not when someone has your children and is voluntarily making your reunion next to impossible. At that point, I lose my calm and refuse any solution that suggests I accept the situation as is.”
The other day we were talking on the phone and I told him I was watching these series of interviews on YouTube called “The Soft White Underbelly,” where a guy named Mark interviews drug dealers, pimps, gang members, crack addicts, prostitutes, rapists, transgenders, homeless people, strippers, porn actresses, heroin addicts, and I tell him that I noticed that more often than not, he reveals that these interviewees problems stem from their childhood. He was quiet for a while, hearing my question before I even asked it.
“I had a great childhood.” He said. “Awesome, even. Grew up in South B – great loving and supportive parents. As a child it was clear that I was way ahead of my curve. I was constantly reading Time and Newsweek magazine and obsessed with space shuttle launches. I was watching Larry King…all these before I was six years old. Do you know that by six I knew that DNA was Deoxyribonucleic Acid! But you know what?”
“I think my brain has a way of blocking trauma and I think there must have been something that happened in my childhood that I have refused to remember. My memory is very good. I remember most things that happened to me but anything between four and eight years are a bit hazy. Do you know how I know?”
“Because my mind has refused to recall what happened to me when I was stabbed at 22.”
“Stabbed? As in, with a knife?”
“Who stabbed you?”
They were a big group, coming from a graduation party in Loresho. It was dawn, approaching 6am. They had stopped by the Oil Libya at Westlands for smokes and coca cola. When he was at the counter paying, he heard a commotion outside and coming out he saw this guy chasing a chick he knew. He was shouting that he was going to kill her and one of his pals was trying to stop him as the girl ran in between the parked cars. “I was a rugby player, I’m a big guy, I felt invincible, so I went for this guy, he was a big fat fellow,” he says. He pushed the guy against the car and suddenly he felt the guy stab him on his abdomen; once and then a second time. “It felt like I was peeing from the wrong place. I could feel the warmth of blood as blood oozed out. The guy simply walked away. I staggered away from my friends, as if to hide, the way animals go to die alone. My intestines were showing from the gash, and I clutched it as I fell between the parked cars.”
His friends rushed him to Aga-Khan hospital. “They said I’d need to get in theater immediately but I needed to pay some money to be admitted. One of my friends – high – asked them how much and they said, 400, so he gave out a thousand bob and said, “Do you have change?”
We laugh at that.
“I have PTSD as a result of that experience. I have harboured such violent thoughts since that experience. I once saw that guy who stabbed me in a supermarket, he must have been with his wife. I started looking for the section with pangas. I wanted to go over and hack him right there, before his wife. Thankfully, I didn’t. I was with my wife and I just broke down in tears.”
He then adds, “This PTSD is very familiar. I think it’s happened to me before from my childhood because often I’m very protective of children. I’ve noticed that I’m very hyperconscious when I see anyone taking care of a child who isn’t their child. I’m always watching those kids as if they were mine. I’m overly protective of kids. When I’m watching news about a child who is suffering, I switch it off. I suspect that something happened to me when I was a child and I have blocked it.”
“Like what, sexually molested?”
“I don’t know. But I suspect something happened because I’m also very hypersexual.”
“Describe that, you want sex all the time?”
“Look, I don’t want to get into it in detail but before I learnt of my bipolar, I’d get extremely raunchy. I’d be willing to risk it all just for a quick lay – social standing, group integrity, random/spontaneous partners and no bearing on the consequences until after the fact. During the episode, it all seems worth it. The thrill of the chase. However, as soon as the mania ends, there is a deep regret.”
“I learnt that this is a side effect of bipolar disorder, hypersexuality or an increase in sexual drive, urges or fantasies that usually accompanies a manic or hypomanic episode. I have been dysfunctional in my life especially during the marriage. Long before I was diagnosed with bipolar, I noted there would be spells of increased energy, destructive vibe, and over-ambition.”
“Yeah,” he said.
People like to use the word “depression” a lot and sometimes I feel like when someone is very sad it’s easy to say, “I was so depressed.” I once interviewed a gentlemen who abused drugs, was depressed and tried suicide once, and I asked him to describe depression for me. He said, “It’s like being at the very bottom of this deep dark well, looking up at the light and there is someone who keeps pacing around the edge of this hole and you are shouting at them to help you but they never look down, they can’t hear you.”
“How would you describe depression?” I asked him.
“Apathy to everything including yourself. You wake up and look around and you ask yourself why? Why did you wake up? Why are you still here? What’s the use of being in this room? Of wearing this shoe? Of walking out of that door? It’s the lack of flavour or colour in all spheres of your life. Nothing matters. You start reading a book and you ask yourself; so if I finish this book, what then? You have a complete lack of care of what is now and what is to come. You are numb then you feel the pain of numbness. You feel like a hindrance to other people, to happenings. I have been there twice and when that happened, I wanted to end the pain.”
“What stopped you?”
“I was scared.”
“And this pain, can you put a face to it?”
“A face to it?” He tested those words, weighed them in his mind. “When someone is in so much pain that they numb everything, they seek extreme stimuli to make them feel alive again. This is what I do, I will engage in extremely risky behaviour, taking drugs, chasing skirts, getting into fights. Interestingly, I can tell up to a month in advance that I am on the slippery slope of a relapse. And you know what, I love it! In a manic frenzy, you are invincible. The energy cannot be depleted. Sleep is for lesser people. And time stops, there is no past or future, only the now. The feeling in itself is addictive. I have got into so many fights in this state, and lost about half to 60% of them because I always go for bigger guys. I have also got tattoos done in this state. And I do not see myself stopping this cycle.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
I asked him what his state of mind is now.
“I genuinely believe that my best days are behind me and now I am just waiting time out,” he said. “Usually this is impossible to tell from the outside because I try new things, I laugh, I joke, I take care of myself. I get tattoos. I make people laugh. They say Njoro is a cool guy, because they only see my outside, what I show them. However, when my next episode happens (hypomania), the façade is eroded away. In truth, I live for the moment. I am in constant pain. The pain of losing the love of my life. The pain of losing access to my children. The pain of not being able to fully trust my mind. Thus, in order to survive, I must numb that pain. I do this through pretence, ignorance and cognitive dissociation.”
He paused for a bit as I made a mental note to Google ‘Cognitive dissociation’.
“I am terrified that one day I will go about my business as usual and at the end of it, take my life.” He continues. “It will make sense to me, and I will be at peace with that decision, if it is possible to look back on it. I have nothing to live for. I am broken, defunct and in pain.” Long pause. “Losing my family was too much to bear. As I share my stories on social media and people commend my bravery, I always feel like I am signing off. Getting things off my chest. As long as the source of my pain is not being addressed, I continue to slip further and further away from reality. I am so scared for my future, as I can see myself being fully delusional. I continue to function “normally” in society for now, because that is all I know. But even this will become too much to fake soon enough.”
“How badly do you want to get well, on a scale of one to ten – with ten being you really want to get better?”
“Maybe a 5.5?”