Double poison: Drug abuse and grief

D. is a client at MSF's medically assisted therapy service in Karuri, Kenya. But his journey to this point has been a long one. He shares his story...

D smiles

Each time I try and comprehend how I ended up lost and eventually drowning in the sea of drug dependence, I get amused at how fast things happen. It almost seems like a dream, one that I wish would have never come true.

Growing up

Born in the early nineties, I was privileged to come from a well up family. By well up, I do not mean the very affluent class, nor did I grow up in abject poverty, but somewhere in between. Being the last born in the family, I practically got the finer of things, be it education-wise or socially.

Little did I know that things would never be the same again. Life had taken a drastic turn

For instance, I schooled in one of the very best private institutions in our village, contrary to my elder siblings, who had schooled in the one and only government-sponsored school in the area. My father was then working far away at the coast, while mother had chosen to stay and raise her children in the village as she made ends meet by rearing poultry and dairy cows.

New friends and flying colours

Though life was not always a bed of roses, I had quite a comfortable upbringing. Soon after completing primary school, I joined a notable secondary school having passed the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education (K.C.P.E) examinations with flying colors.

High school was not as awful as I had anticipated, especially from the bullying tales that I had been fed with prior to joining Form One. I was making new friends and enjoying the freedom, I was loving it.

A drastic turn

With my dad frequently absent, mother was very overprotective as she strived to balance both parenting roles. Hence I had tasted little of freedom. Today I realize how overwhelming it must have been for her.

Barely a year into secondary school, I received some rather devastating news, my father had perished in rather unclear circumstances at his work place. His demise hit us hard, as it was quite sudden.

Friends and family grieved and mourned with us and soon after his burial, I was back on my feet and class. Little did I know that things would never be the same again. Life had taken a drastic turn.

A crucial stage of life

For me, I tended to heal quite fast, perhaps because we rarely had the 'father and son moments' hence our bond was not as solid as his with my siblings. He had been a father to me but less of a dad.

As is the case with many of today's parents, my father had so focussed on providing for and sustaining his family that he forgot the more essential of parenting values like spending adequate time with the children to get to know them better and strengthen their bonds.

Unfortunately for I, his death came when I was entering my puberty years, a crucial stage of life where I probably needed his counsel and guidance more than ever before. As years went by, we got accustomed to life with him out of the picture. Adolescence was at its peak and unbecoming behaviors began cropping out , some from within and others from mere peer influence.   

Girls, booze and bhang

By the time I was clearing Form Four, I had received several suspensions. Sneaking, bullying and drug abuse was then the order of the day. I had become troublesome and rebellious, character traits that had never been witnessed from within our family.

Just when I thought that matters could not get any worse, something more traumatizing was cooking in my pot

I was now back at the village, eager to acquire a national identification card 'the gate pass to freedom at last' or so I thought. Too much of leisure time and minimum supervision were now in my hands and I used it how I knew best. Girls, booze and bhang (cannabis) become the norm. I remember practically experimenting on every type of 'high' at my disposal, some I liked , others I did not.

The black sheep

Slowly but surely, I was turning into a wreck. Having come from a family of staunch Christians, I was indeed becoming a disgrace to the family. I was the black sheep in a white flock.

Countless times, mother spoke words of wisdom to me. She would send me to church-sponsored seminars and workshops, but every time I would slide back to my old ways. Truly, a habit is indeed a disease.

Warmth and love

Amazingly, my mother never gave up on me despite giving her every reason to. I really hated that I was a disappointment. She was the centre of my life, having been raised solely by her under her warmth and unconditional love.

Every day she would proclaim words of prosperity upon my life. She would tell me that her daily prayers were what kept me out of harm's way. She was all I had and I could not picture my world without her. For her sake, I had a great desire to change my ways and make her proud. ''Prove them wrong!", she would encourage me always.

My siblings too would try and intervene but would soon after give up on me. After all, I was an embarrassment to them. I recall how my brother would try and engage me in conversations that rarely yielded fruits. He was trying hard to be a father-figure in my life. Instead of a compassionate approach, he would come to me authoritatively, therefore I could  hear none of it. This further drifted us apart rather than bringing us closer.

The darkest moments

Now, life was no longer as I knew it before. So much had changed, from the once favorite child, I was now the unwanted one. Just when I thought that matters could not get any worse, something more traumatizing was cooking in my pot.

Mother's health was deteriorating gradually and her visits to the doctor had become more frequent. Over the years, she had been on medication, but the illness now seemed to be taking a toll on her. I could not help but notice how frail she had become. The thoughts of ever losing her would linger in my mind and torment me all day and night.

As her condition worsened, she was admitted to hospital only to succumb a few weeks later. This were the darkest moments of my life. My closest confidant, my only defender and the one person who made my world worth living, all of that was now gone forever. Everything I lived  was shuttered and the very thing I had dreaded the most come to pass.

My hero

By the time we were laying her to rest, my heart was in agony and overwhelmed by bitterness. I felt lost, but more than all, I knew I was now all alone. From this moment onwards, I lost purpose and sight of what life once was.

Missing death by whisker, God had indeed given me a second chance at life

Even as things gradually returned to normalcy, my heart, soul and mind was not yet ready to move on. Hopelessness had engulfed me, only left with one refuge and one friend who never judged or criticized me. 'Heroin' was her name, making me feel like the rest of the world never existed. Indeed, she become my hero.

An uphill task

Neither willing to face the truth nor acknowledge the facts, I was firmly in denial. No longer did I find pleasure in things that I once enjoyed doing. I had lost interest in almost every aspect of life, be it in family affairs, friends or hobbies.

Having found a solace, I was lost in my own world.

Drugs and I had by now become inseparable, hardly could I function without getting a fix. I was now fully hooked and dependent on the drug. Unfortunately heroin is one exorbitant drug and financing my addiction habits soon proved to be an uphill task.

Initially, the fiscal aspect of it did not dawn on me as my intake was quite low then, but since my body was now adapted to the drug, I needed way higher doses to attain the desired effect. Being jobless, I had to look for a way to sustain my expensive lifestyle. This culminated to me selling all items under my ownership, from electronic appliances to furniture and garments, I put a price on them all.

Our fortieth day

In no time, the money elapsed and I had to come up with other means to get by. I it is at this juncture that I joined the company of fellow addicts whose lives seemed more comfortable. Rarely did they have money problems and I was more than ready to become part of the crew.

Soon, money was no longer an issue and things were falling into place. Life was once again going my way. Right, left and centre, we were robbing people mercilessly. From the old to the weary to the young and energetic, no one was safe.

As the adage goes, the days of a thief are forty in number. Our fortieth day was nearing and soon, it would be right by our side. I vividly recall the events that transpired on that fateful night.

By a whisker

We had executed every move as planned but just as we fled from the crime scene, thunder-like sounds rent the air. They were definitely gunshots. Switching into panic mode, I froze for a moment and on comprehending the situation at hand, I ran frantically into a nearby thicket and hid. Torches were flashing all over as I kept my fingers crossed.

I realized how messed up I had become, and how far I was from the dream of becoming a celebrated author like Nigerian Chinua Achebe or Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

I remember hearing the officers say, "two are down" as they celebrated their victory. They had been trailing us for some time now and we had obviously been ambushed . As they left , I lay down  quietly thinking of how lucky I had been. Missing death by whisker, God had indeed given me a second chance at life.

A place to lay low

Now at the verge of despair, tragedy seemed to be my shadow following me everywhere I went. Anxiety was building up and I could hardly think straight. Though still in shock, I had to ponder my next move. Gripped by uncertainty, I thought of returning to the place I once called home but on second thought, I knew I would be least welcome. I badly needed a place to lay low.

It was at that instant that I remembered my childhood friend whom had relocated from our village a few years back. We had since lost contact, so I was a bit skeptical of giving him a call as I was unsure of how he would react. To my surprise, he did not hesitate and was more than willing to accord me accommodation.

The battle and the war

Hurriedly packing up my few belongings, I was soon sited in a Nyahururu-bound bus. That journey gave me ample time to reflect on what had become of my life. As the memories flashed through my mind, I realized how messed up I had become, and how far I was from the dream of becoming a celebrated author like Nigerian Chinua Achebe or Kenya’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.

Mother's voice kept echoing at the back of my mind, my conscience was now judging me harshly as I knew I was living a life not meant for me.

The desire to start afresh grew heavily and by the time I was alighting at my destination, I had made up my mind never to look behind. Miles away from home, I was glad I had won the battle but deep down I knew the war had just begun.

Greener grass

After arriving at my friend's place, he received me warmly as we did some bit of catching up. On narrating my ordeal, he was quite startled. We had become best of friends growing up and my story felt like that of a complete stranger. As for him, the grass was definitely greener. He had ventured into farming and seemed to be doing quite well. Honestly, I admired the person he had become.

Trying to blend in, I would assist my friend in the fields and at times with the house chores. Never did I want him to feel like I was being a burden. A week into my stay, I began feeling ill. It started with a loss of appetite and mild headaches but soon, vomiting and diarrhea kicked in.


My body grew generally weak as fever and insomnia quickly dived in. I knew it was as a result of heroin withdrawal and going to hospital would only be futile. I tried to downplay the symptoms for about a fortnight but could not stand them much longer. The withdrawals were proving to be more and more unbearable.

After a long night of battling bugs and mosquitoes, I was moments away to throwing in the towel. As much as I had the desire to quit addiction, perhaps this had not been the best means. I was terribly sick and the only cure would be a dose of heroin. There I was losing the urge and will to fight any longer.

At the crack of dawn, I was out and on my way to the bus terminus. Having no bus fare, I had stolen my friend’s wallet with few thousand shillings in it. It would be enough to get me home and better yet, to buy myself some medication, heroin to be precise.


With the cravings growing out of hand, I could not help but yawn and shiver spontaneously. I tried to enjoy the magnificent sceneries as the bus cruised through the hills and valleys but it was all in vain. My mind was fixated at the dose of heroin, the one thing that would alleviate my suffering. So restless was I that even grabbing an inch of sleep was like looking for a needle in a haystack. This was arguably the most tiresome and exhausting journey I had ever been on.

After what seemed like a decade, I finally reached my destination. Without further ado, my first step was at the drug den. Being so drained, I literally had to be assisted in injecting myself. After about two shots, the drug worked its magic and the withdrawals began to subside. Left with a reminder of the money, I pumped myself with more doses oblivious of the perils of overdosing.

Days later, I was once again penniless and back to the bondage of substance abuse. Having been unable to withstand the withdrawal symptoms, it was crystal clear that quitting addiction would not be as easy as I had premeditated. Perhaps, this really was indeed my destiny.


Editor's note:

Kiambu County has some of the highest numbers of people who use heroin in Kenya. MSF runs a medically assisted therapy (MAT) clinic in Karuri hospital. The facility brings together opioid substitution therapy and outpatient care including services for HIV, tuberculosis, mental health, social support, wound care, sexual and reproductive health, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and hepatitis C.


Read more: Stories from Karuri

"A positive place": Overcoming heroin use in Kenya