By Bill Ruthi

I was seven, and I had my backpack, heading to school. I remember saying goodbye to my Dad but I am not sure he heard it. In my mind, he must not have said goodbye. And so I walked up the hill to school, and then I turned right back. I cried all the way.

“Dad, you didn’t say goodbye to me,” I said, bawling.

I didn’t know it back then-a seven-year-old wouldn’t know, but this incident set off a pattern that would repeat itself for years. It seemed like any little thing, any assumed slight, any unacknowledged word would open a dam; get me in a funk I couldn’t yank myself out of.

That river carried me downstream, with all the jetsam, the sludge and weight of unseen things They carried me right through my teens. I drifted downstream conflicted: why would a kid whose brilliance in essays and literature stunned even the most seasoned teachers sulk and hide and crawl inside a shell while his age-mates basked in their own suns?

There are words to everything on earth; terms, science, names. But for years there was no name to whatever shadow that stalked me. And so I went through life; past secondary school, on and through college, on to early adulthood having not the slightest idea why I was usually happy when I was sad. But it would be years before a professional nailed the word.

Stay with me.

I am a trained librarian, but I have never practised. After college, I went back into my bag, went all the way back to my primary school days and to my essays and the voices of long-ago teachers and rediscovered myself. I became a writer; an autodidact. I bought books, I stocked up my word cache. I became a professional writer. And for years I churned piece after riveting piece. I say this now-and I am not gloating-but I am at a safe space where I can scab my old insecurities and feel no pain. I became good.

My editor (in Nation newspaper) told me, ‘Bill, we like you; your style is airy.Please don’t conform’. And so for a good three years, I ran with it. I wrote about rivers, and people and the land. There were stories everywhere. When they came, they came in torrents. I likened it to an unseen hand.

And all along I was unhappy.

Please pull a chair and gather round. Between 2017 and 2020, I was considered a top 20-calibre writer in the country. And I was miserable. Beyond the byline and the notoriety that came with my name, I was crumbling inside. My mind was in a dark place; sunshine failed to reach me. I would receive tens of fan mail, fawning missives; people saying ‘keep writing’ and ‘where are you from?’ and ‘come talk to us.’

It meant little. Let’s race back to the top: there are words to everything, and mine hadn’t been nailed. Until 2023.

Stay with me.

Genie in a bottle

There was a time, at the onset of my writing career, when I was beginning to create some buzz in the industry, when I walked into a pharmacy with a wracking cough and the attendant suggested a cough syrup. I remember traveling back to Nairobi and looking out the window and everything was beautiful: the handiwork of quilted hills and the people and the bridges; there was magic to God’s art. It was euphoric, this feeling. The cough syrup, whatever they put in it was a revelation.

I had my pencil and my notebook, as always. I scribbled what my soul was saying to me. I had a new friend; I didn’t know her yet, but the name came later: codeine. Understand, right through my life, I was an island; I loved my space and my personal library. And now this cough syrup fortified with codeine was a winged angel, and she perched on my shoulder.

My writing, already smouldering became a roaring blaze. I went back, and back, and back to the pharmacy: these stores exist in every town and village. See, when I gulped down this syrup, I swum; words I didn’t know I had crawled from the catacombs of my brain.

The Big D

I was spending Ksh500 a day. I could afford it. But then a frightening thing begun happening. I discovered my body experienced tremors in the absence of the syrup. I would be mortified if I looked up at the shelf and couldn’t find the scarlet label of my chosen poison. Three years went by. My immediate supervisor, concerned, once pulled me aside and said, ‘Bill, you slur your words. You are not as sharp. What’s happening?’

While I didn’t have an answer-after all I was knee-deep in my addiction and little else mattered. But I did begin to realize that I struggled remembering names, words. I wasn’t dressing as sharp.

There was a confluence, one that I hadn’t faced up to, or even known: a meeting of terrors. The genie in the bottle and another that at the time was known in polite company as the Big ‘D’. Depression.

Enter Joe

By 2023, I had lost my wife, my daughter Hadassah (who was really my twin as children go). I had gone to seed; absent was the writer who spoke to hundreds of aspiring journalists; gone was the smile; gone was the byline. I would look up at the papers and see kids who had looked up to me as their Northern Light excel as I languished in this cesspool of alcohol (I had downgraded) in seedy dens.

And yet, all this time, I, and everyone else hadn’t figured out that the road I was on was the inevitable marriage of substance and what was until then an asterisk yet to be clothed in its own name. Depression came with the tag of stigma.

In August, 2023, my family checked me into one of the top rehabs in Nairobi for a three-month programme. A godsend is what it was-this intervention. The first month was a medley of insomnia, disillusionment and angst. I couldn’t figure out what was happening, why I was here. But in the second month, I began personalized counseling with Joseph, one of the therapists in the institution.

It was easy to open up. Joseph, a personable, youthful man was at once open, empathetic and had an aura about him that made one loosen up. ‘Let’s begin from the start,’ he prompted during our maiden session. And so it began. I was the little boy with a backpack pining for a goodbye before leaving for school; I was the writer who, at the apex of his art still couldn’t accept he was good; the one who hid behind a desk with a bottle of codeine-laced cough syrup; the one with the saddest eyes anywhere.

I was the grown up who suffered from depression for decades, a condition that was never diagnosed until this point. I was the young man who never thought he would live past 27. I didn’t come upon this information; Joseph took me through this alley, walked me with holding this spotlight, shining it in these enclaves; these suppressed chapters that, in a perfect world should have been pulled out by the hair and into the sun.

Because help lives, out there. If we are fortunate.

See, I attempted to fight depression all these years by destroying myself. I simply didn’t know better. My substance use was a means to assuage the turmoil and conflict that was the soundtrack to most of my life. The timidity, the crippling feeling of never measuring up, the frightening endlessness of a broken mind. All those things could have been nipped, or managed.

But the saving grace , this eternal flame that is the human spirit is that there is the re-set dial. I discovered mine at Primrose. Over several sessions with Joseph and team, I was prescribed medication that over time helped balance my condition. I am still on medication, even after I completed my program at one of the best rehabs in Kenya. I found my rhythm back; part of my therapy is doing what I love doing: writing, photography.

There was a time, during the height of my addiction that I attempted to narrate my story. I wrote a two-page first-person account of my journey, from the falsely sunny onset of my over-the-counter journey to the wintry days in the throes of this addiction. But even after the publication-which played a part in the proscription of one of the syrup brands, I still relapsed.

We are never safe, if we are going to be honest about it. And that’s why there exist support programmes, accountability partners. For me, Primrose Rehab and Wellness is a safe place: the team is a second family. I will pick my phone and tell Joseph that I am tripping. Or I am doing great.

I am no longer polite. The big ‘D’ is now bare-bones depression. I fought it through codeine, and I ended up with mud in my face. Seek help. There are good, genuine people out there.

One last thing: for years I flogged myself for my part in losing my family. Right now, I can separate myself from what I was and who I am. We’ve got holes but we carry on.