Many years ago, probably 20 or so, I saw a red T-shirt on display on the streets of Nairobi. It had the inscription: Rehab is For Losers. I was in my twenties-that age of discovery and expression, and tainted with some rebellion, and the message on the shirt appeared doubly funny and real.

After all, who went to rehab? What would cause a man to be so battered to the point of surrender, to check one’s will at the gate and hand over his life to be attended by others?

Only a loser, certainly, and I had this strong urge to add the radical shirt to my wardrobe. But for some reason I didn’t. A part of me argued that maybe there could reach a point where one would need his hand held, to surrender to the care of another.

I was right. But this truth would only dawn on me two decades years later. We live, and we grow and we learn and unlearn.

Ask a random person on the street, or out there in the village what a rehabilitation for alcohol and drugs center presents; the image of this institution, the idea of what rehabilitation represents and opinions and answers might fill a legal pad: a place where people on the precipice of madness are locked away; a place where people who spend nights in ditches are carted away to reclaim their fractured souls; a place halfway between jail and a mental institution.

But when you rummage through the chaff, the one thing that these descriptions are really pointing to is this: stigma. I should know. It is a dreaded symbol, because most human beings, even in their most devastated, shattered versions and phases hope to exert some control-to believe that they are in charge. Who wants to carry on their back that they once lost their freedom?

And so it was when I first checked into Primrose Rehab and Wellness. Checked is a rather overpriced tag here: while I wasn’t held against my own will, I had never thought in my 40 years that I would once end up in a rehabilitation center; it took the intervention of family, behind the scenes while I was in torpor, halfway here and halfway there. When intervention was finally staged and I packed up for the two-hour drive, I was still in some denial. How had I come to this? How did I lose myself?

The Black Gates

Over three months later, my script of what rehab is has been overturned, torn up, actually. I can write about these things because we unlearn things; life teaches you that. I was two days into one of the best Rehabs in Kenya when the truth of my actions, the consequences came to me.

“You will be with us for the next 88 days,” a young counseling psychologist told me. She was young and she had a way of pulling you in, but despite her tone and friendly demeanor, the words fell all around me like tree branches in a gale. “You will be fine, actually you won’t realize how fast the days speed by,” she continued. “I am *Wendy.”

And for the first time since I had unpacked, the word stigma crawled out from its enclave: I was now a statistic; I was now a number among many in similar countless institutions. I was now what I had for years labeled those held under duress, or even not: It occurred to me that I would carry this maligned label for the rest of my life:  he was once in rehab.

I can write about this now, and I can even allow a laugh. That first day after I orientation: here is the washroom, here is the common room; be free to ask any question, I looked around and saw people. A few were engaged in a game of billiards, others engrossed in a TV programme. One was reading a book. They were a motley, but I saw people, you understand? I remember thinking: what might have led them here? Had they been collected by the road in a stupor? Had they been friends with the needle?

As a person who’d spent years telling stories about people-even about addicts, I finally allowed that I was now part of the story. No, this realization didn’t come to me in a fine hour; it came to me at a time of scabbing. It came to me over days and weeks and months. I am now a story, and I am at peace with it. We are stories.

When I had become accustomed to the routine, when I had finally made peace with my reality, the stories, or rather the vigour to tell them came back to me.

Here was *Moses, a once-thriving businessman who had gradually fallen victim to his own product: he had owned a liquor store before becoming its prized customer. There was *Ahmed, a champion pool player whose wizardly had taken him to championships in Rabat, Morocco and Mombasa and Tanzania. There was *Dan, a tall, handsome man who specialized in start-ups and pitched those ideas to investors.

Here was *Mgangha, a brilliant university student who, at the height of his alcohol addiction had seen the heavens open at the Lord’s return. And I too had my own story, of falling down in the middle of town on a rainy day.

These were not statistics; they were people plagued and plundered by a disease that had a name: addiction. We, of course didn’t know that such a disease existed; we were simply gorging on things that presented a high and a reality beyond what others couldn’t grasp.

But these stories didn’t come to us; didn’t carry the weight of consequence by the time the black gate closed shut and three months loomed ahead. At the onset, this was akin to doing time, sans uniformed guards with guns. There was bitterness, endless replaying of the life that surely ticked on outside while life inside ticked on rote.

The days sped by, as Wendy had promised. Once we had shed the carapace of our pasts-or at least shook hands with it, we were finally able to confront the accidents of our life; we could revisit them. Over time, we became not just people pooled together in this place because of our choices, but friends. We laughed over movies; never in my life would I have imagined I would enjoy the hilarious voice-overs of DJ Afro.

The beauty of it all was the change. Week after week, you could see the sun emerging; you could see colour creep back into once-glassy eyes. You could tell that the initial bitterness at being brought to this place, to this stigma had fallen off. We became stories.

Perhaps the most poignant moments were when someone had to leave after their three-month stay. Courage Brother, a song in the Golden Bells hymnal became more than a song; it was a creed, a coda: “…do not stumble.”

Human beings mark life by their experiences, their happenings. If we are lucky, we get pulled from a ditch; the needle finally becomes an enemy; we reclaim our mind. And at the right time, we recount these stories.

And at some point, at some good hour, round a bonfire, we shall tell our kids about this stage of our life. There will be tea and jolly ribbing. But stigma? No. We shall have come around.