THE SILENT EPIDEMIC
“I am an addict. A seemingly normal twenty-two year old Nigerian boy from a prominent family. It is ironic that my parents dedicated their lives to my siblings and I giving us the best of what money could buy and the morals and values which it could not. My childhood memories are happy-with a solid foundation in education at one of the most reputable private schools in the country. During my JS II, my father believed that the boarding school I was in was not an ideal learning environment. He came to this conclusion whilst visiting me at school and observed the ceiling and walls in our hostel were covered with damp patches. He had a taste of my school lunch and was not impressed. Even now I remember the question he asked me, “I have always prided myself in providing the best for my children and I am not happy with this school. Son, how do you feel about going abroad to study?”
Most of my older brothers and sisters were studying abroad so it only seemed natural that I follow suit. I was never a particularly intelligent student but was always creative and I was able to express my feelings through paintings and sketches. I was always top of my Art class. My father enrolled me in a private school for boys in England, I knew he wasn’t expecting A’s but neither was he prepared for the downward spiral my life would soon take. I found myself drawn to a group of Nigerian boys with a similar background to me. Even though we all had guardians residing in the U.K, we were always longing to come home and began spending our pocket money recklessly trying to impress each other. One cold, bleak winter – we were on a weekend outing and behind a dingy fast food place my daring new friends encouraged me to take my first sip of alcohol and inhale my first joint. After the initial coughs and sputtering, I discovered with foolish wonderment that I felt so alive, happy and free. I felt invincible! The R. Kelly song sprung to mind; I believe I can fly. I did believe I could fly! All hesitation and anxiousness I had before disappeared. I found myself drawn to a new hobby… and it wasn’t Art.
My friends and I became professionals at covering our tracks. We helped each other with class work and home work, for we knew that if we started failing in school then too many questions would be asked. It became routine to sneak in papers for tests and exams and as a result my grades remained average yet stable. Inevitably, like anyone leading a double life I was to have a rude awakening. While shopping in one of the London’s biggest stores my friend dared me to steal a bandana off the rack. Given that I had just taken two glasses of vodka, I felt I could do anything. I took several bandanas and stuffed them into my pocket and of course and soon as I stepped outside I was arrested. I then became that stereo-typed rich boy turned failure, a statistical problem common globally. My disappointed but ever supportive father had no choice but to bring me back to Nigeria where I was to face my demons.
I quickly found out that at home it was even easier to feed my monstrous habits. After all, even when denied pocket-money I could steal a watch, a mobile phone or anything remotely valuable from my mother and sell it off for a quick fix. I knew my mother wouldn’t expose me and I knew the police would not be involved. With rising unemployment and poverty engulfing our nation, it wasn’t difficult finding people who would do almost anything for a quick deal. I became a stranger to my family and they became my enemy, an obstacle to my dark sordid world. By the time my family clocked on to my reality, I was too far gone into my new obsession. My mother became a nervous wreck, continuously crying and praying for me. My father, sisters and brothers became angry and distant with me. I defensively reacted by retreating into my shell and became even angrier with my relatives and myself. I was my own worst enemy. Physically, I was a skeletal ghost, a shadow of my former self. In and out of Nigerian rehabilitation clinics I went. They were poorly equipped and usually congested with not only addicts but criminals as well. As a final resort my family were advised to take me to a remote clinic in the outskirts of Kano, far away from civilization itself. There were no bedrooms or proper running water. Instead there was a large unventilated cemented room where we were supposed to ‘sleep’. I spent 41 days seated with my back against the wall, without a place to stretch my legs or lay my head at night. The clinic was severely congested with a large number of boys and girls from privileged homes just like me. We were fed meagre and tasteless meals, often being beaten and counselled around the clock. We were chained to each other at all times not unlike the black slaves captured in the 19th century by human merchants. I ceased to feel completely human and saw myself as an object of ridicule and disgust.
Sadly, even with the immense degradation I went through; I have been unable to turn my life around. The drugs and alcohol that I crave so much have become the sole purpose of my life. I exist within a black hole, in the drug infested gutter of my Armageddon. When people see me now, they are afraid to approach me. My family is unable to look me into the eyes. I guess the emotional scars that I have burdened them with have cut too deep for them to ever forgive my sins or accept that I will never again be. I know what has become of me, I know what I am. But even within the backdrop of my desire to actually live a good life, I know with certainty that my cravings; my absolute need for my drugs and alcohol will continue to define me for the rest of my days...!”
This is the harrowing but true narrative of a boy who continues to go through hell on earth. Tragically this is a familiar story for many families. One would be hard pressed to find one extended family whose lives have not been troubled with the epidemic of drug abuse in one way or another. Drug and alcohol abuse in our society is a frightening but real problem and it is no longer relegated to the throngs of the poor or to any specific gender. Substance abuse disguises itself in many forms, many of them not obvious. Seemingly harmless cough syrups, painkillers, glue or even petrol are being abused daily by our youth. Horrifyingly, addiction often begins with that innocent sip or sniff of some substance. Frequently, when teenagers or young adults begin this abuse, parents or teachers are unlikely to notice at the very early stages when counselling and intervention could make the most effective difference. Young adults can be very creative and convincing with their stories when suspicion is raised about their behavioural patterns. We, as adults, need to recognise the subtle warning signals and tackle the problem at its early phases.
The drug epidemic can no longer be swept under the carpet and can no longer be treated as if it is not a monumental problem that is plaguing our youth. Because we are still growing and developing as a nation, support groups and free counselling sessions and therapy are not yet provided by the government. As a result, parents need to play a more active role in ensuring children are educated about the ill use of drugs and alcohol. The government also has got to address this epidemic that is ravaging our young generation by coming up with programmes that will begin to eliminate this scourge from our society.
When we encounter tendencies of antisocial behaviour from teenagers, let’s choose not to ignore it or pretend it will go away. Show them your care and are ready not only to guide and give advice but to listen too. Just like the boy narrating his story indicated the symptoms of abuse are not so obvious in the beginning. Let us strive to protect our children against this evil silent epidemic.