I walked into the bookshop to check a title for a friend and ended up picking another for myself. It was a small book of just 88 pages coauthored by Michael MacDonald and Titus Ndiritu Kihara published in 2012 by The Paulines Africa. On the blurb of the book was written “What I Never Told You is the first memoir in Kenya’s history to tackle the taboo subject of sex addition.” It was a book I could finish while standing at the bookshop, but I chose to buy it and head to the fuel station to fill up my tank. It was in the long queue that I delved into the book. I would say it’s a self-absorbed autobiography of the secondary author, where he presents his story of descent to the abyss of sex addiction following his abuse at the age of seven and subsequent addiction to alcoholism and drugs. Presented as a diary of events with a probing penetration of the autobiographer, the writers provided an anecdotal map of addiction and the damaging effects. It’s a tale of secrets and darkness, of death and rebirth, of despair and hope, of pain and pleasure, of parenting and responsibility. Above all, it’s a story of second chances.
Reading Ndiritu’s story brings to mind the various addictions people are subjected to – alcoholism, smoking, sex, kleptomania, among others. But, as the authors say, alcoholism might be considered as a bigger problem, but sex addiction is the bigger secret. As one reflects on the book, an image of male domination comes to mind – the man that society has falsely adorned with mythic superiority status, fanning his ego and nudging him to seek to dominate not his sexual desires, but the sexuality of another. It’s a pitiable journey with Ndiritu along his personal loss of self-identity, need for help, struggle for life and recovering process. Though pitiable, it does not invite pity, but self-examination. I read the book as though I were walking in his shoes, asking myself what would have happened to me if I were exposed to the same conditions like he was. Would I have lived differently? I don’t know and I can’t say, but I’m more inclined to doubt. As one reads about how he was abused by the housemaid at the age of seven, it seems natural for one’s memory to flashback to that period of one’s life, wondering what happened to one then. To have a different experience other than abuse is to be blessed, to be preserved, something to be grateful for.
I’ve seen the power of addiction on the lives of people, but I’ve often been quick to play the blame game, silently wondering why people would choose to destroy themselves so deeply. I remember talking to a friend about addiction to alcohol and he reminded me of the second half of Alexander Pope’s quote: “…drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.” I quickly added that there was an omitted first part which says “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” It didn’t make any difference to him and I was wont to blame him for his alcoholism. But reading this little book has queried the basis of that blame, though it does erode individual responsibility for choices and actions. Somewhat, I’ve come to realize that we share a common trait as human beings – our capacity to be vicious or virtuous, to do the best or the worst. Hence, understanding addiction calls for sympathy. To put it in context, I checked up the meaning of addiction and thought I should share. The American Society for Addiction Medicine explained the term as “the primary, chronic diseases of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioural control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviours and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
Sobriety isn’t an easy journey. Struggling to get healing is more demanding than never being in need. I’ve heard and shared the ancient wisdom that it is easier to find someone who has never committed a particular act than to find one who has done it only once. The book is a story that moves, admonishes and heals. I read it with empathy, trying to relate with the story in every way I could. I’ve come to think that this is one way the book was intended to be read. Incidentally, the book brought back memories of addiction that was close to me. I recall how my eldest brother, a retired soldier, had sent me to buy him a pack of cigarettes. As a teenager, it was a taboo to refuse your elder a task, but I couldn’t bring myself to carry out the errand. I knew enough and told him so. He was surprised by my boldness as I risked being beaten. I knew he was addicted to smoking and only did give up after it had destroyed his health and led to other complications before he passed away.
It’s my assumption that we should personally try to relate with addiction in some form, not necessarily by being addicted to sex or alcohol or smoking. Reading this book with the empathy it calls for can help us appreciate the struggles many people are passing through. But, the best way to deal with addiction is to admit it, not to conceal the secrets. This is the message that should be instilled in everyone that is vulnerable to abuse. I have had friends who have been abused and exposed to emotional imbalance in varied forms. Some have been lucky to overcome the experience and lead a “normal” life, but some have not been so lucky. I’ve seen some become addicted to the very abuse they were exposed to, struggling to be delivered from its claws. This experience underscores Ndiritu’s assertion that “most people go to God because they want to go heaven, but not addicts! We go to God because we have been to hell.” How true. As he recounts the effects of addiction on his family and relationships, the effect of such on him could easily be overlooked. As he chronicles his pains, he courageously admits that he has lived a life of shame, but telling his story has been cathartic. At a societal level, his story has sparked a wave in Kenya as many who were suffering similar conditions have begun to admit the truth and seek recovery. When an addict gets healing and recovers, the society heals. Our commitment to ending abuse implies working to end addiction too. This healing is our collective responsibility, our way of protecting the society from itself and protecting our own sanity. Reading What I Never Told You: Memoirs of a Recovering Addict reminds us of this need.