Bill Bekunda on Recovering from Addiction

#360Mentor is a continuation of the #40DayMentor series. In this episode, Robert Kabushenga (RK) speaks to Bill Bekunda  (BB) on Recovering from Addiction

RK: Today, we are going to talk about a very sensitive topic. Something many people are dealing with but are unable to talk about. Something that we would rather hide under the carpet. Something many of us are struggling with. I have been down this road myself.  I have been clean for 16 years now. I haven’t had a drop of alcohol in my system for 16 years. By the time I dropped the habit, I was really down. I was at the level of what- I guess- they call a borderline alcoholic, I don’t know. My last beer was on 28th October 2005. Today, I stay very very very far from alcohol. The nearest I have come to it recently is through the sanitizer.

Tonight, we are joined by Bill Bekunda. Bill I am quite excited that we can talk about this sensitive and complex subject.

Bill, how are you?

BB: I am fine, thank you.

RK: Bill, you run something called Bekunda Recovery Home, is that right?

BB: Yes it is.

RK:  Let’s get straight to the subject. I will not ask you the usual question, instead, I will ask, what is addiction?

BB: Before I say what addiction, I must put a disclaimer here that some people might not be comfortable with the things I am about to say. You may find yourself in a category of an enabler or the person suffering with the vice.

RK: Bill, I want to assure you that here at #360mentor we talk freely, people are protected. There is no judgment. There is no condemnation. We shall each pick our lesson. So you say it as it is.

BB: Alright. I like to use very simple language. Addiction is failure to control a habit or an action. That is the simplest way I can put it. You want to stop doing something but you can’t stop doing it. That pushes it away from being somebody’s weakness or inability or lack of willingness… They just can’t stop when they start. The closest likeness I can give an addiction to is an allergy. If I have  an allergy and I cannot eat meat that every time I eat met I get  a swelling,  a fever, that is  something physical. When that something is mental, you cannot see it. When for example you get addicted to alcohol, the effect makes you lose control. When you start doing it, you lose control. Like gambling, when you start, you cannot stop. 

I will also say this. There are people who when they start drinking, it triggers them to stop at a certain point but others when they start drinking, it triggers them to a point that they cannot stop. Those are two different categories. If you are in that category of those who start and then lose control, then you are an addict.

RK: What are the commonest addictions that you see in Uganda today?

BB: The commonest is alcoholism. One time at a conference we were sharing data and it came out that probably 1 out of every 2 people has got a problem. It prompted me; every time I go to speak at a conference or to a group of people, I always ask one question: who doesn’t know somebody suffering with alcoholism? I have never seen a gathering where a hand is raised up. We all know somebody. A family member, a friend, a workmate, a person on the village. Everybody knows someone.

Second is gambling. With all the betting houses, you will be surprised how many people are gambling on their phones right now.

Social media is another. It has taken people by storm. It has taken people to a point that alcoholism is playing catchup. Everyone is getting on their phone. Everybody has access. Social media gives you never ending options. When you are drinking alcohol or gambling, you may run out of money but with social media you are scrolling. You’ll never get to a point which says, no more scrolling. It is continuous. You always want to see what is coming next.

RK: There is a documentary on Netflix that shows how all these algorithms have been calibrated to keep us engaged and hooked on this stuff.

BB: True, that is the purpose. Social media is going to be a bigger blow.

After social media, there are pharmaceutical drugs and the illicit drugs that people usually talk about… However some of those are hard to access in Uganda. But there are those particular ones which I cannot mention here that beginning to be a great threat.  We are advised not to mention names because we could be directly or indirectly giving someone an idea.

There are all other kinds of addiction like masturbation, stealing.

RK: You mean masturbation is also that serious?

BB: Yes. Some will require therapy. Usually people who benefit from the therapy are people who come in with other visible addictions and then this are added on. The statistics are alarming. It’s about 1 out 2. And its severely affects about 1 out of 4.

Among other addictions is sex. I have a seen a documentary of someone who used to have it about 21 times from home to work.

There are addictions of very many ways. There are chemical addictions and the impulse controlled.

RK: I’d like to take you back to you own journey, how did you end an addict.

BB: What happened was; I tasted it. I liked it. I got obsessed with it. It became my priority and I reached a point where I couldn’t control myself.

RK: First wait, at what point in your life, how old were you when you tasted alcohol?

BB: I was in P5. We had gone with my dad to visit one of the granduncles and when we reached there, there was this omubisi, banana juice. Very sweet but alcoholic. I was very stubborn boy. I cried for it and dad finally allowed me to have a sip. I remember feeling like I was running mad. I had a very high temperature and a very bad headache. That would have been the first indication that I could become an addict if I started boozing. But we grew up with our dad telling us, ‘you my children should not drink, it is not for you.  I know why I am saying this.’ I remember that as a child. But then time passed.

When I joined secondary school, St Mary’s College, Kisubi. I had a grand entrance. I was one of the two boys with aggregate 4 who had made it from Kabale. In S1, I was a bit dramatic. I would give my friends lectures to my friends who had started smoking and drinking. Then in my S2, I started. Before my position in class was among the top three. In S2, I had all these Kampala classmates from Kampala. I was from Kabale. They had cool things, like sneakers and t-shirts which I didn’t have. They spoke better English. They then told me about they operate. I followed them as a way of making sure that I could give then a lecture as they were drinking.

We went to Maama Teo’s where we were served a bottle which we shared among the four of us. They would pour in a glass and pass it around. First, I hesitated on the first round. But as more and more rounds were made, all the other guys loosened up and I was the only one still freaking out. So the next round that came my way, I took a sip. And you know about the first sip, it smells, it’s bitter. I swallowed it and coughed. But before it could settle in the stomach, I was already feeling good. I was seated next to the person serving. When I gave him the glass, he refused it. I don’t know why I remember this part, but I do. He gave it to back to me to catch up. This time round, I didn’t smell it, it wasn’t bitter anymore. The rest is history. That is how I started.

RK:  After how long does it become obvious that you have a problem?

BB: I went into the category of doubtful character. My last position before I started drinking was 3rd. The term that followed, I was the 25th. I thought that was okay though. The next term it deteriorated to the 40th. When I got to S4, in second term mocks, I was suspended. I used to look so innocent. I even have a friend who was once caned on my behalf.

I was not allowed to apply to go back to St Mary’s Kisubi for A level. I went to Namasagali College. I continued drinking.  I was doing PCB. I was expelled during my final exams. And by the time you’re expelled from Namasagali College, you were really too bad. I also got scared of myself. Something was not right. I also realised that I was not like the other guys. They would drink and not get into trouble. I would drink and get into trouble. I realised that everybody wanted to control me. I wondered why is everybody trying to control me. ‘What is Bill drinking?’ My friends seemed to be comfortable with drinking within limits. I remember I would jump out of a moving taxi because I didn’t have the fare. I was always avoiding trouble.

RK: Wait a minute Bill, when you were expelled from Namasagali, where did you go?

BB: I did my exams coming from out. Fortunately my uncle Samson Bigombe was an ambassador in German. In my second week of my S6 vacation, my mother found me at a friend’s place the one who used to save us from ourselves when we drunk ourselves silly. She said Bill you’re leaving for German this afternoon. I didn’t know what she was talking about.  They had got me the visa and packed my bags. They wanted to change my environment. They wanted to take me to a country where I could not speak the language. Where I had no friends. I would be under diplomatic custody. Many families do that. They change the location thinking that that will change the person. It doesn’t.

I remember arriving, I had withdrawals of flying without alcohol. I remember it was the beginning of winter. Christmas was coming in. I took rest of about two days. The day I took a walk, I met a dark Sudanese man, and the first question I asked him; “Do you have a cigarette?” Then I also asked him, “Do you have a drink?” I made signs for him and he understood. Then he took me to his friends.

RK: Did you even know your way?

BB: No. Somehow you figure it out. In fact they took me back after that night. The next day, they showed me how to access the hotel and access the beer which was in cans. A dispenser. I didn’t have much. I would go and have some.

Then I started studying for my language to be able to join university later. So they would give me some pocket money which I would use to go and buy beer and whiskey with these guys I had met. Instead of going to school, I would just go to drink and come back until the point where I was supposed to show some results and there’s nothing. They even realised that I was getting out of line. I remember one day I took the car and scratched it. I can’t tell how much they had to pay. I scratched a whole line of cars. At times I fear saying these things. I am not proud of them.  It’s unfortunate.

RK: Bill, I need to remind you that a lot of people who have been on this platform have shared these kinds of situations openly and we accept it because we are who we are. We are human beings, we all go through these kinds of situations.

RK: Thank you. So yes, I scratched all these cars. My uncle was worried that my behaviour was going to taint his image. When I got the money, I partied properly. It’s so crazy. It got to a point where I would call home and lie that I had been admitted and my mother would ask for proof.

RK: So you started lying?

BB: Yes, I would lie and manipulate people. I would tell my mother that I had lost the money she had sent me. I would get into fights. But I was still in German. I knew my uncle knew and he had to let go of me.

RK: Would you say that addiction made you a liar?

BB: I wouldn’t say I was an accomplished liar. I would say I was a survivor. You lie so you can survive. It becomes a character defect. It is something you do automatically.

RK: It becomes second nature to you.

BB: Yes.

RK: So they sent you back to Uganda?

BB: Yes. I come back to Uganda.  They don’t know what to do with me. I was masquerading around. I pretended to be a “sama” always out playing pool.

RK: But you didn’t have a skill…

BB: No. I didn’t. I had not thought of life as that. All I cared about was how to get the next drink. And I used my clothes and the few things I had to get another drink until I run out of money. Then I started pickpocketing from wherever I would find it.

RK: You started doing what?

BB: Pickpocketing. Stealing money is the right word.

RK: Bill, you got to that point?

BB: No, I went beyond. I hope you’re not getting shocked. There’s a lot more coming.

RK: Now, I’m listening. I am not going to disturb you anymore.

BB: Hahaha, it’s okay.

If I got a chance I would pick it. I remember one time, I was so desperate. I needed a drink. My mum had entered the house and was sitting on the couch. I stood next to her knowing that once she entered her room with that bag, she would lock it inside and I’d have no access. Guess what I did?

She thought I was going to greet her. Instead, I grabbed the bag and ran away.

RK: No wayyyy!!!!

BB: All I wanted was to have a drink. When I reached outside, I pulled out the wallet just like a common thief, I jumped into a taxi and went straight to a bar. I remember that vividly. It was at that point that my mother made up her mind that I had lost it.

Even me, it was just another move. I didn’t know I would do this. At that time, my father had passed on. An uncle who was in Ukraine asked that I join him. He thought in the strict arm of the law there it would be able to put me in place.

They thought the discipline would be good for me. But guess what! I drunk so much on the flight that I was deported. I stopped at the transit in Sofia, Bulgaria. The person they had assigned to travel with had been given the money but he had to take a different plane so he had to give me the cash. When he have me the money, I went to duty free and drunk it all.

After three months, I was given another chance. I had someone to hold me but no money. But I still managed to get drunk on the flight. You always find a way. When I arrived, I went to a kiosk, I remember seeing a bottle of Pepsi, whisky and vodka. The vodka was cheaper than Pepsi. I said “Thank you God, you’ve brought me to the right place.”

The nature of people in that part of the world is different they are tolerant of people who suffer from alcoholism. They embraced me. I remember there was a lecture who encouraged me to keep going for class. “You’re like us” he would say, “when it’s cold, you need to carry some vodka within you.” I didn’t feel shy when I had to drink.

I survived there in between cells because of my drinking. I almost jumped out of a seven storyed building. We were having a party and I wanted to fly. One of my friends who is actually here managed to hold my leg. I have no idea of what I was doing. I remember sitting on balconies on the 11th floor and I would be joking of jumping over. And yet I could not stand on that balcony when I was sober.

When I returned to Uganda seven years later after studying. People could not understand how an educated man like me could sleep on floors in bars. You make noise. Pee on yourself. It’s crazy. I did a lot of outrageous things, people didn’t believe that all I was taking was alcohol.

RK: When do you hit rock bottom?

BB: Depending on what you mean by rock bottom. If there was rock bottom, I hit it over and over again. There are times people would say, this time he is out then I would bounce back and do worse. It’s like there was no end to it.

My rock bottom was when I was in rehabilitation in 2004.

RK: Wait. How do you end up in rehab?

BB: That’s another story. My mother had taken me to different counsellors Mrs Ruth Senyonyi and the late Dr Mungerera who made me the referral to go to Mr Magirigi’s place in Nsambya. I was given a questionnaire and they said if you answer 4 of these questions with a yes, then you need to be in a rehab but they gave me the opportunity to reduce. And he said if you fail, they will bring you here by force. So I left with the intention of proving to them that I was not an alcoholic. A few days later, went out to have only one bottle. But I lost control and caused a scene. I was bundled up and taken to the treatment centre without consent.

While there, with everything I have explained to you, I was still looking at the other addicts and saying, I am not like you guys, I felt I was better off. You have to first cross the line without first seeing it to know that it is madness.

It was about two weeks into treatment that I hit rock bottom. I got to realise the magnitude of what I had done. I was so sober. The mind was clear. I was so shameful of myself. Most of the people that had welcomed me back to Uganda, most of them had started working and wanted to give me connections. My mother wanted to get me a job somewhere and there I was. It hit me. I went into a depression. It was partly withdrawal. My colleagues at the rehab always dragged me to the sessions. It made me realise that there was no difference between them and I. There were people from rich families, priests from the seminary, doctors, writers, very important person at the time. We were all suffering the same problem. It hit me at that moment that I needed to change. It was just the beginning but not the end.

That is when I decided that I wanted to change. I wanted to be like the other normal people. I was tired of being tired. I remember I had not cut my hair and beard for a very long time that was the first thing I did when I left the rehab.  This happened between June and September 2004.

When I got out, a friend had joined me three days after me. After about three days after leaving the rehab, I went to check on my buddies at a corner behind Bukoto flats. I wanted to show them how I had been able to do away from my drinking.

RK: How old were you at the time?

BB: 30. So I went to the corner and I started explaining to them how bad alcohol was. But they didn’t want to hear any of that. One of them said, you wait by the time the night is over, you are going to be high. I decided to try out only one sip. Within 20 minutes, they were throwing me out.

I didn’t have money. I went to the nearby supermarket and grabbed a beer. I galloped it and ran away to hide in the house.

 RK: Oh God!

BB: Another time, a friend took me to Naalya to drink where I was beaten up. And that gave me a rude awakening. I thought about my mother. I wondered how she would feel. That is when I knew I needed a rude awakening.

I started staying back home.

RK: On your own?

BB: You would say that but it was induced. Then I would watch Creflo Dollar every morning at 10am and at 4pm. He was a good preacher. For over two years. Then my brother Joe came back from South Africa. He was doing computer engineering. He came back with cameras and installed video editing software on the computers and I started to learn how to become a videographer. But all that time I was in a settled state.

I started a videography company. My life seemed to be going well. In 2009, I got married. It was all fine.

In 2010, I moved to Kabale. I wanted to look after my father’s properties and besides there was some money to be made that side. Guess what happened!

I was trying to change our paternal home into a hotel. I opened a bar and that was it.

RK: Downhill all the way!

BB: Yes. I had reached a point where I had started thinking these in recovery needed to be in fellowship. You need each other. You need likeminded people to support you. I started diverting, listening to people who were prosperous. People who were making the money. They had properties. They would go to the bar and drink “responsibly”.  And then I was taking their advice. One of them was: if you want to reduce on costs without having to borrow from the bank, open a bar. I forgot they were not like me. They had control.

Money from the bar is cash. It keeps coming in. I don’t know about bars and respecting the bar owners. I called my place Ngoma (kingdom). They put you on a pedestal and feel different. I relapsed

RK: During this time, where was your wife?

BB: At home. First in Kampala and then she later came and joined me in Kabale. But she gave me time to find myself.

In all this I was writing about alcoholism and talking about it whenever I could. Schools started inviting me to talk to the students. Families were asking me to talk about them. I realised this is the place I had to be to blossom and for my own safety. I promised myself, Bill is not going back to the other chap.

This is my one million dollars. See I can talk to you on a normal level.

RK: In trying to solve a problem, you found yourself and found a calling?

BB: Yes I did.

RK: How did you get back with your wife?

BB: It was gradual. At a certain point I told her I was feeling fine but she told me to wait. It started with a few visits to the small place I was staying at Mutungo. I had gone back to square one. I had gone from living in a house sitting on an acre to living in a single room.

She realised overtime that I was getting back and she let me in.

RK: And then your mum and the rest of the family, when do they accept you back?

BB: Your mother doesn’t need convincing. Your mother is your mother. She is the one who gets hit hardest. Had she not thrown me out sending a driver to pick me and giving me chicken soup and all that stuff, she had gone past that level. Whatever had happened, she had accepted it the way it is. I also knew it. So I tell her that had she continued to give me the soft treatment, I wouldn’t be alive now. She had to stop being my enabler.

RK: Tell us about enablers?

BB: At the beginning of this year, I got a client. I refused to take him in. He needed to get treatment and then come for the aftercare. But he came with his brother. He was wearing shoes which had been bought by his brother. While there in my presence, they had a disagreement and he (the patient) abused his brother. So I asked him, who bought you those shoes. He said, ‘my brother’. And you can afford to abuse him in my presence? But his brother told me, he couldn’t afford to move with him without shoes.

The thing is it is his brother who was the enabler. He had to put his foot down for him to go for treatment or else throw him out. They rented him a house (instead of going to rehab). He took days without communicating and after few days, they found him dead in his house. We are not control of life and death.

There are so many times I have survived. There are people who tell me that I have more than 9 lives.

Tio Kauma: There is an issue of alcohol abuse but don’t walk on the streets drunk. There is a term called functional alcoholism. What is your view on functional alcoholism?

Tony Kagaba: If we see someone we love tending to an addiction like alcoholism, what is the best approach to help them?

Evelyn Masaba: Is there a form of therapy that the people on their recovery journey are getting? Do you help non-alcohol addicts?

Mary Odeke: Bill, what’s the most important thing that your family did for you? How can family be helpful without being enablers?

Annet Nazziwa: How has Bill’s family been supported with all the trauma they have had to deal with?

Sheila Kangwagye: What are we going to do about the stigma around addiction?

Moses Rutahigwa: How best do we help people dealing with silent addictions?

Justina Mutakoha: When you have been supporting some for so long, where do you go after you have done all you can do as a family?

Moses Rwakitarate:  Do you give advice to families with genetic drinking problems?

David Okong: How do you help someone who has been to rehab but still goes back to the habit?

Phillip Kiwana: How can we help the youth who are going down this route? How do you start the conversation?

Nicholas Opio: Lawyers are known to love the bitter liquid, is there advice for professionals who are likely to suffer from this?

Lydia: How do families addicts who turn to criminal acts; people threatening to kill people or such things? Do correction facilities have a role to play?

Brenda Bukenya: What do you think about a wet house? As a generation, we over glamourize alcohol.

Mutebi Muhammad: Bill, do you have services for people with substance abuse?

Lauryn Ntale: What do families that cannot afford rehab beat the addiction?

Simeon UG: at what level does one know they are moving into an addiction?

RK: Knowing what you know now today, what would you say to people at this point?

BB: Every time I speak, the questions are so many because finally someone has got an opportunity to ask a question that they cannot ask their colleague at work. We know all these thing share happening but we do not want to engage.

We are all suffering with this. All the 420 listeners to this show can begin with saying something about alcoholism. Services are available. There is a group called Addiction Prevention and Rehabilitation Association Uganda. There are different t centres registered with it. I am a recovery coach at Safe Places Recovery Centre.

We need to be looking at getting a person help. The help is; start with me. I will be sharing more on my page.

The only stage when one cannot be helped is when one has a got a wet brain, when their function is irreversible. Until then, people need help. Look for a professional. If you don’t do it, no one will do it for you.

RK: Bill, I really really admire you… You are a very courageous man. Tonight you have just proved that we should never ever give up on anybody in life.

BB: Thank you, Robert.

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