I should have been my son's best friend- Tale of mother whose son was a heroine addict

Grace and son Mark Gerishon Mbiu during the interview with TheStandard Photo: Beverlyne Musili/ Jenipher Wachie/ Standard

"Mom and I are really great friends now – especially lately," Mark Mbiu, 35, says.

And indeed, when you meet the two, there is an unspoken bond between them. It is in the loving look the mother bestows on her son, and the tender glances stolen by the son as his mother speaks.

They now have what Grace, Mark's mother, wishes they had before her son had sunk deep into heroin addiction.

"I was the typical parent; going about life fending for my family. I am a caterer by profession. I would leave home every morning and be back in the evening," Grace says.

The day she discovered the truth – that Mark was using drugs – she was hurt beyond words.

"I felt like I should have known what was happening," she says.

"He was a cheerful child;  social and friendly.He talked a lot and was very interactive. I totally missed any cues," Grace says.

Mark's downward spiral began gradually. He was between 13 and 14 when he downed 12 bottles of beer.

"I remember that episode because my peers praised me for it," he says. "I wanted to be the best among my peers. I wanted to outdo them in everything, including guzzling beer."

It was also in high school that he first puffed bhang and snorted his first line of heroin.

"I was just hanging around the big boys and trying to be the best among them, as usual," Mark says. "They called it 'brown sugar'. I didn't know that it was heroin. I only discovered that later."

Being a beginner, his friends suggested that he uses just a little. But Mark was bent on outshining them.

"Give me more," he would tell the boys.

"Give us the money," they'd say.

Mark would then get the money from his mother.

Mark, Grace says, would throw tantrums and mutilate himself to receive money from her.

"I blackmailed her into giving me what I wanted," Mark confirms.

The money he received is what he used to purchase the drugs.

"I realized much later, that in giving him money, I was enabling his addiction," Grace says. "I resolved to stop all financial help to him; there was nothing he was going to do that would change my mind."

Mark, currently in the last stages of fighting his addiction, can't quite recall how he found himself at the deep end of the scourge.

What he does remember is a childhood troubled with incessant bullying.

"I was bullied in primary school. Some of my colleagues would steal things and stuff them in my locker and I would be labelled a thief. No one believed my innocence. Taking the blame was a coping mechanism – to get it over with and move on."

Every time he was framed, he sank into deeper depths of self-loathing. Every vile remark aimed at him made him question his existence.

"I felt that I was probably a terrible person. I would ask myself, 'why me?' and always came to the conclusion that I was very flawed," Mark says.

The young boy never shared with his mother what he was going through in school. His father, Mark recalls, was not a talker.

"My old man was a calm person. He wasn't the type to indulge in conversations with us. Mum was also very busy, picking up the buck as the breadwinner when dad fell ill," Mark says.

In retrospect, Grace says, there is high chance that her 'busyness' prevented her from discovering – in time – that her son, like the ill-fated Titanic, was headed for an iceberg.

It also puzzles her that Mark kept the bullying away from her. "Probably he didn't want to hurt my feelings: he must have thought that he was protecting me."

Mark was 16 when he confessed to his mother that he was into drugs. He was a high school student then and had now become a bully.

News of her son's addiction provoked heavy emotions in Grace. But she couldn't stay in that state of regret for long. "I had to start thinking with my feet on the ground: to find a solution. Once one gets hooked, they have to hit rock bottom before they find their way back up," she says. She knows so because in spite of initial forceful efforts to get her son out of addiction she never made much headway.

She was ready to ask for help too. The next time Mark demanded for money while threatening to harm himself, Grace called the police on him.

"I couldn't handle it by myself. I needed him to understand that his behaviour was no longer going to be tolerated. I also made a conscious decision to learn about drugs so that I could help him."

It has been 20 years of struggle to get Mark off addiction. They have been in and out of rehabs countless times. But Grace, for the first time in a long time, feels optimistic and happy that her son is no longer abusing drugs.

There have been bad times – like when he threw tantrums and smashed glass windows at his mother's house. Or when he later decided to actually steal to make quick money that would fuel his addiction.

There have also been good moments like when he was clean for months and graduated with a diploma in addiction counselling.

She knows of two deaths precipitated by drugs. She also knows two other people that drugs have rendered 'useless' to society. Mark has suffered neither.

It is however not lost on her what drugs have stolen from her son. "He probably would have married by now. He would be holding down a good job and taking care of his own family," she says solemnly.

Grace's experience has made her a staunch advocate against drug abuse.

"I tell parents of teens to be closer to their children. To stop being authoritative – issuing directives from a distance – and instead befriend them.  That way they will be open with you. They will tell you what is happening in their lives."

 Mark is now on methadone, a form of medically assisted therapy recommended for addicts, used in gradual decrease until one is able to live a normal drug free life.

Mark has enrolled to join university this May. Grace is joining a support group of other mothers whose children are on methadone. This, she says, will help her feel less lonely as they get Mark back on track.

Is your teen on drugs?

Catherine Mbau, a counselling psychologist at Arise Counselling Center says that drug abuse among young people often happens because there's a void that they want to fill up.

"In many cases it is because they need attention. If they are not getting it at home, they will look for it from friends who may introduce them to drugs."

A 2012 survey dubbed Rapid Assessment Drug and Substance Abuse In Kenya found that one in three students used one or more drugs.

In 2015, more than 500 students were rounded up from an entertainment joint in Eldoret. Many of the students, it was reported, were abusing alcohol and other drugs.

"You have to ask yourself if these teens' parents have any idea that their children are in a night joint being exposed to drugs and sex," Catherine comments.

According to Catherine, it not only takes love and friendship to help a child steer off drugs, but also a firmness that demands responsibility.

She says: "Ultimately a child needs guidance. You can't let them dictate how they want their lives to run. As the parent you have to be in charge even as you give them room to articulate their concerns."

Signs to watch out for if someone is using heroin:

Physical signs:

Eyes that are almost always bloodshot

Constant nosebleeds (could be a sign of cocaine addiction)

Sudden weight change (either loss or gain)

Seizures with no history of epilepsy

Weird smells on clothing or breath

Shakes and tremors

Behavioural signs:

Declining grades and truancy in school

Loss of interest in hobbies

Acting withdrawn

Missing money or valuables around the house

Increased demand for privacy

Getting into trouble and fights a lot more

Sudden mood changes