For Us By Us: Destigmatising drug use in Nigeria
A common form of self-medication, drug use has been unfairly and harmfully stigmatised in Nigeria. For the sake of mental wellbeing, this needs to end.
A common form of self-medication, drug use has been unfairly and harmfully stigmatised in Nigeria. For the sake of mental wellbeing, this needs to end.
When Odunsi (The Engine) sang on Amaarae’s album closer, “Swallow all those pills/Still ain’t gonna heal,” I felt that.
Suffering from a recurring depressive disorder, milder variations of pills and potions are a staple on the Down-Bad menu for me. For getting through each difficult day, I usually reward myself with a glass of wine or a cocktail, if things are getting particularly trying, I opt for a drink then and there. Pretty much dependent on alcohol to cope with stress, my drinking habits are akin to addiction and an indication of a deeper psychological issue, so professionals say. Similarly, when I kick back tequila (which I HATE) at the cub or snack on some edibles (which always make me feel sick) before an event, this is a form of self-harm that I am using as a coping mechanism for social phobia. Or when I ramp up my use of [redacted] because I’ve noticed it makes me lose my appetite, that’s an eating disorder manifesting itself in a new way. These behaviours aren’t exceptional to me, nor are they uncommon. I’m sure a few readers will be able to relate, or at least notice these behaviours in someone they know. This is because our mental health is suffering, especially during these troubling couple of years, and oftentimes the easiest way to deal with it is to not deal with it at all – where intoxicating substances come in.
Most prevalent in young Nigerians between their 20s and 30s, substances (ab)use is a common form of self-medication in these parts, for depression and other undiagnosed mental health issues. Especially as the stigma against mental healthcare remains particularly hostile, a lot of young Nigerians look to drugs – as opposed to professional help or psychological resources, which are scarce and fiscally inaccessible to most Nigerians – to help them simply “feel better,” an innocent, albeit harmful, coping mechanism that could open up worlds more pain.
Releasing a three-track EP, ‘Meraki’ last October, to mark one year of sobriety, Rookie SBK started in this fashion, using drugs to pass the time he was at Babcock University, “aka the trenches.” A performing member of the TRYBE and Fresh Meat alumni group, Forevatired, in his uni days (and to an extent still now) Rookie was a bona fide shy guy. Stuck in an unhappy place, this period became an unhappy time for Rookie, but with the help of a new friend, bouts of euphoria were not only possible, they became regular.
For most people, weed and alcohol is where they make their start, but for Rookie SBK, it was something most would consider a little “harder” than the legal alcohol or the so-common-it-might-as-well-be-too weed. “I tried codeine first and fell asleep on my ass but didn’t get hooked. Not long after that, I started sipping codeine proper, weed followed and then other drugs as well. I guess codeine was my gateway drug,” Rookie tells me over IG DMs where he openly shares with NATIVE his year-long road to sobriety. A “gateway drug” is a substance that leads its user to use of, and potential subsequent addiction to, more dangerous drugs. Rookie started with codeine and continued on with weed, molly, booze and other substances; Bentley (a source who asked to remain anonymous) started with weed and went on to add MDMA, LSD, Nos and Mushrooms to his repertoire, similar to guitarist, Bendrixz (“Obe”, “Your Love” and “Abena”) who went from cooking up WEEDOMIE (yes, weed and Indomie) to toying with a few other common substances, including molly.
My gateway drug was the liquor, and though, like Bentley, it led me to use of but not dependence on “hard drugs”, I very quickly after my first house party developed an alcohol addiction (which is apparently if you drink more than. From mine, Bendrixz’s, Bentley’s and Rookie’s experience, I see why Dr Momodu, who works in general adult psychiatric care, would say, “it’s better not to start.” Using alcohol as a specific example (as Bentley states, “Anything that causes a chemical reaction or imbalance to your mind or body” is a drug), Dr Momodu explains, “assuming that [one doesn’t] start, the opportunity to move from social drinking to regular drinking to addiction will not happen.” She does appreciate though, that the reality for many people is not so black and white, especially when it comes to people who are suffering from mental illnesses, who might not understand their symptoms or who don’t have the knowledge or context that would encourage them or afford them to seek professional help.
“We are not a mentally aware society, so people have symptoms and they really don’t know what to call it, they just know that they’re not feeling great, they’re just not happy. They don’t know that maybe this is depression and they should go to the hospital, for example, they’d rather speak to a friend who has also probably had that experience and says, ‘oh somebody gave me this,’ and then you use it.”
In my conversations with Dr Momodu, Bentley, Bendrixz and even Rookie, friends seem to be a huge part of how people get introduced to drugs. Rookie observed his classmates successfully do drugs without losing their minds or flunking in class, which led him to believe he could too, whilst Bentley and Bendrixz began experimenting with drugs (weed) with their friends. As the two became seasoned users, drugs became a means of bonding with friends, and also a facilitator to social interactions when they were crowd-shy – a “social lubricant” to use Bentley’s phrase, a confidence booster, as Dr Momodu describes it – a type of use that indicates social anxiety.
“Smoking a spliff with friends and listening to music and then eating a pizza afterwards is just really nice, music sounds better and food tastes better. Giving people hugs or dancing with the person you fancy or laying down on a comfy couch with sweatpants on whilst under the influence of MDMA is literally fucking amazing, it’s called ecstasy for a reason. Tripping balls off acid and seeing the carpet literally breathe like it’s a living being is mind-boggling, I mean, who wouldn’t wanna see that?”
Attributing 20% of the push to try drugs to peer pressure, Bendrixz tells me that the memories he’s able to build with his friends while high is one of the components that makes substance use so enjoyable for him, that and “what it unlocks in my mind that I cannot access when I’m sober,” a feeling which Bentley describes as “heightening or changing my perspective on how I experience the world, but also how I think and feel about certain things.” Where Bentley (Bendrixz too) uses drugs to “open up new avenues of thought that you normally wouldn’t be able to access or not access as quickly,” myself and Rookie were more interested in the mind-altering power of substances to lift us out of our mundane, lonely, depressing every day into euphoric bliss. Though you know drugs won’t make you good, they will definitely make you feel good – both physically and mentally, as Bentley points out – and to those going through a rough time, this is the draw.
In comparing the realities of Rookie and myself to Bentley and Bendrixz, companionship in drug use appears to be an important component in maintaining control and sanity. The one bad trip Bentley points to was when he was hiding a major life event from his friends: “I was in a bad place at the time because I was in the process of dropping out of uni and I hadn’t told anyone, not even my friends, I had so much work to do that I just hadn’t done so I probably shouldn’t have been taking strong psychedelics at the time.” I reached my rock bottom after spending two days in bed with no social contact, not even on my phone. Rookie started his dalliance with drugs on his own and ended it in September 2019 after a trip to the hospital and a tearful phone call from his loving mother.
“Drugs have the potential to be dangerous and life-threatening,” Bentley reminds me, but in a country that criminalises drug use and places such an intolerant stigma on addiction, it is near impossible to forget. Nigerian law includes the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency Act, which is self-described as “[a]n Act to establish the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency to enforce laws against the cultivation, processing, sale, trafficking and use of hard drugs and to empower the Agency to investigate persons suspected to have dealings in drugs and other related matters.” Whilst the Act remains ambiguous as to what extent drug use is a criminal offence, the stigma Nigeria places on addiction is glaring and dangerously unproductive.
Considered to be within a person’s control, as opposed to looking at drug abuse as an illness, Nigerian society often attributes addiction to negative spirituality, practising victim-blaming when addressing substance dependency. Sure, in music and youth culture we have the likes of Naira Marley bragging about the quality of his MD on “Opotoyi” or DJ Enimoney coming up with his friends on “Diet”; Even as far back as the 1970s, Fela Kuti was championing and channelling the power of the ganja. But with all these more realistic representations of how drugs exist in our society, which are often falsely accused of glamorising drug use (the truth is, these are just stories about real life), Nigeria reveals her position when songs like Olamide’s “Science Student” are banned by the NBC, or pop stars snidely remark on publicly broadcasted interviews that cocaine addiction is exclusively for the rich.
Both trivialising and demonising mental health issues and their correlation with drug use, through common insults such as “you’re obviously on drugs,” or common sentiments suggesting young people that (ab)use drugs are misguided antisocials, Nigeria has a very poor, and actually harmful attitude towards substances, one which Dr Momodu believes needs urgent reframing. She recommends we look at substance use and abuse through the disease model, understanding that whilst some people can safely consume drugs, others might be susceptible to more problematic substance use. Looking at it through this lens gives further evidence as to why Dr Momodu would encourage everyone to simply stay away from drugs. If you’re going to ignore doctor’s orders, however, (so like all of us) Bentley advises that you do your research extensively, and make sure you buy from a dealer you trust well.
“I think you need to know exactly what it is you’re putting into your body, you need to know the direct effects and possible side effects and see if you’re gonna like them/can handle it. With a drug like ecstasy that causes you to potentially overshare, you might not feel comfortable with that. Or how you might think the visuals on acid might be cool but time dilation (time slows down significantly on acid) might be scary to you. I feel you need to know both the good and bad side effects of drugs before ingesting them so you can make an informed decision before taking them.”
Bendrixz’s advice also doesn’t discourage people from taking drugs, but similarly suggest ways one can mitigate against bad experiences. He says, “Bad experiences? I mean, everyone has one, with everything they do, be it drugs or alcohol. It doesn’t mean you stop. If anything, you learn what got you so fucked up, and learn so that it never happens again.”
Noting that Rookie, who did research and did trust his dealer and did learn from his past experiences, still needed to go cold turkey, one can see the varying approaches, outlooks and responses to drug use and drug dependency even within the community of people who use drugs. I cannot conclude that drugs are exclusively bad, and everyone should either stop or stay away, because the likes of Bentley and Bendrixz enjoy them rather healthily; and frankly that advice is idealistic, everyone will do as they wish to do. However, we cannot ignore the psychologically detrimental effects of drug use, where these potentially harmful substances become coping mechanisms and a way to avoid practical and professional help in dealing with one’s mind, which, in some instances, is even triggered by drug use in the first place.
When you turn to a fat glass of wine after a stressful day, light up a J before settling into a good meal, pop some molly to invigorate the night, or get on a tab so you can record more creatively, drugs are helping to bypass the problem you’re facing – be it a compulsive disorder, an eating disorder, social anxiety, self-esteem issues, or even something as simple as boredom – as opposed to overcoming these issues. These are innocent, normalised acts, but signs nonetheless that self-care and potential intervention is needed, because the problems still exist, whether you’re high and numb to it, and especially when you’re sober and immersed in it. Rookie’s anecdote about his struggle to make music post-sobriety is a good example of the temporary solution drugs put on our psychological trials. He says,
“My creativity suffered for a while and more specifically my self-esteem. I had attributed most of my creativity and finesse to these substances, so when I got sober it was hard adjusting and even comparing stuff I had made when I was high, there a was a clear difference in quality but eventually, I noticed the drugs only helped relax and reduce my anxiety so it was easier to focus and tap into certain emotions. I was making music way before drugs, so I had to relearn how to tap into certain emotions and feels manually.”
This past year has been incredibly dark, troubling and difficult. With everyone going through everything at the same time, looking for help can seem ridiculous, and distractions the more appealing choice. But drowning yourself in a drink, or work or anything that you use to escape might feel good, or at the very least numb (which is world’s more appealing than what right now has to offer), but it won’t help anybody be good. I asked, for myself and those like me, and all those reading this piece too, ‘how do you maintain mental wellness now?’ Rookie answered, “I try to mediate daily and do the most mundane shit I can think of like take walks or ride a bike. Also, I have a support system so if I’m feeling troubled or down, I reach out and it really helps me get through it.”
It might be “mundane” and boring and a look like trial, but there are always means to properly get through to the light. And if that feels impossible, if it feels lonely, if substances feel like the only way to cope with the darkness, there are also people whose literal job it is (so don’t feel guilty or burdensome) to help you into the light, so tap in and let’s conquer the fight.
Here are some resources for you and your loved ones. Life is full of peaks and troughs, so remember, it will always get better.
NATIVE: A list of helpful tips and resources for those struggling with their mental wellbeing
Dr Momodu at the Lagos Island General Hospital
Tranquil & Quest: A mental health with both in- and out-patient facilities and therapies specially tailored to drug (ab)use.
Rehab HC: An online helpline that will help you find the best drug rehabilitation facilities for you in Nigeria
National Institute on Drug Abuse For Teens: Gives useful information on drugs and its health effects on mind and body
Mind: A list of resources and helplines available in the UK, but also online, including resources for families of users.