If you drive around Nairobi on any Friday night, you will be sure not to go a kilometre without spotting a bar that’s overflowing with people. In most cases, these bars are characterized by a long trail of cars parked by the roadside. It’s not just Fridays. Clubs and bars in Nairobi are parked from Friday to Sunday and on every public holiday. It’s guaranteed. Does it ever occur to you that this may, in fact, be a problem? Aside from all the jokes, memes and songs, is alcohol an underlying issue in our city today?
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against alcohol. In fact, I can say openly that I love to drink. However, I discovered a few patterns in my mental health that take place after every night out. First, I always wake up extremely anxious. I’ve had panic attacks the morning after drinking, and I’ve always wondered why. Usually, it’s impossible to trace the origin of this sudden nervousness, and it takes a while before I actually calm down. On the days that follow, I experience a state of unhappiness. I become cranky and agitated. It never made sense to me because when I’m tipsy I’m usually the happiest and as soon as the alcohol fades my mood shifts.
Alcohol acts as a sedative, but these effects are short-lived. This means that it does have the ability to make you feel relaxed, calm or mellow, but it does not last too long. When we drink alcohol it disrupts the balance of chemicals and processes in the brain. The relaxed feeling you experience when you have your first drink is due to the chemical changes alcohol causes in your brain. The alcohol starts to depress the part of the brain that we associate with inhibition.
I can’t help but wonder if our nation is in fact depressed, given that our alcohol intake is high. Might there be problems that we are running away from by drinking alcohol at every opportunity we get?
According to an article on Nairobi News, statistics by National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (Nacada) in 2018 showed that at least 2.8 million Kenyans are battling alcohol-related disorders.
There have been cases where people drink alcohol to sort of forget what they’re feeling or to reduce the intensity of their emotions. It works, to a certain extent. Because at the moment when you’re tipsy or drunk, you will be the happiest. You kind of let go of all your problems and focus on the moment. The reason for this is because the brain releases endorphins which induce a sense of relaxation and happiness. However, as soon as the alcohol fades away, the person is reminded of their problems and depression starts to trickle in.
Here’s how alcohol and depression trigger each other. When you drink, your brain releases these endorphins which make you happy for a while. When it fades, you become sad. This makes you long for more alcohol, and as you continue to drink more endorphins are released. The brain is then conditioned to associate alcohol with pleasure. Therefore the person begins to drink more in order to continue feeling this pleasure. Eventually, the person will start to rely on alcohol to bring back these feelings of joy. Without alcohol, the person becomes depressed.
In July 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta, speaking to Members of Parliament from the central region said that ‘We must agree we have a problem that needs immediate action,’ he told them, declaring ‘Agenda number one is pombe (alcohol), number two is pombe and three is pombe.’
Contrary to what most people think, alcohol is not a stimulant. It is classified as a Central Nervous System depressant, meaning that it slows down brain functioning and neural activity. It encompasses sedative and stimulant effects but is clinically categorized as a depressant. If your genetically predisposed to mental illnesses, alcohol can exacerbate the effects of certain conditions – including anxiety and depression.
Alcohol should never be used as a coping mechanism for stress or any other experiences. It is likely to turn into depression, without you even knowing it. With this knowledge, I can only hope that most Kenyans will find other coping mechanisms for their experiences, and recognize that alcohol is not an answer to our problems.