Caroline Kagia Discusses Family Triggers & Challenges Women Face Maintaining Sobriety

Caroline Kagia isn’t new around here. And if you’ve been hanging with us for a while, you’ll recognize her name. We first featured her story on The Weight She Carries backin 2019. And what a remarkable story she has – one that delves deep into the hidden realities of addiction and reveals just how tight its grip can be.

For nearly 18 years, Caroline struggled with alcoholism, and it turned her life upside down. The beauty of her story is that God’s love for her was stronger than her addiction, and today she is in recovery, is a Certified Addictions Professional, an international speaker, and the founder of the Caroline Kagia Wellness Initiative.

I remember being blown away by her strength and candor as she narrated her story to me. I was honoured that she’d trusted me with her story, and I worked on it for days, wanting to make sure I gave it the justice it deserved. When her story went live, our TWSC community went wild! Thousands read her story and our social media comment section lit up with people applauding her courage, sharing her story, and wondering how they could connect with her.

Then, I asked her to be one of the speakers at the Shero Runway Empowerment Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, later that year. Since then, Caroline has authored some powerful articles on addiction and recovery for TWSC readers. Her TWSC series column Speaking Out with Caroline is set to resume later this month, so be sure you keep an eye out for it.

Caroline is a woman to watch. She is one of the prominent voices speaking out about addiction and supporting others in their recovery journeys.

The last time we caught up with Caroline, she was penning her memoir Still I Rise and looking forward to inspiring the masses with her story.  She’s currently reworking it and will provide details about its release soon.

I reached out to her recently to find out what she’s been up to lately.

Let’s talk about some of the other ventures you’ve been pursuing.

I’ve been working with two treatment facilities – one being Eden Zion, which is based in Voi, Kenya. They have different facilities around Nairobi and Mombasa, but I particularly chose Voi because it is their newest project.

I like it because the treatment program is just on point and fares better in comparison to other facilities as well. Their recovery rate is above 60%, meaning that the people who’ve been through the program go on to resume normal lives. You have to change a few things, for example, the people you used to hang out with, the places used to go, and the things you used to do. But in most of the cases, those I have followed up with are doing pretty well in their work life and family.

So, you really have to do a “180” to maintain sobriety, right?

It’s actually a complete “360” because we say that addiction is a family disease. It’s not a spectator sport. So sometimes the 360 degrees may also mean setting boundaries with certain family members because family can be your biggest trigger. They can either be your biggest support or your biggest trigger. There is no in-between when it comes to relationships with significant others. As Africans, we don’t like to talk about it, but it’s a fact.

Remember, these are people you’ve been with for the longest time – whether it’s a spouse, significant other, or other family member – they hold a certain place in your heart, and setting boundaries is so difficult.

Is this something you had to do as part of your recovery?

Oh, yes. I had to set boundaries with certain people in my family because they were constant triggers. What most people in addiction do is assume things will get better with time. But if you do not like to set boundaries or avoid speaking about the things your family is doing to cause you to relapse, you’ll keep going around in circles.

Marriage is usually the trickiest relationship of all because this is the person you spend the most time with. You’re in constant communication. How do you learn to set boundaries with this person? That’s why it’s important for the spouse to attend family therapy when one of the parties goes in for treatment. It’s part of our program and allows the couple to iron out underlying issues in the presence of a third party who is a therapist.

This is critical. If it doesn’t happen, once a person leaves the facility and goes back to the same settings, the cycle starts all over again and only becomes worse.

Many people don’t like therapy because we like hiding behind masks. And yet these masks we are hiding behind carry a lot of things that are causing us to deteriorate day by day. There’s nothing shameful about marriage counseling or family therapy.

What are some of the challenges you see with women maintaining sobriety?

There’s still that stigma associated with women and substance use. It’s like the way we used to look at HIV and AIDS back in the 90s. It was the elephant in the room. No one was talking about it, yet it was there. That is why many women tend to hide their addiction. For me, being a woman in recovery and one who’s gone to rehab not once but twice, I can tell you the stigma is there.

I speak for many because I understand the process for a woman. ‘What will people say? I’m married, my husband doesn’t drink and I’m the one who is in rehab.’

For me, I’m a single parent. For some time, I carried the fear of what people might say when they learn that not only am I a single parent, but I’m also an alcoholic.

That was one of the things that made me hide in addiction for a long time. I know now that there is no shame in saying that I am a woman in recovery. I think every home in Kenya has a woman or girl somewhere who is struggling with alcoholism, but there are ways to beat it. And that’s why I started my initiative – the Caroline Kagia Wellness Initiative – to support women. My passion is primarily geared towards assisting women who are struggling with addiction because I know how deeply entrenched it is in our current society as Kenyans.

So, what do I do with such women? I get them out of their cocoons to seek help. I speak with them, they share their struggles with me and we walk this journey together. So far, I’ve seen turnarounds in many women’s lives. I don’t attach it to any strength of mine. I give God all the glory because he took me through that journey for a time such as this. To be able to get women out of that “shame.” There is power in speaking. When you speak, your healing begins.

In your experience, are there some settings where addiction is more prevalent for women?

Addiction is happening everywhere – in the church, in the corporate world, and in schools. I was struggling with addiction and still in the choir. I was still playing the piano in church because I’m gifted that way.

I did a video earlier this year about my struggle with alcoholism as a Christian woman. Vimbai, I can tell you the messages that came into my inbox when that story went viral were eye-opening. I think it’s time churches become a bit more flexible. The church is supposed to be the healing ground. Jesus didn’t come for the saints, He came for the likes of me and you. He came for the Pharisees, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. He came for people who needed saving.

Childhood trauma plays a big part in substance abuse. Mother wounds, father wounds, insults, assaults, etc. Survivors end up in some sort of addiction. Everybody who is battling an addiction has some sort of trauma or an underlying issue that has never been dealt with.

As for schoolgirls, I feel especially sad for them because these are the mothers of tomorrow. If one starts these habits in high school, the chances of getting into a relationship with a substance user are high. Then they may conceive what we call “the alcoholic seed.” This has a ripple effect. It doesn’t stop, and that is why I’m so passionate about helping women.

Alcoholism never killed me; I never got sick, but God made me go through it to understand the pain of other people so that I am able to reach out to them.

You’ve been so candid about your own struggle with alcoholism and the depths it took you to. How do you keep yourself from relapsing?

After my second visit to rehab, I had to pinch myself a few times. I sat down with myself and realized I had become too confident in my sobriety. I had stopped going to any support meetings, and my relapse caught me off guard. So after that, I became very conscious of how I relate with people and how I relate to myself. I’ve learned to love myself. By the way, when you’re in recovery, you have to learn to love yourself. What does that mean? Keeping yourself in check. I know when my emotions are rising higher than they need to.

I am also a firm believer in Jesus Christ. I am so active in church activities that keep me busy. I’m so grateful for that.

I also love talking to people, I love inspiring people, I love ministering to people’s spirits because people are broken out here. Many just need a word of encouragement. When I get a response from somebody telling me, “Thanks for what you did,” I feel so good about my life. I love my God; I love Jesus. He has done so much for me. The most I can do is just give myself back to Him and the people He has put on this earth for me to minister to. Some of these people can never repay me, but I give God all the glory because He sees what I’m doing. And in His time, He makes all things beautiful. And with that, I’m relaxed and I’m confident in what I’m doing.

Let’s talk about the importance of support in your recovery.

God has favoured me and surrounded me with very good people. My accountability partners are women who are much older than me, not necessarily in recovery, but who have seen me in my times of desperation. These are the women I hold on to when I’m feeling stuck.

One thing I need to point out is that support does not necessarily have to come from your family. That will come as a shocker to some. My support system has come from strangers. Of course, my dad has been very instrumental in my recovery journey, but apart from my dad, most of the people who have stood with me in my recovery journey are people I never thought I would meet. Some come into my DMs. I have people who constantly pray for me, and I’ve never met them.

What are some self-care tips you can share with other women in recovery?

  1. Self-care means rest. There are times when I just switch off all my electronic gadgets and spend some alone time. You don’t discover how important it is to love on yourself until you become sober.
  2. Start exercising, even if it’s just walking 10 minutes every day. I walk a lot. It clears my mind.
  3. Listen to some good music and dance! Those things are good.
  4. Listen to motivational speeches on YouTube. I also read a lot.
  5. Go to a park or somewhere you can just sit and observe people or animals. It just refreshes your mind and your spirit.
  6. Look at yourself in the mirror, and smile. Affirm yourself and say, “Oh my gosh, don’t I look good today!”
  7. Affirmations are very important. Tell yourself you are beautiful. Whether you feel it or not is not the point. Whatever you tell your subconscious, it will take as gospel truth. Say, “I’m beautiful”, “I’m excellent”, or “I am highly favored”. Speak good things into your day. And those good things will align themselves and come back to you.

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