At the age of 16, her life changed drastically when the lifestyle she had become accustomed to quickly faded away. She was confused and angry because now, instead of flying to university in her father’s airplane, she was headed to the U.S. to join the military.
Nandi Kegode grew up living what seemed to be a very charmed life. And in many ways, it was. She came from a wealthy family, went to prestigious schools and had well-known parents who were highly respected in their respective professions.
Beneath the surface, however, something was brewing that would later rise to the surface and send her spiraling down a path of self-destruction.
“I remember there being extreme happiness and bouts of extreme sadness,” Nandi told The Weight She Carries. “I didn’t think that the bouts of extreme sadness were anything different from what anybody else was going through.”
Her parents went their separate ways before she was born. Her father was a prominent, young Kenyan man who came from a good family that was well connected socially and politically. As an aviator, he had made history with the first privately owned international airline flying out of East Africa to destinations like London and Rome.
Her mother, who was a mixed-raced woman – half African and half white (European) – was a model and had been crowned Miss Kenya at one point.
“I came from these two incredible people and it felt to me like they just weren’t supposed to have a child when they did because they were in the prime of their youth,” Nandi said.
Conversations with her mother would later reveal just how lifechanging Nandi’s birth had been to her mother, who was just 21 when she had her.
“She was a single mom who was mixed race and had only graduated high school. She had her whit, her good looks and her charm to get her through life. When life wasn’t good, I received that. I received a lot of it,” Nandi said. “I think one of the very difficult things for both of my parents was that when life wasn’t good, it was easy for it to get pointed at me. It wasn’t intentional. I came from an extremely meaning-to-love-me home, but the treatment I got was harsh. There was a lot of emotional pain coming from both sides and I got the brunt of it.”
Nandi went back and forth between her parents and lived with her grandmother as well. She struggled with her identity because she went to a British boarding school in Kenya at 9 years old and was one of just three black girls in her school.
By the time she was 13, she was in boarding school in England.
“I had zero interest in school and my intelligence always lay in social relationships. I always knew that I preferred people to books,” she said.
Boarding school turned out to be good for Nandi because it gave her structure. When she flew to school she arrived in style – flying business class in her father’s 767.
Life was going well until her family’s financial situation changed drastically. She was 16.
“I started to see very rapidly that our lifestyle was crumbling,” she said. “We were selling horses, selling property, and I wasn’t coming back to Kenya as much as I was being sent to the States. People were gossiping and I didn’t know who to believe and where to turn to.”
“I would be at school in England and kids would read the news and bully me for it. And because my parents were trying to protect me, I had no defense because they weren’t telling me what was going on. So, it became this very, very hostile environment and I remember I just went completely inside of myself. Because, all of a sudden, the idea of university and parties and boys…and everything, all faded into obscurity. It was so irrelevant to my situation now and I had zero coping skills.”
– Nandi Kegode
Nandi’s stepmother is American, and to shield her from all the negative press surrounding her family’s situation, her parents thought it best to send her to America to join the U.S. Military. That way, she could still get an education.
She was completely devastated.
“My dad kept telling me, ‘You’re the first born, be strong, don’t show emotion, don’t show people that you’re weak…’ and I was. I was completely strong on the outside, but I was dying on the inside,” she said.
Nandi joined the military and went through basic training. Despite resenting being there, she excelled in the program.
“I’m very athletic. I did a really good job and then headed to AIT, which is Advanced Individual Training, and that was in Virginia at Fort Lee. That’s when my eyes were really opened because when we completed basic training, we now had all of this freedom,” she said. “So, you have freedom, you have money and you have no sense.”
Partying led to experimenting with prescription pills. Initially, she thought it was something she could do recreationally, but she underestimated just how addictive prescription medication can be.
“The opiates did fantastic things for my brain and that’s why people get addicted to them. But one aspect of it that was so appealing was that I was performing better physically because my muscles weren’t wearing out when I was doing runs,” she said. “I was performing outstandingly and getting rewarded for it.”
Eventually, the amount of money she allotted for pain pills each paycheck was no longer adequate. Her need to self-medicate superseded everything. It was an escape for her. She stopped going out with friends and began selling her belongings to support her habit.
Each time she popped a pill she was taking an enormous risk because the military performed random drug tests.
“It was never a reality that I was going to consider giving up (getting high). What I loved about it was I would get these really deep moments of introspection where I would start to contemplate my existence,” she said.
Nandi started taking more drugs and began to mix in other opiates like Adderall, Xanax, and what they called ‘Triple Cs’ (cough medicine).
“I would get into these hallucinogenic states of being for hours. I would be in my barracks room, but I would be a million miles away,” she said.
“I remember loving that feeling of being so far gone that I couldn’t or wouldn’t address anything that was going on. I felt like my life was so painful to me at that time. I pushed so much down that I didn’t even realize that it was surfacing and trying to be paid attention to.”
– Nandi Kegode
Interestingly, when she wasn’t under the influence, she was fully functional.
Eventually, Nandi stopped wanting to be around people because they got in the way of getting high. When she wasn’t high, she was miserable. The world was a painful place for her. She felt trapped and began entertaining suicidal thoughts.
“I was enjoying having these thoughts because nobody could tell me not to have them. I had so much control for the first time in my life, and it felt amazing,” she said.
Nandi turned to street drugs when prescription pills became too expensive for her to afford.
“Heroin is cheap. It lasts longer and it gets the job done, it really does,” she said. “Pain pills are difficult to find. When you start to build a tolerance and you require a higher dose, they charge by the milligram. It was not economical at all.”
What ensued was what she calls “a love affair” with heroin.
“Smoking it was great, but it was really when I started to inject it that I became lost to this world. There was no place I wanted to be other than with my heroin,” she said.
Nandi’s family knew that there was something seriously wrong with her. They knew that things in the military had not ended well and that she was furious with the world, but they didn’t know how to help her, much less find her.
She didn’t speak to them for a period of two years and they had no idea where she was.
“They were looking for me for a good two years until I wound up jailed in West Palm Beach, Florida, and I had to call my dad to get bailed,” she said. “That’s when my two-year stint came to an end of not talking to my family and them not knowing where I was. It must have been terrible for them, but at the time, I thought I was doing them a favour by staying away.”
“It took a long time for them to realize that I was a heroin addict. Even when I came home and I was going through withdrawals, they didn’t know that I was coming off of heroin. But eventually, they figured out that there was something seriously wrong because I tried to steal from them. I didn’t try to steal from them for drugs, I tried to steal from them to pay them back, which doesn’t seem logical now, but at the time it was a perfect idea. It was after that point that I started living on the street.” – Nandi Kegode
At the height of her drug use, there was a lot of scrupulous planning involved. She spent about USD$1,000 every two weeks on drugs. The money was often a government stipend or money she had borrowed from people.
“It was this incredibly stressful planning system. I had to hide my drugs in all of these little places around the house so that my partner or anybody else wouldn’t stumble upon my stash. And if they did happen to stumble onto it, I had other little mini stashes that they didn’t know about,” she said.
Her drug use progressed to include methamphetamine, which caused her to hear voices, hallucinate, lose her appetite and kept her awake.
“People are consistently throwing you out of their lives and it’s all their fault. ‘Why are they being so unreasonable?‘ And at one point I was almost convinced to start selling my body. I came very close to it so many times and that part didn’t even seem like the worst. The idea that I would be without an altered state of mind was far worse to me than selling my body.” – Nandi Kegode
Nandi was homeless for close to a year and it is a miracle that she is alive today. All of the people she did hard drugs with are either dead or scarred of life, she said.
She consumed so much at times that her body would shut down and she would become unconscious.
“For me, as an addict, I would only stop consuming because my body would no longer permit me to. Not because I wanted to stop, not because my soul or my spirit was discontented and willing my body to stop. It was just that my physical being could not take anymore,” she said. “If my body stayed awake, I just put more into it. I had to be in some form of physical unconsciousness or paralysis in order for me not to put something inside my body. That is how insatiable the thirst was.”
The turning point for her came after she was almost abducted in Las Vegas and came frighteningly close to falling into a human trafficking ring.
Two women recognized that she had no idea where she was or who she was. Realizing that she was just this girl that was lost in the world, they decided to rescue her. At this point, Nandi had no identification on her – she was no longer in possession of her passport or her U.S. naturalization papers.
One of the ladies took Nandi to her house and bought her a Greyhound ticket to Utah. She called her nephew over from the Air Force Base and he drove Nandi to the Greyhound bus terminal.
“I had no phone or anything. I was completely stripped of anything that said I was Nandi Kegode and I could have just disappeared and never been heard from again. But these women put me on the bus and got me out of the state,” she said. “That’s why I have such a love and affection for women supporting women. Because it was in that moment that these women recognize something in me that I didn’t recognize in myself. They saved me and they got me on the bus to Utah.”
When she arrived in Utah, Nandi approached a woman who owned a motel and asked if she could work for her for free. All she asked for in return was a bed to sleep in at night. The woman agreed.
Nandi made all of the beds in the motel and the woman eventually began to pay her.
“She paid me $20 a week. I eventually became a waitress and started making more money,” she said. “The substance abuse did not completely stop, but I was starting to earn my keep. I was starting to show up.”
It took another three years before she had a moment with a child who said they loved her. At the time, Nandi couldn’t understand what that child meant.
“I couldn’t understand what they saw, but I knew that I wanted to be present,” she said. “So, in that moment I had to choose. And in that moment, I chose life.”
Nandi ended up committing to a recovery program and received much needed support to live a drug-free life.
Nandi now focuses on her work with families and children as a wellness consultant. She also spends a lot of time talking to women in the slums of Kibera and speaking at corporate events.
She is also an equestrian and does natural horsemanship.
“I recognize the woman that I once was. I wave to her now and then and she smiles back at me. She’s still right there with me all the time. I know that if I neglect her, she will come and get me. So I’m super polite…mentally and emotionally, I will always have the utmost respect for that woman because I wouldn’t be here today without her. I never pretend like she was never somebody that I loved to be because I did.” – Nandi Kegode
More of our interview with Nandi will be available in an upcoming episode of The Weight She Carries Podcast.