Alcoholism: Story of one man’s triumph
Belletti, also known as Joel Mubangizi, was a student of Uganda Christian University from 2012, until he graduated this year. He overcame an over-a-decade-long alcohol addiction that saw him attend 10 secondary schools before coming to university. He speaks to The Standard’s Benezeri Wanjala about his journey.
Joel Mubangizi, better known by his peers as Belleti, graduated on July 5 after spending seven years at university. Before that, he went to eight or 10 secondary schools- even he cannot remember the exact number. The list of his former schools includes: Kisubi High, St. Mark’s Namagoma, Kabojja (two weeks), Greenhill Academy (twice), St. Peters’ Naalya and Kyambogo College School. He is trying to remember the other two before I free him.
He was expelled from most of them because they “suspected I was drinking in school.” But was he? “Of course I was,” he says, “but they didn’t have proof.” He had been drinking in school since p5.
When he joined university, Belletti was a year behind because in 2010, when his classmates were preparing to sit for their final exams, he was languishing in a police cell.
He was in for six weeks. When he came out, his mum handed him some money to pay for late registration. He used all the money to buy alcohol, and by the time she realised, it was too late. So he had to redo S6.
His mother narrates how she decided to take Belletti to a remote school in Wakiso, from where he could reflect on his life and focus on passing his A-level. She decided to personally drop him at school and she requested the teachers to keep an eye on her beloved notorious son. Then she left.
Three days later, she called the school to check on her son’s progress. The school told her that they were under the impression that when she left, she’d left with her son. They had not seen him since that day. She was distraught. She decided to consult her relative, a senior policeman. Her son was missing, and she had no idea how to find him.
Uncle Martin, for that’s what everyone called him, promised her that he would take it seriously and find Belletti. He constituted a team, made up of gun wielding policemen, and they embarked on a search mission. They received intelligence that Belletti was holed up in a friend’s room in Banda. They didn’t know exactly where he was, so they set up camp for a week in the general area and laid in wait.
Belletti recalls that somebody was pounced upon and arrested, in a case of mistaken identity. Incidentally, that person was a friend of Beletti’s who knew where he was hiding. He ran and told Belleti what had taken place and advised him to be on high alert.
After one week in the room, Belleti concluded that the search team had given up. He concluded wrongly. As he was watching a football match of Kyambogo College School students with a friend at a pitch nearby, a tall, gangly gentleman stood at the back, with his eyes fixed on Belletti. Belletti smelt a rat. Not only was everybody else focused on the match apart from the tall man; he was also the only adult in a field full of students.
As Belletti made his way out after the game, the man grabbed his hand and before he knew it, Belletti was being surrounded by half a dozen policemen. They escorted him to the police cell, where he remained for six weeks. Meanwhile, his classmates at Greenhill Academy were registering to do their final papers of high school. When he joined Uganda Christian University (UCU) in 2012, Belletti continued to battle with regulating his alcohol consumption. However, this wasn’t for want of trying. Many times he quit, but he would relapse after a couple of weeks.
The beginning of the January semester in his second year will forever serve as a time marker for Belletti. He had been sober eight months, a personal record. His patient mother was pleased with his progress. She gave him money to move into the newest and most exciting hostel at the time, Soso Hostel. In addition she gave him money to buy a new carpet and fridge and other household items.
It was a lot of money- a few millions- but Belletti didn’t betray his mother’s trust. He moved into the room and bought the items. He felt like this achievement couldn’t go uncelebrated. So he called up his friends. He knew they were going to drink, but for eight months he’d been hanging with them and he’d been strong enough to resist the urge. So they came and, of course, they drank.
At some point during the celebrations, Belletti felt the urge to take a sip (just a sip) of the plentiful alcohol. He failed to resist the urge. By the time the sun rose, he was sprawled across the room. He was livid with himself.
For the rest of the semester, Belletti did not go to class. On a typical day, he was locked up inside his room, drinking one sachet after another until he went to sleep. “But you can’t sleep!”, he recalls. At midnight he’d close his eyes and three hours later, he’d be up. He was tired and needed rest but he couldn’t get himself to sleep.
He was depressed. He was thinking dark thoughts. He was contemplating suicide. He was locked up in the room and nobody could get to him. They tried to send him chits from underneath the door to convince him to get out, but he never opened. One day he decided that he was going to end it all and jump off the balcony of his room, which was fairly high.
He walked out of the door and prepared himself mentally. For many minutes, he stood and stared down into the shallow abyss that he was about to dive into. Would he be successful? He had attempted to do this before. But that was many years ago, back in high school.
As he got deeper and deeper in thought, from the corner of his eye, he espied his big sister Lorna, approaching. On a number of occasions, she had tried to get through to him, but she had not been successful. Belletti just wouldn’t open the door. And when she sent notes from underneath the door, he never acknowledged receipt. Now, she was approaching, and she was coming fast. Belletti dashed into the room and locked the door. Seated on his bed, he stared at the door and waited for her to knock. So that he wouldn’t open.
The door knob turned. And it opened. He had forgotten to lock it. Lorna was shocked by what she saw. Belletti was an island surrounded by empty sachets of cheap gin. It was a carpet of polythene. Belletti was not prepared for this moment, and he just fell to the floor, and broke down.
Lorna threatened to report Belletti to their mother because she felt it was out of hand. She felt that only if it was escalated would an action occur that would trigger Belletti to completely reform. Belletti wailed. He pleaded with her not to do that. It would break her heart. It would kill her trust in him. Anything, Belletti negotiated, except telling on him to his mum.
Belletti woke up to a call the following morning. It was his mum. “Where are you Joel?” she inquired. He told her he was in class. She told him to head to the office immediately. Lorna had told her.
For the first time, Belletti dressed up to go to campus. He had looked into the mirror and he felt like he looked great. On arrival in the office, his mother took one glance at him and put her face in her palm in disappointment. “He looks even worse than I feared!” she told their host, Mr. Joseph Musaalo.
Mr. Musaalo was the head of the counselling department at the university. He looked Belletti in the eye and told him to be honest about whether he was struggling. Belletti denied. Mr. Musaalo then gave him an offer: “If you can wake up tomorrow morning and stay sober, that will be a good sign. But if you fail to contain yourself, and end up drinking, then my office is open. Acceptance is the first step in recovery.” The next morning Belletti walked into Mr. Musaalo s office.
For the next few months Belletti was a resident in four different rehabilitation centres. Some of the details are gory, including his one night in Kireka Ward at Butabika. This was the ward with the most extreme cases of mental illness. He earned this stint by repeatedly manipulating his handlers in the alcohol unit, and convincing them to sneak alcohol to him. They each, sadly, got fired, and after his stint in the raucous Kireka Ward, he also had to leave.
Recovery and Dan
On Christmas Day, four years ago, Belletti decided that he was going to have his last drink. By now he was at his fourth consecutive rehabilitation centre. He has not drunk alcohol ever since.
He went back to school and began to regularly attend the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship. He also started playing football (side soccer) every evening. During these football engagements, he met a special person. His name was Dan. Dan was a born-again Christian and yet he did not feel shy to associate himself with Belletti, a recovering alcoholic. In fact, he helped Belletti realise that one can enjoy life without alcohol. They became best friends, even though they were years apart. They were inseparable.
Dan had a secret. He told Belletti this secret. And Belletti never ever betrayed his friend’s trust. He kept this secret until months later when Dan was in hospital. The secret was that Dan had earlier been diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer. Belletti went to visit, and spent time with Dan almost every day. It was painful to see his best friend go through all this. He knew the sickness would all be over one day; he knew his friend would heal completely and get back to being the cheerful old Dan. But he hoped it was soon. Dan was the purest soul he had ever encountered, and yet he had to go through all this agony.
One morning, Dan was feeling particularly weak. By this point, a PrayForDaniel hashtag had begun circulating in different WhatsApp groups, and on different social media platforms. Dan called for his sister. He asked her to help him type a message. He was too weak to. The message was sent to Belletti. A short, happy, hopeful message. Something like “We thank God.” Belletti sensed, from the text, that something was not right. He rushed to the hospital where Dan had by now been transferred. He sat by Dan’s side the entire day and night but unfortunately Dan was deteriorating. At 3am, he breathed his last.
In July 2019, Belletti graduated with a degree in Development Studies. He was escorted by his happy mother as well as his brother. Two weeks later, he hosted about 100 friends to a graduation party in Kisaasi, a city suburb. During his speech, he announced that he was a born again Christian, and had been for about two years. He emphasised that his degree, and the party celebrating it all belong to his mother who never gave up on him. His voice cracked as he said that. His mother stood up. She was smartly adorned in his graduation gown and cap. He also spoke about how everyone present contributed, in one way or another, to his journey. He said that whereas many wrote him off, he was lucky to have friends like the ones present that supported him.
He proceeded to mention almost half of the people present by name. He also thanked his sister for telling on him and wondered where he would be if she hadn’t intervened at that time. He was also grateful to Mr. Musalo, the head of counselling, and lauded his patience and thoroughness.
He invited Dan’s sister to speak. She spoke about the last moments of Dan’s life and how he spoke about Belletti to the point of his demise. She also spoke about the text that, even in his unimaginable pain, he couldn’t resist sending to Belletti. They both failed to hold back their tears at this point. I looked around and many of the people in my view were teary-eyed as well.