I Don’t Celebrate my Birthday. I Celebrate the Day I Quit Alcohol

Wilfred Bungei, the 800m Olympic Champion at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, has opened up on his battle with alcoholism.

In an interview with BBC Sport Africa, the retired athlete said he no longer celebrates his birthday but celebrates the day he stopped drinking.

“I don’t celebrate my birthday but I celebrate the day I stopped drinking. It makes me feel proud of myself. It makes me feel I have control over my life,” he told BBC.

“Being an athlete, I only had 20 days break per year for some 13-14 years – so when I retired, there was nothing much I was doing,” he said.

“I would buy a bottle of wine, sit in the house and before I knew it, it was over – I would send for another one. Just like that – within a year and a half – it had become chaotic and my life really was a mess.”

Ended Up On a Ditch

He recounted a day in 2012 when he should have been celebrating a special moment in his life – his third child was due- but he ended up in a ditch.

On that day, Bungei convinced himself that he needed a drink to prepare for childbirth.

“There was always that lie – ‘let me have one or two so that I can have the courage to see is what happening’,” he recalled.

“I chose to have a shot of vodka but I ended up drinking over one litre in a short span of time. I don’t know what happened, but I do know I ended up in a ditch.

“People actually thought I had died.”

The captain of Kenya’s 2008 Beijing Olympics team further recalled how his children would fear being around him as he would drive while drunk.

“The kids would always fear to be in the car with me because on several occasions you’d go to a bar and end up driving home,” said Bungei.

“You have one too many and you are driving and the kids see what you are doing on the road – it was not safe.

“Once I was involved in an accident and my son said: ‘Dad this and this is what happened.’ Every time they’d see I’d had a bottle or two, they would not want to be in the car and this is the bigger part that affected me.”

Said Enough is Enough

Bungei decided to turn his life around when the physical effects of alcoholism started taking a toll on him.

“There comes a time that drinking is giving you more pain, physically. I can remember there was a time when my body was feeling itchy, I was sweating all over and what was so scary was the hallucinations and the darkness coming,” he explained.

“I was scared literally and had to be held to sleep – those were the moments that made me say it is enough.”

In September 2012, Bungei checked into a rehabilitation centre in Nairobi where he stayed for six weeks. He has never touched drunk since then.

Today, Bungei uses his personal experience to help others suffering from the same problems he did. He supports and guides professional athletes as they transition into retirement in order to help them create a fulfilling life.

“Some have refused to seek treatment because when it comes to alcoholism, going through rehabilitation is the only true way to heal and know who you are,” he said.

“There’s a stigma associated with it and that is why I decided to come out despite the fact that I had a name to protect,” he said.

“It makes me happy when I share my story and I know it might be able to save someone – that is how I got healed myself.”

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