I grew up with alcoholics. There were aunts and uncles that gave me boozy hugs, a godmother that called and picked fights after a few cocktails, and a dad that died of cirrhosis. As a result, I have a favorite quote, “If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.” My family tree is filled with horrible warnings.
At a young age, I decided that I wanted no part of that life at all. While my high school and college friends experimented with alcohol, I was extra cautious, usually serving as the designated driver and babysitter. And while I was so focused on avoiding an alcohol addiction, the gambling addiction snuck up on me. I didn’t see it coming.
I started gambling on an ordinary night when a friend and I couldn’t decide what to do. We ended up at a local casino, and I was invigorated by the flashing lights and the thrill of winning. It got into my blood, literally. My life had been bland and boring, but that night was exciting. My days had been regimented and predictable, but that night I was a rebel.
A few weeks later I had an argument with my boyfriend and I went back to the casino by myself. Alone. It made me feel free of his controlling nature, like I was rising up in opposition to him, and punishing him for not meeting my needs.
Gambling became my solution to everything. Bored? Go gambling. Happy? Celebrate by gambling! Angry? Get revenge by gambling. It quickly took over my life, and I turned into a person that no one recognized. I lied about everything, and became unreliable. No one could depend on me to show up or follow through on a commitment.
My bank account was wiped out, and my credit cards were maxed. I used to love going to concerts and movies, and spending lazy afternoons on a patio, talking with friends. But when I started gambling, I lost all interest in those things. All I wanted to do was gamble.
A gambling addiction is a hidden one. I didn’t have the same “tells” as the alcoholics in my family do, like slurred words and boozy breath. My friends didn’t suspect that I was suffering with an addiction. All they knew is that I wasn’t the person that I used to be. Anger, sarcasm, and lightning-fast mood swings were my trademarks, making me very unpleasant to be around.
Being alone, and drifting away from my family and friends, enmeshed me further into the addiction. I found a loan source — bordering on illegal — and was quickly in six figures of debt. I lost my house, my partner, and nearly lost my job. I gambled for 11 years; sporadically at the beginning, but at the end, I was gambling every day.
A friend once told me, “People make changes for one of two reasons — the push of pain, or the pull of hope.” For me, the pain became so great that I could not live with it one more minute. And that’s when I pushed myself into a Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting. I didn’t want to go; didn’t want to have to admit to anyone else that I had an addiction. I was too ashamed of who I’d become. And, in my warped thinking, I had created the problem, therefore I alone could fix it.
I remember walking in to my first GA meeting. I was terrified, but welcomed with loving, open arms. We introduced ourselves and read literature together, but the words didn’t make sense. I was looking for an instant solution. A snap of the fingers, a quick cure. The gamblers that I met that night told me that the progress was slow and required patience. But if I kept coming to meetings, and living one day at a time, I’d get better.
I didn’t believe them, of course. I’d strayed so far away from my morals and values that I was convinced I’d never find a way back. They offered hope, but I was hesitant to accept it. Having hope was a dangerous thing.
Even though I didn’t find what I wanted at my first meeting, I felt the tiniest bit better. I decided to go back. The push of pain got me to a meeting, but the pull of hope brought me back.
I kept feeling the tiniest bit better each time I left a meeting. I made new friends and surrounded myself with people that were working on a recovery program, and trying to live a better life. I learned to deal with life on life’s terms, to forgive myself and others, to make amends, and to live a day at a time.
Today, after 8 1/2 years of meetings and abstinence from gambling, I look back on my old life and don’t even recognize it. The grace and joy that I’ve received through the GA program is immense. It cannot be measured in words.
Keep on keeping it, a day at a time.
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