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What Have You Got to Lose?

gambling addiction

Some gamblers lose everything, even their lives

We all like to win. Some people, though, obsess about winning and sacrifice everything they care about to pursue the next big win. They typically go down hard and fast. Money losses are quick and massive. Friends and family react with horror and disdain when finding out they’re victims, too. Felony convictions and suicides are among the tragic results.

The Big Win

What changes a simple fun activity into a potential prison or death sentence?

A big win early on is what often ignites the first magical thinking.

Jack had always stuck with spending limits he set on occasional Vegas trips. But a $700 win at a video poker machine fired up the excitement of a big win. Wouldn’t it be fun to win like that again?

A well-paid businessman, Jack knew he could afford to lose money to reap another big win. But soon the “high” of the infrequent win – and the hope for another one – took hold, like a drug. Planning to place just one bet, he couldn’t stop himself. He became prisoner to a compulsive gambling addiction that has altered his life for 25 years.

Jack was shocked and ashamed over violating his lifelong clean living codes by lying, stealing and leaving his kids behind for long periods. Gambling eventually took all his money and his pride. He kept his job, but his secret life as a compulsive gambler ran his mind and his life, and almost killed him.

How Prevalent is Problem Gambling?

Because it’s so hidden and so few people seek treatment, no one knows for sure how many people are problem gamblers. Doctors rarely screen for it. Neither do chemical dependency or mental health counselors. Yet, Minnesota’s education and advocacy nonprofit Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance  (NPGA) estimates that more than 200,000 Minnesotans struggle with gambling addiction.

Anyone can get caught up in compulsive gambling. People with plenty of smarts and money tend to be more susceptible, says John VanEschen, Program Manager for NPGA and a counselor at Pathways Counseling Services in St. Paul. “They’re pretty sure they can outsmart the dealer or the machine,” he says. But people with limited incomes also become problem gamblers. Older people, for example, may hit the casinos to distract themselves from pain, or in search of needed cash, but then get tantalized by a big win. Sleep deprivation is commonplace, says VanEschen, with the average gambler losing 69 hours of sleep per month.

An Addiction in Hiding

With compulsive gambling, the same brain disruption takes place that affects other types of addicts. The high feels so good, and the brain can’t get enough of it. But unlike with substance abuse, gambling addiction usually remains hidden. Often, family or friends only learn there is a problem when all the money is gone and debts accumulate. An eviction or foreclosure notice comes. A parent’s estate after death reveals that the expected inheritance was gambled away by a trusted family member. An organization discovers a huge loss due to embezzlement.

Feeling isolated after a divorce, Sally found she could have fun by herself at the casino. Her “happy place,” she called it. “The more they get to know you, the more they give you free things to make you feel special,” says Sally. Soon she had bank overdrafts, and rent payments were late. Even when she won and could pay off debts, she wanted to win more.

Sally found a ready source of cash when she became a joint signer on a work account. “I didn’t think of it as stealing, just borrowing. I intended to pay it back before anyone found out,” she says. “I’ve never been the kind of person to steal. I’ve never been in trouble in my life. It’s hard for people to understand — it just became something I couldn’t control.”

“The day I got caught,” says Sally, “was the best day and the worst. I didn’t have to lie anymore.” But she was fired, and criminal charges may land her a year or more in prison.

Escape or Action

Experts in gambling addiction prevention and recovery say that people gamble compulsively either for escape or the thrill of “action.” They might start out gambling socially, but many gamblers are introverts, says Susan Campion, Problem Gambling Counselor for the outpatient gambling treatment program at Fairview Health Services in Minneapolis. They want to gamble alone and pursue the big win undistracted. Even if they go to the casino with others, Campion points out, they’re still generally sitting by themselves, married to their machine or game.

Once the gambling starts, the pattern for the addict follows a predictable slide into self-destructive living. Some people stay round the clock at the casino. Campion says she has run across addicts who wear diapers so they don’t have to get up from their chair and interrupt the play.

Some never do get home. Once the money runs out and they haven’t slept or eaten in days, a health crisis, substance abuse, or suicide may end their lives. In many cases, disordered gambling, as it’s called in psychiatric lingo, is accompanied by substance abuse. Depression and other psychiatric disorders are common too.

Jack despaired one night after losing his last $2000 and then another $5000 he stole from a friend (planning to replace it after the big win). “I didn’t see any way out except to kill myself,” he says.

Jack, already in recovery programs for both gambling and substance addiction at the time, decided to down a couple beers to make the dying easier. The beer made him nauseous, so he headed out the door, thinking maybe he could smash his car on the road.

At his car, however, he was met by three recovery friends who had come looking for him. “I realized later that it was divine intervention that they showed up,” Jack says. His friends took him to the The Vanguard Center for Gambling Recovery, an inpatient program in Granite Falls, Minnesota, for his sixth round of treatment there. This time, he says, he was able to move out from under the cloud of shame that had kept his obsession active.

“I was so ashamed of what I had done,” says Jack. “I felt so worthless. But in treatment I learned to separate myself from the disease. It’s not who I am. At the time, that was quite a revelation to me.” He now feels very comfortable with himself as he continues participating in recovery programs and lives at his son’s lake cabin, far away from gambling temptation.

Sally turned to Gamblers Anonymous as well as the inpatient treatment at Vanguard, plus ongoing participation in Campion’s outpatient group. She had to give up her dream career — sales. The excitement of making the sale (a big win) is a trigger for her, she says, since it produces the type of high that she associates with gambling. Sally also quit smoking and drinking. “I had to get rid of anything that had control over me,” she says. Volunteering at church, reading a daily devotional, and journaling are among the ways she keeps her recovery “fresh every day.” Her friends and family have been very supportive as she awaits her court date.

The Trail of Recovery

Shame is a major barrier to getting treatment. Compulsive gamblers are typically viewed as crooks who lie and steal, rather than people experiencing an addictive illness. They feel deep shame for deceiving and creating financial disaster for others. Even once they recognize and seek treatment for their illness, their shame can spur them to again pursue the big win so they don’t feel like such losers.

In Minnesota, treatment cost is not a barrier, even for those who have gambled away every dime and are deep in debt. Though health insurers don’t pay for it, the Minnesota State Department of Human Services covers either inpatient and outpatient treatment for those with financial need. Supportive services are also covered for family and others deeply concerned about a compulsive gambler.

Admitting to a gambling problem is not easy, however, even as massive debts pile up. “People end up in my office when they have run out of places to get money or when they get arrested,” says Campion. “Most of the people in my treatment group are felons.” Most also end up attending Gamblers Anonymous or other alternative support groups in the community, she says.

Just one inpatient treatment program exists in Minnesota – The Vanguard Center for Gambling Recovery in Granite Falls. Vanguard, as well as outpatient providers, use a variety of therapeutic methods including cognitive behavioral therapy and The Twelve Steps. The treatment is personalized to support the addict in learning to live a gambling-free lifestyle. Medications may be used to reduce the gambling urge.

Counselors help clients with strategies to avoid gambling triggers and find other ways to meet the need that gambling met. Lonely gamblers may be guided toward healthy social or recreational activities or to improving communication skills. People with poor money management habits may have to get someone else to take charge of their money, and family members may be advised to protect bigger assets. An app on the addict’s phone may report the addict’s location to an accountability partner. Mindfulness and meditation training and other supportive practices are introduced.

VonEschen, Campion, Sally and Jack are all passionate about letting others know about problem gambling and the opportunities for recovery. They know from experience that compulsive gamblers can find their way back to healthy, balanced living.

Wondering if you have a gambling problem?

Seek more information if you answer yes to these questions from the Vanguard brochure:

1) Have you lied about how much you gamble or how much you spent gambling?

2) Have you spent more time or money gambling than you intended?

Where to get information or help

1) Call: 24/7 Minnesota Problem Gambling HelpLine: 1-800-333-HOPE

2) Visit: http://NorthstarProblemGambling.org

3) Visit: www.GetGamblingHelp.com — MN Dept. of Human Services

3) Call: Minnesota’s Gamblers Anonymous Hotline:  1-855-222-5542


Pat Samples is a writer and a facilitator for creative aging, body awareness, and creative writing. www.patsamples.com

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