Gambling Addiction: Finally Out of the Shadows

When we talk about co-occurring disorders, we usually have some sort of mental health issue to consider with those of us in recovery. After all, many of us were “out there” self-medicating; for undiagnosed (or diagnosed) depression, trauma, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and a myriad of other maladies that we either didn’t have the knowledge of or were in denial over. Many of us thought this was “just the way we were.” Didn’t everyone dread waking up and facing the next day? Didn’t everyone have a family system with alcoholism running back generations? (I know, Mom, except for your side. It was all Dad’s fault! ☺) Didn’t everyone struggle with performing the most basic of tasks and carrying through with responsibilities?

“When I was in treatment for compulsive gambling, I remember my counselor stopping me in my tracks one day with the questions: “When are you going to stop running?” It is a question of deep importance for a compulsive gambler.” Recovering gambler

Many addicts/alcoholics in early recovery find themselves transferring addictions – to food, exercise, relationships, shopping and… gambling; the latter being one of the well-kept secrets of many in recovery from drug/alcohol addiction. Most treatment centers have clients who come in with a co-occurring gambling problem, but clinicians often find that clients need to get stable medically and emotionally before they can start working on their addictions. After all, as alluded to previously, that’s partly or wholly WHY they are addicted – self-medicating – the street version. As a result, most treatment centers don’t tend to address problem gambling, as they are understandably focused on stabilization and sobriety – with the thought being once they get their addiction to substances under control, other addictions can then be addressed. But then the client runs out of time and/or funding. So maybe they will deal with it in their aftercare program? Most likely not.

Problem gambling, or a gambling disorder, is defined as “persistent and recurrent gambling behavior that disrupts personal, family, or vocational pursuits.”* People with a gambling disorder can’t seem to quit even though they want to – and even when they’re experiencing significant, negative consequences. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, three to four percent of the adult population in the U.S. struggle with varying degrees of problem gambling.

“Gambling has changed significantly over the past several years. It’s more accessible than ever, including online, and comes in an almost limitless number of forms. It continues to be extensively marketed and attracts a wide range of participants. It’s a proven fact that addiction causes a rewiring of the neural circuits of the brain. This occurs whether the addiction is related to alcohol, drugs, gambling or something else. Because each of these addictions creates a similar effect on the brain, it’s not uncommon for one in recovery to ‘switch’ addictions. For this reason, people recovering from alcohol or drug addictions are at great risk for developing an addiction to gambling.” *

“I didn’t think I could get addicted to gambling. I’m a recovering alcoholic, and I thought I would recognize the signs.” a 38-year-old helpline caller**

When Gambling Becomes an Addiction

While gambling provides a source of enjoyable entertainment for many people in recovery, one in three experience problems that significantly affect their lives. Problem gambling, or addictive gambling, is similar to other addictions in that:

  • It is a preoccupation with obtaining money or experiencing the “high” of winning.
  • Withdrawal, restlessness or irritability are characteristics of someone attempting to stop.
  • Repeated efforts to cut down or stop are unsuccessful, and
  • It continues despite social, legal or occupational consequences.”*

Problem gambling is different from other addictions in that

  • It is much more difficult to detect than alcoholism or drug use.
  • The addiction progresses very quickly after a big win.
  • Gamblers tend to feel significantly more shame, guilt or depression, and are more likely to attempt suicide than those with other addictions.

“This is an addictive disorder that can destroy lives, threaten family relationships and cause financial devastation. It’s not always well understood and is often kept hidden as a family secret. Thousands of individuals and families struggle with it daily. A gambling addiction, like an addiction to drugs and alcohol, is a very real disease. A professional evaluation or assessment is needed to make a formal diagnosis of the addiction.” **

*Above quotes from Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance
**Above quotes from Project Turnabout


Molly B. Gilbert, M.Ed, is the Director of Business Development at Vinland National Center in Loretto, MN.

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