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|March 6-12, 2008
You bet your life
How gambling addiction affects more than just your wallet
by Dana Logan
For Danny, rock bottom was this one moment.
“One day I was up the hill. I had just lost several hundred dollars. I had no gas in the tank. I didn’t have any money in my pockets. I literally had to coast down the hill. And my girlfriend had just left me.
“I realized then that I had no power over my gambling.”
Danny, a pseudonym used to protect his anonymity, is now 36 years old. But his gambling career began when he was a teenager. On a trip to Las Vegas with his dad, he watched his father playing slot machines. Though he was underage, his dad even gave him a handful of quarters to play a bit himself. Looking back, he says that those were the days when the seeds of his gambling addiction were planted.
“I always had a competitive personality,” he says. “I always enjoyed the thrill of winning.”
When Danny was in college, he and his buddies would play nickel poker, just for fun. But his competitive nature led him to explore other options. Once he was of age, he says, he discovered Cripple Creek.
“Nickel poker turned into Two-Five Texas Hold ’Em. That’s, I think, when it became almost like a drug for me,” he says. “There was the adrenaline rush. The action. The escape from worries. I think that’s where the addiction began to manifest.”
After college, Danny moved to Denver and quickly discovered Black Hawk. He began going up as frequently as possible — before and after work. That, he says, is when the addiction really took over.
“The addiction almost became my friend, my lover, my family member,” he says. “All of my other priorities became secondary to my gambling.”
Danny says that his gambling was affecting all aspects of his life.
“I lost time at work. I wasn’t exercising. Everything about my life kinda became reckless.”
Then, in 1995, Danny went to his first Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting. But, he says, he was just a young kid out of college. At 23 years old, he wasn’t really ready to fully accept or embrace the reality of his addiction.
“I went physically,” he says, “but spiritually, I wasn’t prepared to declare I was powerless.”
Between 1995 and 2000, Danny says that he never really took the program seriously. Not yet willing to commit to stopping, he simply wanted to feel a sense of control over his gambling.
“Just like with any addiction, we want to feel like we have control, like we can go and gamble normally, like our friends,” he says.
Danny quotes from the Gamblers Anonymous handbook: “The idea that somehow, someday, we will control our gambling is the great obsession of every compulsive gambler. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of prison, insanity or death.”
“That’s really how compulsive gambling is,” says Danny. “It can kill you. If there wasn’t GA, I have no doubt that I would have gambled until I was in prison, was insane or died.”
Now, a husband and a father, Danny is taking GA seriously. He has 90 days of sobriety and goes to two GA meetings each week.
Danny has come to see GA as a medicine that treats his illness, just as he sees his inhaler as a medicine to treat his asthma.
“I’m married, and I have a child. And it occurred to me that if I don’t take my medication, I’m going to die,” he explains. “I take life very seriously now. I realized that I only get one chance at this.”
It’s not about the money
When asked why he gambled, Danny says that it was 95 percent about the action. It was about getting the rush. About finding his fix. And he’s not alone.
Most pathological gamblers say that they are seeking action — an aroused, euphoric state — or excitement even more than money, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM IV), which classifies pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder.
The other 5 percent, Danny says, was partly about the money, but also about escaping from pain.
Experts say that another reason for gambling may be that it is a way of escaping from problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression.
The reasons Danny gambled highlight the two models of the pathological gambler. The first, and the one that Danny fits into most neatly, is the action gambler. Typically very intelligent and preferring games of skill, like poker, the action gambler usually begins gambling early in life and often gambles for between 10 and 30 years before being forced into a recovery program. Action gamblers — usually men — experience feelings of euphoria, similar to being high from drugs like cocaine. These feelings are present while thinking about, planning or actually gambling.
“Once I decided that I was going to gamble,” says Danny, “that’s when my heart really started to pound with anticipation and nothing could interfere with that gambling. There was a lot of anticipatory adrenaline rush.
“Then, once at the poker table, there was a sense of comfort, relief. That I was where I was supposed to be… The bigger the pot, the bigger the bets, the harder the heart pounds.”
The other model, the escape gambler, tends to begin his or her gambling career later in life — usually after the age of 30 — and enjoys games of luck. Unlike the action gambler who experiences intense feelings while gambling, the escape gambler feels numb — in an almost hypnotic state. The numbness felt by escape gamblers allows them to feel free from physical and emotional pain. Typically, escape gamblers are more likely than action gamblers to seek help, and they usually do so after six months to three years of compulsive gambling.
And while most pathological gamblers fit well into one of those two categories, there seems to be an underlying driving force for all problem gamblers.
“For both the action and the escape gambler, it is a way of feeling differently than they were feeling before,” says Dr. J. Michael Faragher, director of training and development at the Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center at the University of Denver.
“If you ask an alcoholic why they drink,” says Faragher, “they drink to feel numb. Or they drink to feel, period.”
He says that the same concept applies to the two types of gamblers. The escape gambler might feel numb, while the action gambler might discover that gambling is so exciting that it distracts. In both cases though, the feelings of either numbness or excitement distract them from the pain they were previously feeling.
And while Faragher believes that anyone who gambles or drinks or does anything that is potentially addictive, does so to change the way they feel (i.e., drinking a glass of wine after work to relax), he says that addicts’ motivation to change the way they feel is so pervasive that they need more and more.
The cost of addiction
In the throws of his addiction, Danny says that he was gambling an average of three times a week. That is, unless he had a week off. “I would take a week off from work and not tell my wife and be up there gambling every day,” he admits.
The frequency with which someone gambles, however, doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. More importantly is whether or not the gambling is causing harm. But what constitutes harm for one person might not for another.
“At the extremes, it’s easy; there’s a lot of agreement on what is harmful. If someone is gambling their child’s college fund away, it’s easy,” Faragher says. “It’s the middle ground that we struggle with.”
For Danny, the gambling itself wasn’t the only source of harm.
“It’s the actual gambling episodes, but it’s also the time in between when we lose touch with our daily affairs,” he says.
Even when he wasn’t gambling, Danny says that he was in a fog.
“Emotionally and psychologically I was up there playing cards,” he says.
According to the GA handbook, “Compulsive gamblers who have joined Gamblers Anonymous tell us that, though their gambling binges were periodic, the intervals between were not periods of constructive thinking. Symptomatic of these periods were nervousness, irritability, frustration, indecision and a continued breakdown in personal relationships.”
There’s no debate that the loss of personal relationships is a very real and tangible harm felt by problem gamblers. Danny says that he lost three girlfriends to his gambling. Furthermore, he says that his gambling nearly killed his marriage.
“The people around you lose trust in you,” he explains. “I’m in recovery now, and I’m working on building that trust back.”
But even now, he says that he occasionally catches himself in a white lie — remnants of the habits he developed while gambling.
Lost trust and lost relationships are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the harm that pathological gambling can cause. While the amount of money lost is not necessarily indicative of problem gambling, inability to control or stop gambling is. And that inability to stop, despite insufficient funds, can lead to devastating financial problems.
“I’ve lost $200 or $250 in a single hand,” says Danny. “There were times where I would lose $1,000 in a given day.”
For some, the debt they’ve accrued is hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a result of financial woes, problem gamblers sometimes resort to criminal behavior, such as stealing, embezzlement, check forgery, tax evasion and insurance fraud, in order to pay debts or garner more money for gambling.
In addition, domestic violence and child neglect are sometimes associated with problem gamblers. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, 25 to 50 percent of spouses of pathological gamblers have been abused and children are at a higher risk of abuse or neglect.
Lost jobs, tarnished reputations and extreme financial troubles, on top of failing personal relationships, can sometimes lead to such despair that suicide seems like the only way out.
The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that one in five pathological gamblers attempts suicide. That rate is higher than the rate of attempted suicide associated with any other addiction. Despite the despair that pathological gamblers may feel, resources exist to help addicts stop gambling and salvage their lives.
Coming out of the fog
In an effort to increase awareness of the pain and hardship felt by problem gamblers, and to encourage those who are struggling to seek help, March 9 through 15 has been declared National Problem Gambling Awareness Week.
“For the majority of folks, gambling is a source of entertainment,” says Amber Bunch, executive director of the Colorado Coalition on Problem Gambling. “They recognize that their losses are a result of their entertainment.”
But not everyone sees it that way. Between 2 and 3 percent of Americans will have a gambling problem in any given year, according to estimates from the National Council on Problem Gambling. That’s between 6 million and 9 million people whose lives are affected, yet only a small fraction of those who are suffering seek out treatment services and self-help recovery programs.
In spite of the destruction their addiction may have caused, there are several reasons that problem gamblers might not seek help. Perhaps the biggest factor is the incredible amount of shame that is associated with gambling addiction. Danny admits that after the adrenaline rush had subsided, the main feeling he had was shame — for missing work and for lying to his family.
And it doesn’t help that problem gamblers can become quite skilled at concealing the problem. In fact, certain elements of the addiction make it inherently easy to hide. Danny explains that, because there are no physiological manifestations, it’s not a difficult addiction to cover up.
“My wife couldn’t smell gambling on my breath. She didn’t see me stagger. I was alert. It was easy to conceal,” he says. Though financial problems are likely to be a tip-off, Bunch explains that in some cases, the person with the gambling problem is the primary keeper of the money. In these situations, the problem gambler will often hide financial statements from their spouse. Bunch even tells a story of a man who typed up fake statements to conceal the extent of his debt from his wife.
Faragher says that, despite the intense shame that they may ultimately feel, gambling addicts generally don’t initially feel guilty. Even if they are taking money out of their kids’ college fund, they convince themselves that by the time they are done they will have tripled the money.
“There tends to be a belief that you can undo the damage you’ve done by gambling more,” he says.
Danny knows now that there’s no way to undo the damage — only a way to stop doing more. Now that he’s stopped gambling and is regaining the trust of his family, he says that he is able to function again, and he offers this advice to people who are struggling with their gambling behavior: “Come to any Gamblers Anonymous meeting. Any time that works for your schedule. Just get to that meeting.
“And know that you are not alone,” he says. “There is a medication that will treat this illness. It’s not a cure, but once we stop gambling, that fog begins to clear.”
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