Use the word “addiction” and most people will think of alcohol or drugs. But a gambling addiction can be just as destructive, often leaving the individual bankrupt and humiliated. And, as with any addiction, the addict’s family and loved ones are the real victims. Gamblers frequently wreck their marriage, waste their children’s inheritance, and leave behind a chaos of debt, ill-feeling and family feuds.
The first and most obvious question is why. Why do people become addicted? Just as most of us can enjoy the occasional beer without becoming an alcoholic, so most can play the slot machines, or visit a casino, without developing a gambling problem. Indeed, the majority are permanently cured by one big loss. So why are others unable to stop?
Ask a gambler why he gambles and he will probably reply, “to win money of course.” But he deludes himself. A gambler’s motives are rarely so simple. Yes, gambling is a great way to win huge amounts of money, the sort of money they could never hope to save, but that does not explain why when they do win, they usually gamble those winnings away.
There is no typical addict. Gamblers vary as much as alcoholics and drug users; each has his own story and his own psychological make-up. For some, gambling is merely an antidote to boredom – but not boredom in the sense of having nothing to do. Some people are thrill-seekers who crave the rush of adrenalin, the sense of excitement and risk. Many find healthy ways to satisfy this, taking up sky-diving or mountaineering, for example. Others, however, can find no outlet except the casino or poker game.
Imagine someone living in a small town, with little money and no interest in climbing mountains or leaping from planes. Each day seems duller and more monotonous than the last. But when he stakes his wages on a horse race he feels alive. For that one moment, the sense of monotony disappears, as do all thoughts of past and future. As he watches the race, heart pounding and hands clasped together, he is wholly absorbed in the moment.
Closely related to this, there is the addiction to hope itself. When someone is poor, disabled, mentally ill, or simply unhappy, they can also feel hopeless. There is no way out. Life is awful and, so far as they can see, will remain awful. But when they gamble, they feel a sense of hope. Yes, the odds are stacked against them. And, yes, staking these huge sums is likely to make things more, not less, hopeless. But just imagine if they won!
And they do imagine! They imagine burning their silly work uniform, telling their boss what they really think of her, and escaping their horrible neighborhood. And these fantasies are pleasant. As they prepare to lay their bet, as they watch the race begin or the cards dealt, they feel hope. And this may be the only time they do.
For others, gambling is a form of rebellion. All their life they felt pushed to the margins. Everyone else seemed richer, happier, cleverer, or more attractive. Friends went away to college, or got promoted ahead of them. Time and again they were the loser. And now the casino or the racetrack is against them as well. But this time, they are determined to win.
Gambling also warps perception. To onlookers, the gambler appears selfish and greedy. After all, this is the monster who blew her child’s college savings in one weekend. And yet the gambler may see things differently. To her, gambling is a job. Indeed, some people, unemployed and living on welfare, even see themselves as victims. Here I am, they think, trying my best to win money for my family, trying to make enough so that my kids can have a better life than me, and no one appreciates it. No one understands how hard it is, or how much time and effort I put in.
The consequences of such an addiction can be dreadful. First, and most obviously, there is the sheer waste of money. The odds are stacked against you, and if you gamble constantly you are almost certain to end up poorer. Others get into debt – sometimes with dangerous, even violent, people.
A gambling addiction can also wreck personal relationships. Gambling addicts convince themselves that they can recoup their losses. They have a hot tip, and this time they know they’ll win. Or they convince themselves they’ve worked out a system to beat the casino. To that end, they feel justified in stealing from a friend or family member – or even from their children. After all, when they win they’ll pay them back double.
When they then lose, or when the theft is uncovered, their friend (or brother, or partner) will obviously be furious. But what really destroys relationships is the loss of trust. The addict’s partner may reassure them that they understand, that they recognize this is an addiction, and that they still love them. But that does not alter the fact that all trust has gone. The average person, struggling to pay their rent or mortgage each month, cannot live in fear of their husband or son stealing their wages and heading for the local casino.
And gambling addictions also wreck mental health. Someone driven into gambling by a sense of worthlessness will feel even less worthy after blowing the family savings or being kicked out by their partner. They took to gambling to prove they were not a loser, but they have lost everything. And this in turn means guilt, shame, and a slide into depression. Others live in constant fear and stress at the thought of the money they owe.
If you are going to deal with your addiction, you must first recognize that you have one. And this is easier said than done. Anyone who lives with an addict, of whatever kind, knows that they can be not only devious but deluded. A gambling addict will literally steal from his child, all the time convinced that he does so for their benefit.
So how do you distinguish a gambling addiction from an expensive hobby? Ask yourself the following questions. First, can you control yourself? Loss of control is the essence of addiction. The urge is overwhelming, the behavior compulsive. Next, look at the impact your gambling is having on your life. For example, many people play poker on a regular basis – and often lose. But they enjoy themselves; their losses are never great, and it is a great way to keep in touch with friends and neighbors. Gambling addicts, on the other hand, damage their life. Are you in debt? Do you regularly argue with your partner about your gambling?
Once you have recognized the problem, you must try to understand its origins. Are you trying to fill some kind of hole? Is it really about the money? You will probably reply that of course it is, what else could it be. Well, as you can see, it could be about a lot of things. Gamblers are not the only people to get by on denial and self-delusion. We all have our blind spots. Ask those who know you why they believe you gamble.
First, recognize what you stand to lose. Like many addicts, the gambler does not really want to stop. Addicts may hate the downsides to their addiction, but if these could be removed they’d carry on. Think of addiction as a ravenous monster that will take everything and never be satisfied.
As with any addiction, it is also vital to know your triggers. For some, it will be boredom. They gamble because life is dull and they crave excitement. If this is you, try to address this boredom in a more healthy way. Come up with something you could turn to in such moments – even if it’s only a DVD box set.
Loneliness is another common trigger, especially as casinos and racetracks tend to be upbeat, stimulating environments. Even stress can act as a trigger. You would not be the first person to use a racetrack or roulette wheel after a bad day at work or an argument with your wife.
A support group would also be a good idea. These often work better than one to one therapy. Nothing will help you more than listening to people who’ve travelled further down the road of addiction – and lost everything. A support group should also help break your resistance to facing the problem. You will soon recognise similarities between the stories you hear and your own behavior. And this may come as a much-needed shock.
Finally, you could hand over your money to your partner. Not only will this prevent you from gambling, it will also prove that you mean it when you say you wish to stop. Men in particular often find this humiliating. They feel like a naughty little boy who cannot be trusted. But your partner will respect you for this – if nothing else, it shows that you care.
Of course, your real problem may be an addictive personality, and not gambling itself. If this is so, you are in danger of swapping one addiction for another, like sex, alcohol, or even candy. Be on your guard against this. It may also help to do it for someone. Maybe you could keep a photo of your daughter by your side. Every time you feel the urge, take out the photo and say “if I give in, I will hurt her.” However you approach the problem, you will need two things above all – courage and determination.