Reflections Of A Gambling Addict
How does someone become a problem gambler? And how do they break the addiction? Today on the blog Andrew talks with 'Greg', a young man who took his gambling to a very dark place.
The first thing I notice about Greg's apartment is the smell. Quickly followed by the lighting and almost mundane orderliness. The apartment smells fresh, bright light strides from the outdoors while everything, and I mean everything sits in precision order. To say it's not what I was expecting is an understatement.
As I sit down on his couch, I shift one of the cushions to the side. Greg swiftly takes the cushion from me and with a poised hand places it neatly in the opposing corner of the couch. I ask him how he's been. He says good.
Greg, who's name is obviously changed for his privacy, is a recovering problem gambler. Over the last 10 years Greg battled through an addiction that many including myself have struggled to understand.
“Problem gambler” he says “is a polite way of saying it. It's a problem by degrees I suppose. Not everyone who struggles with it struggles the same or to the same depth.”
Greg's journey began in the betting shops around his local neighbourhood. He became what he calls a “betting groupie”, placing small bets which quickly grew in ambition as his hunger for action mounted .
“It all becomes relative to your nerve really. You soon find that you're betting a whole week's pay cheque on a single night's harness racing. You don't even really notice it happening to tell you the truth. I didn't. I'm not saying that betting shops are a bad place to spend time, but it's not a healthy scene. Who the fuck spends time in a betting shop these days? They're dark places.”
We nod in agreement. “But I did enjoy it”, he solemnly admits.”I'd be lying if I said I didn't. But now, the thought of setting a foot inside one of those places just fills me with dread.”
Greg offers me a drink. Water or orange juice. I ask him when the problem started to incline with seriousness.
“Looking back it was when the vending machines came in, or at least when they became common. That's when I really started to get in deep. There was no shame then. When I had to go up to a window and interact with an actual person and place a bunch of bets, there was some shame in it, especially when you're having a bad day. Dealing with another person definitely inhibited my urges. I would regularly go to a bunch of different shops in one day because I didn't want the staff behind the counter to think I was some loser. But once the vending machines arrived, there was no shame then.”
He shows me a photo he carries with him in his wallet. He calls it his gentle reminder. It's a photo of him holding two wads of cash, fanned in each hand, like something you'd see in a rap video. He tells me he had just had a “massive day”. But if he hadn't told me it was him in the picture, I wouldn't have believed it. He is withered. Ghostly pale. Smiling but with the manic recklessness of a soul weak with temptation. No visible concern for self preservation. I asked him what he had been doing that night. He said he was betting the dogs.
“It's not an addiction to risk really. If I wanted to get high on risk I'd jump out of a plane or go bungee jumping or something. It's not risk I was getting high on, it was luck. I was getting high on luck. I'm not saying that everyone with a gambling addiction is hooked like I was. But it's what it was for me. Some masochistic relationship with luck and I couldn't say anything else than I loved it. “
This won't be a voyeuristic chronicle of Greg's gambling exploits. But in his time, Greg lost high five figures, wracking up a credit card bill he is only now beginning to manage.
“It's financial self harm. That's all it was for me. When I won, I felt a little bit sick, like a kind of anxiety. I would feel relief but immediately anxious. It was just more money I had to do away with. I don't fully understand it yet. When I lost I just felt angry but in control. It felt kind of right. Feeling like shit and scratching for my next dollar seemed right. But I never placed a bet I didn't think I wanted to win. When I placed the bets, it was all about winning. I'd look at my list of bets for the day, usually dozens and feel confident. I would say to myself 'This is the day it's all going to turn around.' But then if I had a good day, I was just kind of lost. Maybe a good day gave me some quick financial relief, but it felt like a hassle. I didn't want to be rich. I wanted to be a fuckup.”
The confused anxiety still shows on Greg's face as he talks. Puzzled. He sips his water.
“When I was in the middle of it, you could have given me a betting system that won 100% of the time and I would have ignored it. I would have almost loathed it. It was never about winning. I didn't want certainty. I was never interested in being a successful gambler. I was just interested in being a gambler. I was just interested in being this luck junky. It was very rock and roll to me, living on the edge. I loved it. It was the life.”
Greg's addiction reached a level he now describes as delusional. Through a period of time he believed living at the mercy of luck put him somehow in closer contact with “the essence of the universe”.
“I thought I was more honest than everyone. I thought that I was living how people were supposed to live. I really believed that. I hated how people got comfortable jobs and savings accounts and all that, protecting themselves from what might go wrong in life. When I was in the middle of it all I really believed I was being more authentic than everyone else. I really believed that there was this spiritual thing in living life all by luck and chance. It seemed more pure to me. If I'm being honest now, that idea still has some appeal to me. It's not really the actual gambling I miss so much, it's the lifestyle I miss. It still excites me. Which is a worry of course.”
I ask Greg what type of betting he indulged in, what was his fix.
“Never understood the pokies (slots). Never understood that thing, the casino shit. I was never into it. For me it was horses and dogs during the week and footy on the weekend. Footy was the big thing for me. In the winter I bet all the footy there was. In the summer I bet the soccer overseas or the cricket.”
Looking around the apartment Greg shares with his partner Carol, I notice a distinct lack of photographs. No family photos. No holiday snaps. Nothing.
“Yeah, I did hurt a lot of people. Fucked up a bunch of relationships with friends and family. Stealing things from people's houses and hocking the stuff. Nothing too serious though but then it all adds up. People started to suspect. When I would ask if I could go over to their place, with the only purpose of stealing something mind you, they would make up some excuse why I couldn't. It would make me angry.”
The anger now appears as regret on Greg's face, I can see a shame falling backwards in his eyes.
“That's one of the things about it, I think it's true of any compulsion, you feel a sense of justification. I felt justified in bullshitting my parents, stealing shit off people to take to the pawn shop. I never felt any guilt about it. It honestly never came to me. I felt real in what I was doing, some almost sense of entitlement. I never felt any guilt or shame about stealing and lying to people. In my mind, because I wanted it so bad, it made it ok to do.”
I ask Greg about how he started to remove himself from this world, what it was that shook him out of the delusion.
“Something has to crash into your world I think to make you wake up. I'm not sure how it happens for other people but for me it was my dad passing away. It was like I snapped out of a trance. Then everything was a nightmare. I was sharing a shitty apartment in Flemington with this guy I knew who by the way was an alcoholic. My brother came around and told me dad had died a week earlier. They didn't tell me sooner because they didn't want me going to the funeral. I'm not sure I could have forced myself to go anyway. But for whatever reason, that event turned the lights on. I couldn't even remember the last honest conversation I had had with my dad. It really crushed me.”
Greg takes me out into his small back garden courtyard. It's a priceless day, tall blue sky, a touch of breeze. Greg looks up to the sky closing his eyes as if absorbing the warmth.
“It's a daily thing. It's the battle I have. But I think I'm clear headed enough now, I think I've got enough self awareness through all the counselling help I've received that the thought of betting on anything makes me feel unwell. The thought of it causes me a heap of anxiety now. Which is a good thing I suppose. But it's still confusing. I don’t feel the urge to bet any more but I do fear the urge. It's a real fear. There's still the excitement I feel when I think of the lifestyle, living on the edge and all that. So I have to keep my head straight. I see all the gambling ads on TV during the footy. At the end of the day you have to let people make their own decisions. But sometimes it angers me the way betting agents promote their product. If they were serious about helping problem gamblers, they would close accounts that are excessively losing. But I don't think they'd ever do that. The thing is, they're not promoting responsible gambling. They're promoting the exact thing that I got hooked on. They don't have a business unless people are making bad decisions. It's all luck pretending to be an educated guess I suppose. You never see a bookie promo during the footy that ends by saying hey, try your luck.”
When I ask him about who has supported him through this, he gets emotional. “Carol has been great. I don't know why, I don't know what she sees in me but she's been with me now for about a year. One of the first things I did when I met her was tell her my situation. Every bit of it. I expected her to run a million miles away but she didn't. She's been good. Yeah she's been good.”
When I ask about his family Greg just shakes his head stiffly, biting on some haunting emotion before looking away into the distance, breathing a deep breath. He just says “Nah. My brother a bit. But nah.”
I sat with Greg for most of the afternoon. We didn't talk much more about betting. Just about life in general. Later, as I was leaving, I thanked him for his honesty, his time and his story. He tells me it's all good help for his recovery.
On leaving, I wish him good luck.
“Luck?” he questions with a smirk. “Nah, fuck luck. I'm done with luck.”
If you think you may have a gambling problem or know someone who does, visit GambleAware.co.uk.