suffering in silence

This is my first submission to The King’s Tribune magazine, which was originally published in the April 2011 issue.


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Gambling is a strange addiction. When you say “addiction” most people think of drugs, legal or otherwise. Cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs, ecstasy, heroin, cocaine… you get the picture. The thing that’s common to all of these is that there’s a physical component to the addiction. Your body craves the drug, and so you give it more. As a long-time smoker, I know all about this.

But gambling is a different beast. It’s a mental and emotional addiction, preying on feelings of vulnerability and depression to get started, then feeding off your shame and remorse to keep you quiet. Poker machines are particularly good at this; designed to addict, they draw you in with the lights, the sounds, the easy play and constant repetition. For many, it’s a trap that is impossible to escape.

Many non-gamblers can’t see this. “Why don’t they just stop?” they say. “Gamblers are lazy, stupid and irresponsible. They’re throwing away good money to chase the big dollars. Why should I feel sorry for them?” What they don’t see is that the reasons people start gambling and then continue to gamble well beyond their means, are many and varied. It’s rarely just about the money; never mind big wins, most problem gamblers are just wishing they could win back what they’ve lost. In my experience, it’s a blend of factors that include depression, escape from the pain of everyday life, chasing losses, and shame at their actions and inability to stop.

This is one of the reasons why gambling addiction is so poorly understood. Problem gamblers are usually ashamed of their actions and despise themselves for their weakness; yet they keep on playing and they never say a word. They can’t. To speak up would be to admit what they’ve done; it would mean confronting the pain in their lives that they’ve been using the pokies to avoid.

Then there’s the stigma associated with being a problem gambler. Society looks at the drug addict, the alcoholic, the kleptomaniac and sees a victim who needs help; there’s some recognition that these addictions are medical problems and the addicted are victims as well as perpetrators. But if you throw everything away on the pokies? No hope for you mate, you’re scum.

And so problem gamblers, especially pokie players, continue to hide their addiction, with the result that they never confront their problems. They never seek help, they never confess, they just keep on playing. It’s all they can do.

How do I know all of this to be true?

Consider this: I’m a 40 year old husband and father of three beautiful girls. Like so many others, I live in the outer suburbs and work in the city; I’m university-educated and articulate. I’m certainly not the kind of person you would characterize as stupid, lazy or irresponsible, yet for three years of my life I was addicted to the pokies. I blew thousands upon thousands of dollars on poker machines, and caused immeasurable pain to so, so many people.

On so many occasions, I walked out of a gaming venue full of rage and disgust. After hours of seeing nothing but spinning reels, feeling nothing but anticipation of the next game, all of the pain and frustration that I was hiding from would come flooding back in and I could think of nothing but the insanity of what I’d done, and panic about how I was going to repair or hide the damage. And yet the next day I’d be back again.

I have sat weeping with fistfuls of unpaid bills and overdue demands in my hands, with no idea of how I was going to make ends meet. And I have seriously contemplated suicide on more than one occasion, rather than confess to what I’d done and start the long road back from the brink.

I was a problem gambler. It started so simply, so innocently, but before I knew what was going on I was hooked. That’s the thing about gambling; it gets into your head. The very first time you spend more than you should and hide it from your husband or wife or kids, you’re at risk. If you go back to try and recover what you’ve lost, the risk skyrockets. Before you know it, you’re trapped, and the fact that you said nothing at the start becomes a complete inability to say anything about it from that point on.

I’m not saying this makes sense. Nothing about problem gambling makes sense. During my gambling years I was completely irrational, believing that I could beat the odds, because it was the only way I could keep what little was left of my self-esteem. I knew I was fooling myself, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. I couldn’t talk about it. I had become one of the voiceless; just another gambling addict suffering in silence. Even after I finally broke away from the pokie trap, that didn’t change; there’s a stigma attached to problem gambling which never really goes away.

Problem gambling is big news right now. The industry and the government are fighting over gambling reforms, and it seems everyone has an opinion on how much, if at all, the gambling landscape needs to change. But there’s one fundamental change that can’t be legislated; it has to come from within.

If we, as the most gambling-addicted nation on this planet, are ever going to seriously address the issue of problem gambling and the devastating harm it causes to so many thousands of people every year, then our attitudes need to change. We need to recognise that problem gamblers are people, with hopes and dreams and aspirations, just like everyone else. We need to realise that they have problems, and look for ways to help. Because ultimately, a person’s pokie addiction is the end result of other problems, other issues in their life. Happy people don’t become problem gamblers.

We need to try to understand, before we condemn. That’s where we start.

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1 Response

  1. Braveheart says:

    It’s a great article, Tom.

    I do believe there is also a physical component to compulsive gambling, however. The constant stimulation to the brain caused by the machines has a biochemical effect which is extremely powerful. The chemical concerned appears to be dopamine – which is also implicated in other forms of compulsive behaviour and addiction. We do not completely understand the scope of this yet. There are also different personal and societal factors and vulnerabilities involved for each of us.

    I think you capture most elements of the compulsion brilliantly – the craving, the secrecy, the shame. There is also the usual disassociation from reality which prevents problem gamblers from acknowledging the damage that occurs to themselves and others.

    Yesterday I was in a local venue as part of my work. I saw a man in his 60’s or 70’s – it was hard to tell. He was seated at one machine, obviously entranced. When he had a successful spin he would immediately try to stop the music and flow of electronic effects you get with some machines while they aggregate the total of the win. He did this by almost banging the keys to no avail. He was almost hunched over the machine, making three dollar bets but did not seem to be having huge wins.

    I spoke with him lightly about how we was going. He looked at me briefly for a few seconds and shook his head. I wanted to do more but wondered what his response would be if a complete stranger suggested that he come outside for a breath of fresh air. So I walked away. After I’d finished my other business in the area I dropped back to the venue to see if he he was still there and he was, two hours later. I think he was a classic example of someone who may have been in deep trouble.

    The venue was a hotel and there seemed to be only one attendant present. This attendant had to look after all the machines and people, serve alcohol, make payouts etc. He was a young man in his late 20’s/early 30’s. I wondered what interventions he had made with the older man, and intuitively understood that he would have been courteous and friendly but would not have intervened at all. It would be very hard to do so because the gambler was not clearly under the influence of a drug. I could see that the older man was not really present and in control, however.

    In all my years of using pokie machines I never once saw an attendant intervene with someone who had clearly been hours at the venue. In my own case, no-one ever approached me. I think the idea of venue support officers sounds interesting but wonder how effective it actually is.

    If a person affected by drugs/alcohol feel over in the street or in shop, someone would call the police or ambulance – someone would help. Intervention of last resort. This does not happen with the pokie machine gambler, however, because the addiction/compulsion manifests so differently.

    That is one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that compulsory pre-commitment and attention to the design of the machines are critical steps towards minimizing the harm of pokie machines. You lessen the likelihood of serious damage through these measures.

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