a tale of depression, poker machines and the written word

I’ve been writing this blog for about five months now, which seems strange as I can’t imagine my life without it. Cyenne has changed me, has opened me up to people and ideas that I’d held at arm’s length for so long, or didn’t even realise existed. Recently I owned up to my past and stamped my name on this blog (and the Twittersphere) and I realise that this was just a part of dealing with my issues; even though it’s been ten years since I quit playing the pokies I’m still dealing with it inside.

The reason I stayed anonymous initially had to do with stigma. People just don’t own up to gambling problems, especially not with the pokies. It isn’t the done thing. One of the reasons for this is that pokie addicts tend to loathe themselves for their “weakness”; another reason is that pokie addicts are widely scorned by much of society. I finally realised that I couldn’t play that game any more; the only way to combat that type of stigma is to confront it head on.

But there’s stigma, and there’s stigma. I’ve recently learned that there is far, far more to my story than I ever knew. I’ve been guilty of prejudice, of wilful ignorance, and it damn near wrecked me.

I want to talk about depression.

Before I talk about my depression, and the impact it’s had on me, I need to give you a snapshot of my life. Don’t worry, it won’t take long.

I’ve always been the good son. The quiet one, studious and well behaved, sandwiched between two loud and outgoing brothers. I was Mr Responsible. More than that, I was a hopeless optimist; I always looked for the bright side of any situation.

I was raised Catholic, and although that kind of wore off in my early twenties, much of the moral code remained. I picked out the good and discarded the bad and rolled on with my life. I always had a lot of friends, but as my circumstances changed, so too did my social circles. It just seemed to be that way I was; I always managed to fit in with my new crowd, and my old crowd would get left behind.

I tended towards long-term relationships; in fact, I was practically incapable of ending relationships, no matter how misplaced or painful they might be. I was a serial over-committer, because that’s what I thought people did. They committed to relationships and made them work.

I look back at the younger me, and I can see so clearly what a conflicted mess I was. But at the time I didn’t even know I was conflicted. All I knew was that my life was without hope.

You see, despite the sunny exterior, the easy friendships and the long-term partners; despite the excellent grades and the fantastic job; despite all of this, I was bleak inside. I felt trapped in a life where everything I did was to please others and I couldn’t see any way out. I always put myself second.

But depressed? Had someone suggested it I would have violently denied it. I wasn’t depressed, dammit! My mind was my own, sometimes it seemed like it was all I had, and I couldn’t even fathom the possibility that there was something wrong with it. Sure, I got down; sure, I was troubled. But I was a coper; that’s what I did. I coped. Somehow I always coped.

This is where I was when I discovered poker machines. I was in my mid-twenties, in a relationship that would soon become an engagement, working at a great job and doing really well. And hating it. The smart thing would have been to walk away, wear the pain of separation and start over, but it’s an indication of my mental state that I couldn’t even contemplate this.

There are other posts in this blog that talk about my descent into addiction, how I got started and how I couldn’t give it up. Suffice to say that when I was sitting at the machine, feeding in dollar coins and pressing buttons, everything else went away. The promise of a payout was a factor, sure, but it wasn’t all, not nearly all. Playing the pokies was the only time that I could get respite from the mess I was making of my life, and the fact that it was wrong only added to that. Sure, it was wrong, but it was mine. It was my secret life, and even a secret life of addiction and lies was better than the alternative.

The pokies numbed my pain, even while they made it worse. They were my drug.

Fast forward to six months ago. I’ve been “clean” now for a decade. I’m married with three beautiful and cheeky girls; my wife knows about my poker machine past. Of course she does, my last relapse happened after we met, and she stuck by me. But life has been far from ideal. Along the way there had been moves interstate and back again, there had been job terminations and redundancies, and in January 2004 my mother passed away. I lost interest in my career. I had no energy, no enthusiasm, no drive. I’d lost whatever capacity I had to enjoy life, and it was hurting me, my wife and my kids.

This was when I started Cyenne. I believe now that the prospect of turning forty and losing my family drove me to look back to what I still blamed for my plight, and tackle it once and for all. I’d ignored my pokie addiction for years, tried to live my life as if it had happened to someone else instead of me, but all that did was shove my issues deeper and deeper into my already troubled subconscious. I began to write about it.

For a little while the writing helped. I should explain that I’ve always loved writing, always thought I could make a living from it but never took the steps to try and make it happen. Finally I was committing words to the page (or the screen) and putting them out there for the world to see. And the more I wrote, the more my social conscience woke up. I stopped writing for myself and began writing about poker machines, about venues that were bending the rules, about industry organisations that were self-serving and misdirected. I had a goal again.

And yet, it wasn’t enough. I was writing at last, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that my life was still spiralling away from me.

Finally I went to see a doctor, and after a couple of false leads I was informed that I was suffering from depression. More than that, he wanted me to take medication to combat the condition. This rocked me to the core, especially the concept of medication. I had always… not “looked down” as such, but pitied anyone who couldn’t cope with life without medicating. Yet here I was, forty years old and being handed a prescription for Escitalopram.

With more than a few reservations I started my meds, and within a week I began to notice the difference. The plainest way I can describe it is as though there had been a curtain between me and the rest of the world, all my life, and I had finally pulled it aside. I could see with a clarity and purpose that I honestly never knew existed. In a sense, accepting that I was suffering from depression was actually the best thing that could have happened to me, for by accepting it I was finally able to start treating it. And that has allowed me the state of mind to finally start dealing with my demons, rather than running from them.

I started therapy to supplement the medication, and although we’re still in the early stages the signs are promising. It was a shock to realise that my depression most likely goes back to when I was seven or eight years old, but that’s just made me all the more determined to deal with it. This black dog has been running my life for over thirty years, but now I’m taking it back.

And I’m still writing. For a week or so after I started the Escitalopram, I lost the urgency to write and I began to worry that I was going to have to trade my peace of mind for my writing. But the drive came back, and I think now that I was going through an adjustment to the medication. I’m just glad it sorted itself out.

Now I’ve engaged in some spirited “chicken-or-the-egg” debates with others about depression and poker machines. Which comes first? Do pokies cause depression, or does depression lead to pokie addiction? I believe both can be true. There is absolutely no doubt that poker machine addiction can (and often does) lead to depression. However, in my case it was my depression that made me a prime candidate for the pokies. I was defenceless against them, and lost myself to them in a heartbeat. The truth of the matter is that poker machines are designed to have that impact on people with an appropriately vulnerable state of mind, and that’s one of the facets of the industry that must change.

The reason I’m telling you all this comes back to what I mentioned at the start: stigma. People, and especially men, still don’t want to believe that depression could happen to them. They reject it, they deny it, they try and cope with it. In the meantime, the pain and the damage rolls on. Depression, and mental illness in general, is seen as something to be pitied, and those suffering from it as somehow less than complete. I’m guilty of holding these views in the past, and I’m appalled at how short-sighted I was. It’s a sign of my hypocrisy that I could rail against the stigma of problem gambling, yet still hold true to my concept of the stigma of mental illness.

My biggest wake-up call came from an unexpected quarter. Through starting and running Cyenne, I introduced myself to Twitter. Now I might work in IT, but I’m strictly old-school and I had no interest in this new “Twitter” thing. However, I read time and time again how I needed to embrace social media in order to gain a wider readership for my blog, and so I signed up.

Over time I met and followed a number of people, mostly humorous, interesting and insightful people. For the most part you know who you are! One such person was Mike Stuchbery, and it was reading Mike’s account of his struggles with depression that really opened my eyes in a whole new way. Here was a seemingly confident guy, eloquent, funny and Twitter-savvy, who was willing to be completely open about his depression. Stumbling across Mike’s blog did more to change my preconceptions about depression than anything else, before or since.

If you’re still reading this: I apologise for the length of this post, and I thank you for sticking with it to the end. I’ve just begun my fight against a depression that has tainted most of my life, and I expect it to be a long road back. But at least now I can see the road in front of me, and I’m no longer walking blindly into the fog.

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4 Responses

  1. Hey Tom…some really interesting insights that have got me thinking / comparing as well. Thanks. I read every word.

    I am thinking…in the past the BeyondBlue group has never dared touch upon pokies’-related Depression! That was much because the leader was Jeff Kennett…also head of Hawthorn Football Club and thus pokies-owner (developer!)extraordinaire! We got nowhere with trying to enlist support from them (both Kennett and BeyondBlue)in 2005 when Sue P. and I were with Duty of Care Inc.

    But has that resistance changed I wonder as pokies have been more discussed?

    BeyondBlue cannot go on burying its head in the sand forever about poker machines and the damage they bring to human beings!

    Your story should be sent to BeyondBlue Tom… For as much as Depression is an illness, it is also a normal facet of our lives today. Jeff Kennett raised awareness about Depression…but he forgot to limit / stop one of its major causes. Poker Machines. Shame.

  2. Talking about it does seem to help folks and you may have convinced me to pick up my personal blogging again.

    Thanks for sharing – this is really interesting, sad and inspiring. You’ve come through to the other side of the centre of the depression – you may-or-may not be all the way clear, but you’re still aware and working on it. That’s great.

    Depression can make people do any number of things, and I think my own personal depression has held me stagnant in my life and my current job for at least two years too long. Time for a change as soon as possible I think for the betterment of my health as well as my life.

    The work you do raising awareness here about pokies and gambling addiction is wonderful – even for those not directly affected, this site has some great insight and advice.

    Keep it up Tom!

  3. Braveheart says:

    I’ll add my thanks to the list. If we continue to share and explore our experience we contribute to a greater picture, a greater understanding. I appreciate your openness. This kind of discussions gives hope to others as well as increasing knowledge. There is such stigma attached to gambling that people are reluctant to speak about it.

  4. Libby Mitchell says:

    Braveheart and others…we are slowly but surely moving beyond the stage where people are all too embarrassed to speak of their own pokies related issues…The anger that is welling up now, that comes with realization that this is not an issue for ourselves alone, will force the gambling industry changes that are so badly required. The voice of the people will demand really effective changes…or full banning of pokies if their needs are unmet…I just know it.

    The relatively few brave people as yet who have decided to speak out on their own experiences of pokies harms, whether they be gamblers or families or interested others, are the tip of this iceberg!

    When I first shared my own addiction experience I was all for full banning of pokies, excepting for casinos, providing that all casino pokies gamblers could get effective consumer protections in casinos.

    For many people, an Australian casino is still their ‘local’ pokies venue so those casino patrons would still need adequate gambling safety measures. Over recent years I was lulled perhaps into forgetting that avenue…and now I believe that it is tiem to revive that goal as a Plan B for now that could well become a Plan A!

    Too many people advised that it was impossible to expect the government to lose the cash cow of pokies, the gambling industry was way too powerful; the taxes from pokies were required to run our societies; “Ban pokies and addicts will just find another fix”…”Where will IT [nany state claims] all end if our rights are exploited?”, “They will ban smoking next”, “Why ruin 98% of people’s fun to save the hopeless 2% who will not be saved anyway”, “People just have to take more personal responsibility”…blah blah blah. All of those questions swamped me I guess…

    It was not until I took a serious interest in pokies-related gambling research that I found how easily the ‘givens’ had already been exploded in research studies yet the study results were always either played down or met with a cry of ‘prejudice’ and new rhetorical questions etc.

    I learned more and developed more insights eg Pokies do NOT increase NET community jobs; pokies do NOT bring revenue values over time, once COSTS roll in; pokies users do NOT transfer to other addictions; human right to freedom should NOT take priority over human right to safety; pokies do not affect ONLY the relative few who are openly counted as addicts (an understated number in itself) but up to 10 other innocent people eg families, employers.

    Regarding ‘responsibility’ I soon learned that the governments and the gambling industry had the severe lacks there….much more than the ‘victim’ pokies overspenders and especially their loved ones who have had NO chance to fight back. The fact that we are talking of 30% (or more) of regular pokies overspenders who bring harms to others and are harmed themselves…IS a VERY serious issue, now more evidenced as families are now speaking more loudly about their own pain in the public arena.

    With the recent political focus now very heavily directed to the pokies / gambling industry issue I have been re-awakened so to speak. Just when a chance to make the gambling industry toe the line at last is made possible, I am now worried that the ‘activist community’ may be too reconciled towards ‘consensus’ right now, to understand the real power of what we are potentially dealing with here. We are forgetting that casinos and slot machines (pokies) are mushrooming all over the US right now for example…and that country is already in a financial quagmire to say the least! There will be swift repercussions from gambling overspending in that fragile economy. There are over 350 million Americans…a loud voice to add to ours potentially.

    A lot of Americans were conned like we were by the usual gambling industry “More Jobs / More tax relief” spin, so casinos have been recently seen as a possible new ‘saviour’ of America…a mad thought that was fuelled my a well-oiled marketing mantra from the gambling industry and greedy, desperately short-sighted politicians. Same as here.

    Just one important difference between the Australian and the American ‘modern gambling’ experience lies in the fact that WE were conned before the internet really took hold. NOW the Americans are waking up much faster. We all witnessed the very swift GFC…a phenomenon of the internet if ever we needed a reminder of the power of comunication? Our fight in Australia against the gambling industry is much mirrored in the US and also in NZ and Canada. Thanks to the internet we are now hearing of each fight in far away places.

    The gambling industry though arrogant, lazy and over-confident is also far from stupid. It MUST know that the social marketing against it is growing and becoming a real threat. A bigger threat than ever before…because people ARE now talking ober the net.

    We now have the recipe I believe for making real world-wide progress on gambling reforms and perhaps we can now help to not only raise awareness about gambling-related Depression, but we may also better learn to control the gambling overspending that so often exacerbates or triggers it.

    Hearing others speak out now has re-affirmed my own resolve. I hope it has also done that for others. It soon will be time to call for pokies BANNING!

    Get REAL, effective reforms ‘with legs’…or BAN pokies altogether…at least from local family neighborhoods. Work internationally, nationally and locally together to make one world push against the gambling industry. We have the tool, the world wide net…we have the people…who are now coming forward and we have the world economic climate to make this happen.

    I hope that we can all help to get more people to speak out openly. Pokies addiction was one addiction that WAS avoidable..and our governments damned well should have known it. I am fed up with finding excuses for governments in this matter.

    I find the attitude of our MP’s and political parties to be disgraceful generally. The ALP ‘supports’ Wilkie yet has pokies barns that finance its political operations. The Greens spoke out in Tasmania and impressed us with supposed passion…only to go quiet later in the federal elections. Though that party has re-affirmed more positively…I did not like the ‘fence-sitting’ bit at the last federal elections. The Greens platform to end political donations whilst impressive, the lack of the Green voice recently makes me wonder if it has received political donations of late? The Liberal Party has a dreadful attitude to the whole abysmal pokies saga…and its call for ‘free choice’ is absolutely unforgiveable in human rights terms…let alone logic, regarding pokies. NO political parties have addressed the fundamental issue that a poker machine is a ‘cheating device’ an unsafe, unfair consumer product that is badly regulated to allow harms to continue to the point that it does not deserve to be legalized. I hope that Mr Wilkie, an Independent, might have success in changing a lot of minds but if he does not…God help the pokies gambling industry. I can feel that the citizens are now getting their guns loaded.

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