filling the void – but beware…

Giving up the pokies (or any form of gambling, for that matter) when you’ve got a problem is hard. Very hard. But staying on the wagon, as the days becomes weeks and months, can be tricky too. If you seek advice, whether from counselors, websites, help lines or even a self-help book or two, one of the common coping strategies that you’ll come across is the idea of filling the void that the pokies have left behind.

On the face of it, this is sound logic and makes sense. Problem gamblers invest so much of their free time in gambling, thinking about gambling, and worrying about getting caught and the harm they’re causing, that there’s little room for anything else. Take all that away, and suddenly you need something to do instead, otherwise you simply sit there and think about the gambling you could be doing, and that’s a fast track to hell.

Personal experience: the first time I was caught out, and quit, I barely paused before getting back into the swing of my addiction. It didn’t help that my partner at the time continued to play the pokies (because, as she said, she didn’t have a problem) and I would go with her and watch. It seems ridiculous looking back, but at the time when I should have been staying away and occupying myself in other ways, instead I was sitting there watching the wheels spin. No wonder I fell back into my old routine almost straight away, only this time I hid it even better.

I didn’t fill the void. I continued to expose myself to the environment that was most harmful to me, and didn’t do anything with the time that was now available to me. That’s a recipe for disaster.

The second time I was caught out (and stopped again) was a different story. It spelled the end of my relationship with my partner, which turned out to be the best thing for me as the pokies had become an integral part of our relationship. It enabled me to stay away, and I started looking for alternative ways to spend my time.

It wasn’t really that hard. I renewed some friendships that I had neglected for years and became something of a social animal, going out, seeing bands and basically making up for lost time. I even took up skydiving! And I started writing, something I’d always enjoyed but which had fallen by the wayside while I was gambling and stuck in a relationship where what I wanted always came second. I wasn’t bad, either; I published a number of short stories on a web site set up for that purpose (the now defunct Short Story Workshop) and grew into that community as well.

But while I was busy filling the void, doing new and interesting things, I wasn’t actually dealing with the core of my problem. I had pushed my “problem” away, refused to let it gain a foothold in my new life, but what I didn’t realise was that it was still there, waiting for the right moment.

A couple of years on, my life changed in every way. I met someone, and we began a relationship that moved very fast, to the point where we became engaged and I moved interstate to be with my fiancee and her young daughter. In a very short period of time, I change my way of life from single guy to partner and father figure. I changed cities, I changed jobs. And I found myself floundering, unable to grab hold of one familiar thing in my life. And then, around the corner from my new work, I came across a small pub with about a dozen or so poker machines out the back.

That’s all it took. The beast within me roared back into life; here was something familiar, something I could do to zone out for a while and remember what it was like to be me. Of course, that was a lie, but the moment I dropped a coin into one of those slots, the lie didn’t matter any more. I was back in the saddle.

This was my last relapse, and a few months later I was able to break free with the support of my fiancee (now my wife of ten years). With her help and support, I came to terms with my new life and moved on, moved away from the pokies and I’ve never looked back.

The thing is, I’ve spent most of my after-gambling life ignoring the pokies. Pretending they don’t exist. Refusing to let them into my life. Doing other things to fill the void. Even after that last relapse was done and dusted, I still refused to acknowledge the hold that the pokies still had on me. And I know now that this type of denial, while understandable and helpful in the short term, can be dangerous in the long term.

Of course it’s important to fill the void, but there’s more that needs to be done. Sooner or later, once you’ve been away from the machines for a while and feel strong enough, you need to face up to your problems and really try understand why it is that you gambled, and why you lost control. You need to know, really know, what it is within you that made you a problem gambler. And you can’t do that unless you confront your demons and meet them head on.

It’s taken me ten years to realise this. Ten years of keeping myself away from the pokies, ten years of filling the void, ten years of denial. I can’t run away any more.

That’s why I’m doing this. Why I started this site, why I’m contacting others with a similar mindset, why I’m pouring my heart out online. I’m doing what I feel I need to do, in order to help others if I can, and at the same time finally put my beast to rest.

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