Problem gambling is a strange addiction. When you say “addiction” most people think of drugs, legal or otherwise. Cigarettes, alcohol, prescription drugs, ecstacy, 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 addiction, preying on feelings of vulnerability and depression (amongst others) to get started, and then feeding off your shame and remorse to keep you quiet about it.
Many non-gamblers can’t see this. “Why don’t they just stop?” they say. “They’re irresponsible, stupid and lazy. 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 to excess, 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 would love to win back what they’ve lost! From my experience, it’s a blend of factors that include depression, escape from the pain of everyday life, chasing your losses, and shame at your actions and your inability to stop.
This is one of the reasons why gambling addiction is so poorly understood. Problem gamblers (in general) are ashamed of their actions, and despise themselves for their weakness… but they keep on going, 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 hide from.
On many occasions, I have walked out of a gaming venue with a head full of rage and disgust at myself. After hours of seeing nothing but spinning dials, feeling nothing but anticipation of the next game, all of the pain and frustration that I was hiding from came flooding back in, and I could think of nothing but the insanity of what I’d just done, and how 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.
Gambling 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.
Now, I didn’t say this made sense. Nothing about problem gambling makes sense. I spent years being 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. Now that I’ve escaped, I look back at what I did and it scares me, how close I came to the edge. I know now that if I had spoken up, confessed to my partner at the time what I’d done before it blew completely out of control, I could have broken away and saved myself years of pain and torture. But I couldn’t.
I couldn’t talk about it.
Well, I’m damn well going to talk about it now.