The Hidden Addiction

After carefully unlocking the back door, I quickly pushed it open in an effort to minimize the noise I knew it would make. I crept upstairs toward my bedroom in silent panic, and continuously glanced at the phone whose ringer I silenced hours before. Despite my promises to be home by midnight, it was now 3 A.M. At least she hadn't called or texted "Where are you?" as she had done so many times before. Of course, I would swear I had no choice but to work late at the office. Being married to an attorney for over thirty years, my wife was all too familiar with the adage, "The law is a jealous mistress." When I finally reached my bed, my mind was racing as I stared blankly at the ceiling. What am I doing? Why am I risking my home life, my relationship with my family and my career? I was not unlike any man involved in an extra-marital affair. Except my motel room was a casino. And my lover was a slot machine.

Like most gamblers, I started as a social gambler. Gambling was a form of entertainment and a great way to relieve life's stresses. And it was both acceptable and accessible.

Unfortunately, the more I gambled, the more I lost. And the more I lost, the more I "chased." Chasing losses only lead me to gamble with more frequency and with more money than I wanted or could afford to lose. Paradoxically, winning was almost worse than losing. A win caused me to want to gamble more. I would not only give back my winnings, but I'd lose additional money chasing another win. As my gambling continued to increase, and my losses continued to mount, I experienced almost unbearable shame. This caused me to hide my gambling from family and friends. Additionally, the type of gambling I engaged in changed. Blackjack, roulette and poker had been my games of choice. But I grew bored with each of these games, as they didn't move quickly enough. And they required me to gamble with other people, which I wanted to avoid.

I then discovered high stakes slot machines. These machines seduced me for a number of reasons. First, playing in the high stakes slot area made me feel privileged, as it was reserved for “high rollers.” Second, this type of gambling was not dependent upon the skill or luck of any other player but me. Third, the speed of play is faster, as slot players don’t have to wait for other players to place bets in order to see whether they won or lost. And there are no wheels to spin or cards to shuffle. Fourth, the adrenaline rush is much greater, as a win typically results in a jackpot in the thousands of dollars.

My escape into gambling damaged all aspects of my personal life. Family dinners, birthday parties and evenings with friends were missed. Time spent with my wife and children was scarce. And when I was with family and friends, my focus was getting away so I could return to the casino as soon as possible. If my schedule permitted, I would leave work and go to the casino. Some days I would miss work entirely. I became physically exhausted, financially ruined and emotionally bankrupt. I knew I was destroying myself, but I couldn't stop gambling.

I have come to learn that I am a compulsive gambler. I have an addiction that is just as destructive as an addiction to substances such as heroin, prescription drugs and alcohol. However, my addiction can easily be hidden. There are no physical signs of gambling addiction: no needle marks, no evidence from breath or blood tests. Many mental health experts believe that problem gamblers closely resemble alcoholics and drug addicts, not only from the external consequences of problem finances and destruction of relationships, but increasingly, on the inside as well. In fact, Gambling Disorder is the only behavioral addiction recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the leading guide of the mental health profession. According to Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the Substance-Related Disorders Work Group for DSM-5, brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests have made a “strong case that [gambling] activates the reward system in much the same way that a drug does.” What is now unquestioned is that gambling behaviors can become compulsive, can lead to major financial and emotional problems, and are treatable using similar approaches to the treatment of substance addictions.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) estimates that about 80% of those with a gambling addiction consider suicide, while one in five actually attempts it. That’s roughly twice the rate of other addictions.

My recovery began with a week’s stay in Rockford Center, where I was admitted for psychiatric evaluation. My family arranged for me to attend Gamblers Anonymous (GA) following discharge. I had no desire to go, but was in no position to object. I felt GA was not going to benefit me. I was convinced that either bipolar disorder or some other undiagnosed physiological disorder was causing my brain to poison my moral fabric. After all, I was raised in a family with high moral values and I myself taught my children the importance of doing what is right. Little did I know that it was virtually impossible to gamble compulsively without lying, stealing, avoiding reality and escaping into a dream world.

It was at my first GA meeting that I learned about gambling addiction. Some people talked about how they depleted their savings in order to gamble. Others admitted to taking secret loans, pawning valuables and embezzling funds. What amazed me was that many of these people had not gambled in months and even years.

Now, I’m nearly one year into my recovery, I attend several GA meetings per week, and receive one-on-one therapy from a counselor who specializes in gambling addiction. I also work two or three times a month taking calls on a helpline sponsored by the Delaware Council on Problem Gambling. Abstaining from gambling hasn’t been the hardest part of my recovery. The greatest challenge is rebuilding the personal relationships I destroyed by gambling.

I am grateful that my gambling addiction is no longer hidden from my family and friends. The support and encouragement I’ve gotten from them, and my brothers and sisters in GA, has been instrumental in my recovery. Life is good, and I pray it will continue to be good, one day at a time.

Jeffrey W.