Addiction can take a person to some dark places. One man went to those places figuratively and literally as he was in the throes of his gambling addiction.
“I was involved in very serious situations when I did gamble. It was life-threatening at times. I dealt with a lot of shady people,” said a man who we’ll identify as Robert.
He’s concealing his identity to protect the people around him, including other gambling addicts who attend support group meetings with him.
“When I was out gambling, I dealt with people who gave me the shivers. And I wish I wouldn’t have. I regret that,” said Robert, who placed most of his bets in blackjack and horse races.
Thirty years ago, Robert went to his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting, but he wasn’t ready to commit to recovery until 12 years later when he made a return to the meetings with a new purpose.
“I had to let those people love me back to health, take care of me until I could get stronger,” said Robert “And that’s what they did.”
But Robert is still left with the damage he did while gambling. That damage includes two felonies for bank fraud, as he finagled accounts and bounced checks to get the cash he needed for his gambling addiction.
“I stole whatever I could,” he said. “I use the word steal because I did. It’s stealing.”
Dr. J. Michael Faragher (MAC, NCGCII, BACC) is the director of addiction specialization in the Counseling Psychology Graduate program at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education.
He says gambling has extra layers of complexity when compared to other addictions. That layer begins with the debts that compulsive gamblers accumulate and the fact that it doesn’t magically disappear when a person goes into recovery.
“Your bookie is not going to forgive your debt, simply because you decided that you would get help with your gambling problem,” said Faragher.
He says that some specialized counseling programs can connect gambling addicts with financial counselors.
“Some creditors do have an understanding,” he said, “and they are willing to work with them.”
But, in many gambling addicts’ minds, the only way to get out of the hole they’ve dug for themselves is to keep gambling.
“(They think) the only way they’re going to be able to pay back this money is when they win the jackpot,” Faragher said.
That thought pattern, he says, is often connected to a cognitive distortion that changes the way a gambler thinks.
“No matter what happens, it’s twisted to support the idea that this is my lucky day,” said Faragher. “I’m bound to win tonight because I’m on a winning streak. Or, conversely, I’m bound to win tonight because nobody could lose as much as I’ve been losing.”
Faragher says, gambling addicts can hide their problems for years, even decades… just like Robert did racking up nearly seven figures in gambling debts.
“Gambling addiction is referred to as the invisible disorder, the invisible disease because there aren’t telltale physical markers. There aren’t bloodshot eyes or track marks in the arm.”
The addiction can also bear a heavy weight on a person.
“Around 20 percent of those in treatment for gambling problems, have attempted suicide,” said Faragher.
At one point, Robert’s life seemed hopeless. But attending support group meetings and reckoning with loved ones he hurt has helped. His rock bottom came when he was caught stealing from his employer, after he’d already been convicted of bank fraud. Knowing his problem, that employer opted not to press charges.
A friend pushed Robert to get help. He credits Gamblers Anonymous meetings with helping him to see beyond the high-stakes world he used to live in.
“That’s the freedom that I have today – the freedom in the relationship with a power greater than me,” said Robert, who also says he will always think of himself as being in recovery.
“Addiction for me is never certain, it’s always one day at a time.”
He urges anyone who is struggling with gambling addiction to seek help.
“Pick up the phone and call for help,” he said. “The amount of courage it takes is unbelievable.”
Colorado Gamblers Anonymous: Hotline 1-855-222-CALLGA (1-855-222-5524)
Problem Gambling Coalition of Colorado: Hotline 1-800-522-4700
Aurora Mental Health Choice Counseling and Recovery: Tammy Pope, 402-419-8929
More stories featured during Recovery Week:
All this week, 9NEWS has been featuring stories of people who have beaten addiction and are in the process of recovery. We will also offer resources for anyone who needs help. A call-in line will be open from 6:30am-8:30am Tuesday-Friday. The phone number will be given out on 9NEWS Mornings, once the phone lines are staffed and open.