John seemed to have it all - a well-paid job, his own home, a wife and two lovely daughters. But beneath this normal and seemingly happy exterior, John was facing a daily battle with an addiction to online gambling. He accrued debts of almost £60,000 as a result of his gambling addiction, which brought him to the brink of family breakdown.
John talked to Sarah Marten for Gambling Watch UK about his experiences of gambling addiction.
“Where I used to live as a child there was a big travelling fair every year, and my parents often took me along. I wasn’t really keen on the fairground rides, and I drifted towards the flashing lights of the arcades. I ended up spending my pocket money playing the one-arm bandits by myself. Family holidays by the sea provided another opportunity for me to visit amusement arcades, and it didn’t seem harmful at the time. However as I got older, I also played the machines at local cafés and arcades, playing video poker games. Playing card games such as pontoon with my friends were another way to pass the time.”
Once he left school, gambling started to become more of a problem for John. He moved away from home to go to college, and for the first time in his life John had money in his pocket to spend. And spend it he did – within the familiar and enticing environment of the amusement arcades.
“Going to college was a big thing for me, and I didn’t really feel that comfortable there to be honest. I felt I was out of my depth, and because there was quite a lot of free time I started missing classes here and there. Instead of using my college grant to pay my rent, I spent it in the arcades. I ended up losing a lot of money, but I always hoped that I’d win back what I lost the following day. This never happened. Eventually I had to ask my Grandmother to bail me out, although she didn’t know the reason why I ran out of money so quickly. Neither did my parents.
“I think my gambling was triggered initially by several things – leaving school and home, going to college and probably just immaturity. After one year at college I moved back home, but still spent lots of money on gambling. After leaving college things became more manageable – I got a good job and although I was still gambling, I was able to walk away. At this stage I was visiting the bookies to gamble on horses and dogs as well as playing fruit machines in arcades and pubs.”
Life proceeded in a normal way for John for a few years. He did well at work, met and married his wife and had two children. However, things changed as pressure built in his job and he was asked to work away from home for part of each week.
“Work was going well, but I had been asked to undertake a large project and looking back I was probably overstretched. I was working really long hours, and spending Tuesday to Thursday away from home every week. There wasn’t really any time to de-stress. On Mondays and Fridays I worked from home, which was great in that it enabled me to see my family.”
But whilst working from home on his computer John soon became drawn into the world of online gambling, something that almost lost him his marriage. Gambling online was all too easy.
“You don’t even see the money when you gamble online. You use your debit or credit card, and before you know what is happening you are placing higher and higher stakes and losing so much money. My gambling online started to escalate so that I was eventually losing thousands of pounds each month. The video poker games were the worst for me – I just spent more and more money and time on them.
“These huge losses made me feel sick to my stomach. The more I lost, the more I wanted to win back what I’d lost the next day. I did have some wins, but they never compensated for what I’d lost. At this stage I just couldn’t tell my wife what was going on. It was all a secret. She trusted me completely.”
The trust of John’s wife was to be tested to its limits, as he took out loans, applied for new credit cards and cashed in endowments.
“One day I was driving past a car showroom and I realised that I could have bought any car there with the money that I had spent on gambling. But I still couldn’t stop. It took another few years of lies and more loans before I had run out of money. Eventually I had to own up to my wife. I knew I needed to tell her, but it took so much courage.
“My greatest fear was that my wife would leave me. When I broke the news to her it was totally devastating, coming as it did as a complete surprise. I am very lucky as she stood by me. But the trust between us has been damaged, and she often questions me about money these days. Gambling had turned me into a liar, and I was only interested in myself. I was not a good Dad to my girls, and I had forced my wife to go back to work to help pay the bills when I knew it was me spending the money.
“Once I had told my wife it felt like a weight had been lifted. She encouraged me to go along to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, which I did, choosing a meeting several miles away from my home town. I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew.
“Once I went to Gamblers Anonymous I had a real sense of hope. I met others like me - up until then I thought I was the only person in the world who had problems with gambling. GA has a 12-Step programme and to be honest it did take me a while to get into it. But it soon became clear that this was just what I needed. GA has helped me to become a better person, and indeed a better parent to my girls.”
One element of GA groups and any 12-Step programme is the notion of a Higher Power. Members come to believe “that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity”. Some people might label this Higher Power as God, others something less concrete.
“For me the Higher Power is more about the support of the other group members. You are never judged, and when you listen to other stories it helps you realise that you are not alone. I found I could identify with the stories of the other people. My wife goes along to the support group for families, Gam -Anon, and she has found that really helpful too. GA has helped me to lead a normal life.”
John had amassed debts from gambling totalling almost £60,000, which he is now paying back over a period of 15 years. He went along to the Citizen’s Advice bureau where staff helped him to prepare a debt management plan.
“These days I am careful about my work life balance, I try to avoid too much stress, and I’ve also found other ways of coping with life’s pressures. I haven’t any urge to gamble at all - my focus is on being a better person and dealing with issues as they arise. One of my children is now a teenager, and I now feel better equipped than ever to deal with any problems that might arise. The GA Serenity Prayer is very helpful. And helping others, such as new members of GA is also very rewarding. Having other interests also makes a big difference – word puzzles, listening to music, reading novels and playing sports with my children all work for me.
“The people who are coming to GA are getting much younger - we have members as young as 15 or 16. And it’s the casino-style Fixed Odds Betting Terminals that are causing all the problems. Around 80-90% of our members had become addicted to these machines. Gambling is an addiction and is growing. Government needs to listen to this, and limit both the number of machines and the stakes.”
C Copyright 2012 Sarah Marten All Rights Reserved