To an outsider Ben had his life sorted. Articulate, intelligent and confident, with a degree in Sports Science he went on to build a successful career for himself in business. There was enough money to enjoy the finer things in life – in theory at least. But Ben was to become under the grips of an addiction to gambling, which led him to lose his livelihood, rake up huge debts and drove him to the point of suicide.
Read Ben’s story as told to Sarah Marten for Gambling Watch UK.
“My journey into gambling addiction started in an innocent enough way. Every year my parents took me, with my two older brothers and a friend to Dorset for our summer holiday. Like many families, we visited the penny arcades on the seafront. I was given some money to waste, about a pound which was changed into pennies. I had a great time, and just saw it as harmless fun.
“It wasn’t until I l left school that I became involved in more serious gambling. Whilst working at my uncle’s pub to raise money for my gap-year travels I started to use the fruit machines. Using these machines gave me pleasurable feelings, and I started to experience a “high” which made me want to play again and again.”
It got to the point where Ben was losing around 80% of his wages on the machines, which made saving for travel pretty difficult.
“Gambling was always a solitary activity for me, one that was just about me and my own world. It provided an escape from my problems. Part of me wanted to stop and I thought “this is doing me no good” but I was unable to do so. Losing large sums of money made me feel sick to my stomach, and I was also concerned that my parents would find out.”
Going away from home to university can be a challenging time for any young person, but Ben managed to stay away from the machines during his first year. But this was soon to change.
“As my course progressed and the pressure started to mount I started to put all my spare money into gambling again. Gambling became an escape from reality. I started to make excuses about not meeting up with friends. Going out with them was appealing, but I needed my money for something else – gambling. This meant that I was becoming socially alienated. I wanted to be alone – alone in an arcade. My friends had no idea what was going on.
“During my third year at university I was made a “Hall Senior” which meant that my rent and meals were paid for. There was money left over from my student loan which I spent on fruit machines. The whole of my student loan was gambled in this way. On top of that I had a large bank overdraft for a student - £2000. When added to the student loan I had accrued debts of £5500 - all down to gambling. At this stage I thought “I can stop this if I want to”. But I didn’t really want to.”
Despite all his problems with gambling Ben obtained his degree and started work. His job involved a commute, and in the evenings he would stop off at the pub near the station and play the fruit machines there. He soon found he was unable to pay his rent, which led to his family becoming aware of his problems for the first time.
“My mother was hugely supportive and told me about the charity Gamcare, which gave me the support and understanding I badly needed. I thought “at last someone understands what I am going through”. Up until now I had felt stupid, isolated and alone. After contacting Gamcare I felt that a weight had been lifted. I also attended a couple of Gamblers Anonymous meetings, and although I went along with an open mind, it wasn’t really for me.”
This isn’t the end of Ben’s story. The next two years were starting to look good, with promotions at work, enough money to rent a flat, and the support of close family living nearby. But the lure of gambling was too strong for Ben to overcome.
“I found fruit machines enticing and boredom was part of it as well. I’ve always needed lots of stimulation – my mum always said I was a hyperactive child. At this stage my job was going well and I had been given a company car as I needed to travel around the UK. But this travel contributed to my downfall.
“The job involved regular nights away staying at hotels, which were inevitably close to pubs, and within the pubs were fruit machines. I had more disposable income than ever before, but to pass the time I started gambling again, and regularly lost around £800 to £900 each month in pub fruit machines and arcades. My job started to become much more pressurised, and my gambling basically went through the roof.
“Games like Reel King and Monkey Business in the arcades were my favourite. I was playing on Category B3 machines with £500 Jackpots, which preceded Fixed Odds Betting Terminals with a multitude of different games. It was easy to lose £200 in one evening or more over the course of a weekend”
But worse was to come for Ben when he was entrusted with a company credit card, intended for hotel bills and the like. He used the card to fund his gambling addiction, and accrued £1500 in debt.
“When I lost my job I knew I had hit rock bottom. In some ways there was a sense of relief as I had been found out. This was the worst it could get and I knew I had to put a stop to things once and for all. Even suicide crossed my mind at this stage as a way out. I needed “Big Help” and I knew that.
“I was very lucky to be offered a place at a residential treatment centre, The Gordon Moody Association. The combination of individual therapy, group cognitive behaviour therapy and just being with people who understood me made all the difference. I was there for fifteen weeks in total. I also had help from the only NHS gambling clinic in the country, based in Soho, London, which was really helpful too. Everyone came from different walks of life, but we were all coming from the same place.
“Gambling can become an addiction just like drugs or alcohol. I’ve not gambled for the last eighteen months, but of course I do have urges. Willpower is a big part of my abstinence, and as I’m currently out of work I don’t have the financial means to gamble. The real test will be when I am earning again. Finding something that can replace gambling addiction is difficult, but having a supportive family and friends has made a real difference, along with help from gambling organisations.
“My advice to other addicts is to realise that you aren’t on your own. Gambling addicts have a real tendency towards isolation. There is help out there, but there isn’t enough. I believe that gambling is going to become an even bigger problem with increasing levels of anti-social behaviour and crime. Schools need to provide education on gambling, in the same way that they do for drugs and alcohol. Children need to know the dangers of gambling. The modern machines create situations which the brain finds addictive, as they are geared to near misses.
“Gambling addiction will be with me for life. But I feel hopeful for the future, and I plan to work as a volunteer with gambling addicts. Helping others is something I feel I can do.”
C Copyright 2012 Sarah Marten All Rights Reserved