What are the signs and symptoms of a gambling addiction?
Hitting it big, gambling addiction, and progressive deterioration (Part 2 of 3)
By William “Ted” Hartwell
This article is the second in a 3-part series that began last month with “Odds and Ends: A Personal History of Gambling Addiction and Recovery.”
We invite you to read Ted’s personal story and learn about his experience as a recovering gambling addict. In this article you will also get a peek into a gambling addict’s thought process, get a better understanding of disordered gambling, and learn how you can recover from the disease. At the end, we welcome your questions and comments and try to provide personal and prompt answers.
Moving to Las Vegas!
After moving to Las Vegas, I began fantasizing about someday entering and winning the World Series of Poker, a tournament that charged a $10,000 entry fee for the opportunity to win $1,000,000+ if one could outlast all the other opponents. I never did enter the World Series of Poker, but the day would come when I would realize that I’d lost enough money, mostly on video poker, to have entered the tournament every year since I’d moved to Vegas.
And yet I never had.
So what happened?
For me, a slow, insidious addiction
While some individuals report becoming quickly addicted to gambling soon after exposure, most of those who eventually become addicted to gambling report an experience somewhat more akin to mine:
- Exposure as an adolescent.
- Followed by a prolonged period or controlled “recreational” gambling.
- Followed by a progressive loss of control over the ability to cease gambling even after the onset of continuing and growing problems in one or more areas of one’s life as a result of the gambling behavior.
What did my controlled “recreational” gambling look like?
For many years after moving to Las Vegas, I played poker once or twice a week in the casinos. My favorite place to play for many years was a small casino on the Strip called Silver City, which I enjoyed primarily because it was a non-smoking venue for much of its history. The stakes were not high, and it afforded a nice, social form of entertainment for me.
In those early years, as a rule I didn’t play the slots or video machines very often, instead tending to focus on live poker, and occasionally playing some blackjack or betting on a sports game where at least I felt there was at least some element of skill that I could sometimes use to my advantage.
With the machines, I reasoned, “You were never going to beat a computer chip over the long run, so why spend much time on them?” I saw them as a real sucker’s bet and even looked down on others who seemed to play them all the time. In spite of this general attitude, I would sometimes sit down and put $20 into a video poker machine while I was waiting for a seat to open up at the poker tables.
Gambling as an escape from discomfort
During this period of my gambling career, I was in control of the amount of money and time I would spend gambling, and didn’t let gambling affect other priorities in my life. I had a live-in girlfriend whom I loved and hoped to have a family with one day, and she was the focus of my attention.
However, a couple years into this relationship I developed a voice disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. I first noticed its effects on my singing voice. I had been singing semi-professionally with a local musical group that was staging a full production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “The Mikado.” I was performing in the chorus, and was also the understudy for the lead role.
When I started to lose some of my vocal control, I decided to rest over the summer, but gradually my speaking voice was affected. The net effect was that I sounded like I had a constant case of laryngitis, with an associated tremor in my voice. While there was no physical pain associated with the disorder, it made speaking with others particularly unpleasant. I often had to “force” the sound out to be heard, and I wearied of constantly explaining what was wrong with my voice.
Social isolation and gambling to escape
Gradually, I withdrew from communicating with family and friends, including my girlfriend, and began isolating socially. This is my earliest recollection of using gambling as an escape to avoid interacting with other people, and it more often than not involved gambling on video poker machines or other slots, as I could then avoid getting into conversations with anyone other than the cocktail waitresses.
While it would be many more years before gambling would begin to affect me financially, this is one of the earliest times I can look back on in hindsight and say that gambling was beginning to fulfill a purpose other than entertainment in my life.
The loss of my singing voice and ability to communicate effectively, something that was important for my job as well, was devastating for me emotionally. While I would later discover an effective treatment for my disorder in the form of annual Botox injections given directly into the vocal cords, my isolation in the meantime ended my relationship with my girlfriend, and led to a direct change in my gambling behavior.
When I later hit my first major jackpots playing video poker, something fundamentally changed in the way I thought about gambling. I played less and less live poker until the day came that I was playing video poker almost to the exclusion of other types of gambling that I had previously viewed as entertainment.
The phases of gambling addiction
Looking back on my gambling “career,” I can identify three distinct phases:
1. The first was when I had control over the limits I would set on what I could afford to lose – when my gambling was purely for entertainment and to socialize.
2. The second phase was characterized by a progressive loss of control over both the limits and time I would spend gambling. This phase was characterized by periods of confusion for me, as I would frequently set a monetary or time limit on my play, believing that I’d be able to stick to it, and then be surprised and dismayed when the allotted money ran out and I’d find myself marching straight to the ATM to withdraw my money, ostensibly so I could win back my losses (chasing losses is one of the nine diagnostic criteria used for diagnosing a gambling disorder).
3. In the final phase, which I associate with my gambling addiction having become full-blown, I would often set limits in my head, already knowing (but not really caring) that I was not going to be able to keep to any limits I set for myself.
A full-blown gambling addiction: Lying and hiding
In the early 2000’s, not too many years after my gambling behavior started to change, I met and married a woman who professed to an enjoyment of playing blackjack and Pai Gow. We would occasionally, and then more frequently, go out gambling together. I had by this time mostly “graduated” to playing video poker. She would ask me to play at the tables with her, and would get upset with me for “playing my cards wrong.” I would ask her to play video poker with me and would get upset when she would “hold the wrong cards.”
Gambling became a source of greater and greater friction in our marriage, and was beginning to affect our finances, and we decided we should stop gambling altogether. She was able to do so, and I did for a few months, but then, unbeknownst to my wife, I began gambling again. This is the first time I can recollect ever lying to someone about my gambling behavior. There were many more to come!
Finances and lying: Signs of gambling disorders
During this final period of desperation, I would often develop strategies to try and control my own gambling. For example, I would leave my ATM in the car, thinking that the inconvenience of walking out to the car would keep me from withdrawing additional funds (it didn’t!). Later I would actually leave it at home. To my surprise, this didn’t stop me from driving all the way back home to get it…it simply added a level of anger and disgust at what I was feeling toward myself at my inability to stop gambling.
I look back at the time I first started lying to my wife (by omission) about my gambling behavior as the time when my gambling behavior had become a full-blown addiction. Since it was important that my wife not know I was gambling again, I had to get my money from hidden sources:
- new credit cards taken out in my name that were sources for cash advances
- payday loans
- auto title loans
…sources of money that were not visible in the day-to-day management of our finances
I had credit card statements delivered to my workplace rather than my home, so that she wouldn’t inadvertently open a statement and see what I was doing.
Hiding the fact that I was gambling from my wife also meant that most of the time I was spending gambling had to occur outside of the hours that I would normally be home from work. Which meant that I began gambling primarily during work hours. I was able to get away this since I was a salaried employee and did not punch a time clock, and my supervisor lived in Reno.
I had many employees working for me, and could sometimes delegate tasks to them, disappearing for a long lunch…sometimes not coming back into work after lunch at all. I had various lies I would tell my co-workers, and I would try to use the same lies with my wife, if necessary, so that in the event she and they would bump into each other and talk, they would have the same story. Work that I did not get done during the day meant that I would often have to work late at home to finish reports/articles that I would have otherwise gotten finished at work, thus stealing time from my family.
A full blown obsession with gambling
My entire life became obsessed with figuring out how I would get the money to go gamble, figuring out the time during the day when I could get away to gamble, and juggling the various lies I was telling everyone in my life about what I was or was not doing.
It was exhausting.
What are gamblers thinking?
My thought process about gambling was completely distorted and irrational.
Gambling became about trying to win back what I had lost yesterday, or the week before, or the month before that. But no matter the financial outcome of my gambling, I never could seem to figure out how to stop, even when I would have a large win.
If I found myself winning, I would think, “I’m playing on the casino’s money…I should try to win more.”
If I found myself approximately even after an extended amount of play, I thought, “Well, it’s like I just walked in…I should try to win something.”
If I was down a lot of money on a specific outing, I would think, “I need to keep playing until I get back to even.”
And on and on it went.
I recall reading a collection of jokes in a book once. One of the jokes was called “The Gambler’s Prayer.” It went something like this: “Dear Lord, please let me break even…I could really use the money.” I remember thinking that it was hilarious, an indication that I had probably already crossed that invisible line into uncontrolled gambling…because I understood exactly and could personally identify what those words meant.
Over the course of about two years, I came clean to my wife twice on my own about the fact that I was gambling again, and had run up substantial debts associated with my gambling. Two separate times we refinanced the mortgage on our house to pull equity out we had built up. Each time the debt was significantly greater, and each time, after a period of abstinence, I went back out, convinced that I could control my gambling “this time,” with disastrous results.
In next month’s conclusion to my story, I will focus on the process of getting into recovery from my gambling addiction, and how that has changed my life. In the meantime, please explore the resources available below.
Understanding gambling addiction and getting help
So, how can you recover from gambling addiction? Getting help for a gambling problem starts with the recognition that gambling is negatively impacting one or more areas of one’s life.
I’m sharing my story with you, in hopes that it may help you or a loved one understand that you not alone in your struggles, and that there are many sources of help available to begin to recover from the illness of gambling addiction.
Here are some resources that can provide those suffering from a gambling addiction as well as their family members and friends with immediate assistance and/or more information on gambling addiction:
- 24-Hour Confidential National Helpline: 1-800-522-4700
- National Council on Problem Gambling
- Gamblers Anonymous
- Gam-Anon (for family and friends)
- International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors
Gambling addiction and recovery questions
Do you have any questions regarding gambling addiction and recovery options? Please leave them in the designated section below. We will try to respond promptly to all legitimate questions and provide a personal feedback. In case we don’t know the answer to your inquiry, we will gladly refer you to someone who can help.
About the Author: William “Ted” Hartwell is an Associate Research Scientist with the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education in Las Vegas, Nevada, and facilitates Community Engagement for the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling. He also serves on the Nevada State Advisory Committee for Problem Gambling, and was the 2014 recipient of the Shannon L. Bybee Award. He is a disordered gambler in long-term recovery and advocates for public awareness and understanding of problem gambling.
Photo credit: caro_oe92