Tuesday March 28th 2017

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What are the signs, symptoms, and treatment of a gambling addiction?

The Final Bet, Abstinence, and Recovery (Part 3 of 3)

By William “Ted” Hartwell

This article is the final installment of a 3-part series that began with “Odds and Ends: A Personal History of Gambling Addiction and Recovery.” It details my personal struggle with gambling addiction, how I addressed the addiction, and how I maintain my recovery from the addiction today.

Here, we address signs that gambling has become a problem. If you or a loved one need help for a gambling problem, scroll down to the section titled: “Understanding Gambling Addiction and Getting Help”. We invite your questions in the comments section at the end.

A constant obsession

After developing a serious gambling addiction, my days were characterized by a constant obsession to gamble. For two full years, I lied to my wife about my gambling activities, twice coming clean on my own after successive years led to a great deal of hidden debt. The final year that I gambled was a near carbon-copy of the previous couple years:

  • lying about the frequency of gambling
  • lying about the amount I was gambling
  • gambling on work time so that my wife would be unaware I was gambling
  • financing my gambling through hidden credit cards and payday loans

There were a couple important differences, however. This time, the amount of debt I had accumulated was significantly greater than before. And this time, I didn’t come clean on my own about the fact that I’d been gambling again. This time, my wife discovered my hidden debt after performing an online credit check for something completely unrelated.

At the time, I felt it was the worst day of my life. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, today I view it as one of the best of my life, because it was the day that would lead to my finally acknowledging that my life had become uncontrollable due to my gambling. And that, in turn, would lead to my embracing a path of recovery from my addiction.

An end to the belief that gambling could be controlled

For many years, I’d been convinced that somehow I would be able to learn how to control my gambling again. After all, I had gambled for many years for fun, without any significant negative consequences. But once I took a hard look at my behavior over the last few years of my gambling career, I had to admit that despite many attempts to control, cut back, or quit gambling, I had been woefully unsuccessful.

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While I certainly could have done much more financial damage had my wife not discovered the extent of my gambling, it was the idea that I could lose my family much more than the loss of money that allowed me to accept the need for treatment for my addiction.
Employee Assistance Programs for the problem gambler

This time, I used the Employee Assistance Program available through my employer to request a counselor with experience in addiction, preferably with gambling addiction. During my second session, my therapist told me about an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) available through the Problem Gambling Center in Las Vegas. The structure of the program appealed to me, and I began my recovery program in earnest.

The IOP consisted of four 2 1/2-hour sessions a week, in combination with a minimum of three 12-Step meetings a week. Sessions included lectures on the science and psychology of addiction in general, and gambling addiction in particular.

As a scientist myself, it was tremendously important for me to learn about the likely differences in the architecture of my brain and its response to the stimuli provided by gambling. Once I realized that there was a biological basis for my addiction, the understanding that I wasn’t going to be able to change my brain’s biology made it much easier to accept that I wouldn’t ever be able to gamble like a normal person again. Instead, I would need to learn strategies to address urges, and change my behaviors that were associated with my gambling activity.

12 Step programs helped me change behaviors

In a relatively short time I came to appreciate the power of the 12-step program to address the process of changing these behaviors. While 12-Step meetings aren’t for everyone, I found the fellowship particularly affirming. There’s nothing quite like spending time listening to and sharing one’s story with others who have experienced the same inexplicable obsession to gamble, and likewise learning from them the various strategies that have worked for them in keeping their addiction at bay, and the resultant positive and lasting changes they have experienced.
Nine plus years after making my last bet, I can also testify as to the many positive changes that have occurred in my life as a result of maintaining my recovery from gambling addiction. I still try not to let a week go by without attending a 12-Step meeting, and also sponsor several men in the program.

A couple years into my recovery I developed a passion for public advocacy, outreach, and awareness on the issue of problem gambling. I harbor a belief that, in order to decrease public stigma associated with gambling addiction, it is important to put real faces and names to those who suffer from the illness and who are willing and able to share their stories with others. As with other addictions, gambling addiction can and does affect individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual preference, gender, or religious affiliation. There *is* no stereotypical problem gambler…they look just like anyone else you may pass in the street.

Advocacy works helps de-stimatize gambling addiction

My commitment to public advocacy has grown over the years, and I am now employed part time as a consultant to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling in the area of community engagement, and am also honored to serve at the pleasure of the governor of the state of Nevada on the Advisory Committee for Problem Gambling. I’ve also been able to leverage endowment funds available through the research institute I’ve worked at for 25 years to initiate a research study examining the impact of problem gambling in Native American tribal communities in Nevada.

Needless to say, I see my participation in all these endeavours as part of my attempt to make amends to my community for the wrongs I committed when I was practicing my addiction, as well as to carry the message, both directly and indirectly, to others who are suffering from a gambling addiction and their family members.

I’m grateful to have both the desire and opportunity to have shared my story with you, the reader. Any questions?

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:

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.

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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.

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About The Shannon Bybee Working Group

Authors contributing to this blog on Disordered Gambling are all recipients of the Shannon L. Bybee Award, presented by the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling in recognition of proactive commitment to problem gambling advocacy, education, and research. If you believe that you or a loved one may have a gambling problem, please call the 24-hour national Problem Gamblers Helpline at (800) 522-4700 FREE for confidential assistance.

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