By Bea Aikens
After years in “anonymous recovery,” the author was moved to publicly advocate to “humanize and illuminate” compulsive gambling as a disease versus a moral weakness after her sister’s gambling addiction-related suicide.
This article explores the social imperative of educating the community and serving the needs of the compulsive gambler and their family, as seen through the lens of a compulsive gambler in recovery. As always, we invite your comments in the section at the end and hope to hear from you!
Why Anonymity Matters in Gambling Recovery
As a recovering compulsive gambler (what is disordered or compulsive gambling?), I kept a stronghold on my “secret” – I had an invisible addiction that had very nearly taken my life. At work, in social gatherings and in any situation outside of my immediate circle of friends or family, I would never share the fact that I was a compulsive gambler – even though I was in recovery.
Today I wonder, why my shame in recovery was nearly as great as the shame I felt when I was active in my addiction – playing slot machines until ever dollar I could beg borrow or steal was gone, and every shred of integrity I once had was surrendered to the addiction of compulsive gambling. THAT was shameful. The fallout of my addiction was shameful. And yet, as I entered recovery in 1996, and walked many years in recovery from the addiction of compulsive gambling, I remember hearing snickers and derogatory comments about gambling addicts – even within the recovery community.
I am one of the estimated 70% of compulsive gamblers who are co-addicted, so I’ve had first hand experience of the stigma attached to gambling addiction – even from my brothers and sisters recovering from alcoholism. For years I just accepted the unspoken agreement that alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery are to be commended, while gamblers in recovery are to be silent. It seems that since nothing is ingested, no external chemical is introduced, that GAMBLING couldn’t be a REAL addiction.
Only it was.
I could not stop gambling on my own. With the help of professional counseling and a mutual aid group, I did stop gambling one-day-at-a-time, in 1996. But I never spoke of it until I could no longer be silent.
Three (3) life changing words
It would be an injustice to my sister Lanie’s life to reduce it to a 250-word explanation of what was a lifetime of emotional pain and depression that lead to her gambling addiction. It would be a worse injustice not to speak of her death as a result of her gambling addiction.
My sister admitted her own gambling addiction in 2001 and walked in recovery for a time, attending 12-step and mutual aid groups. As happens when an addict in remission is “left unaware and under the right set of circumstances,” Lanie stopped going to meetings and secretly started gambling again sometime after her first year without a bet.
No one knew she was gambling again.
She, too, was ashamed.
She, too, was silent.
Until May 28, 2008 when my precious sister Lanie overdosed on antidepressants and was rushed to the hospital. Lanie was in a coma and she was expected to awaken naturally once the antidepressants wore off. The ICU Physicians wanted to know what medicines she was on, if she had been depressed and if there were any circumstances that I knew of that would cause her to overdose.
Until later that day. Lanie was still in a coma. The family was searching through her vehicle for Lanie’s wallet and insurance cards. They didn’t find the wallet. What they did find were piles of crumpled casino receipts stuffed under the seat; records of wins, ATM withdrawals and many, many, losses. Lanie was gambling again.
As a compulsive gambler myself, I know all too well that gambling addiction is a “secret” disease. It is also called the “invisible addiction” because we don’t have the outward appearance of being altered, we don’t slur our speech or pass out from excess. Yet many die by suicide. The shame and the secrets are overwhelming.
When I told the doctor that I was a compulsive gambler in recovery and I thought my sister was too; that I now knew shed been gambling again, I anticipated that he would understand as I did, that Lanie had intentionally overdosed. Instead he uttered the Three Words that changed my life forever:
“Did she WIN?”
She did not win.
Lanie died on June 2, 2008 at the age of 52. She died from an invisible disease that has the highest suicide rate of any addiction. And the disease is so little understood, and the concept of gambling as a fun social activity is so pervasive that this physician asked – “Did she win?” Those three words changed my life forever.
Are Gamblers in Recovery Anonymous or Invisible?
The doctor’s words changed my life. With time and distance I’ve come to understand that he was on auto-pilot. He wasn’t really listening. AND, like so many, he simply doesn’t understand.
Since my sister’s death, I speak publicly about my own gambling addiction and recovery and have founded a non-profit in her name. I also have come to realize that, like any addiction, any emotional problem, and any social and moral imperative – it can only be addressed if it is taken out of the shadows and into the light.
I once heard the Executive Director of the National Council on Problem Gambling exclaim, “The problem with gamblers in recovery is they’re so anonymous they’re invisible.” The need for public awareness and understanding far outweighs my need for anonymity. Yet the stigma still exists and many in recovery must remain anonymous – to protect their jobs, their reputations and to avoid social ridicule.
What is Social Change in Problem Gambling?
Today, I speak publicly about my own journey and I am honored to work with a group of dedicated Advocates, some in recovery, some not. But all committed to see real social change in their lifetimes. “Social Change” is a broad statement. Yet the opportunities for change are so great, that I can think of no other statement that encompasses the needs of how society views, treats, and serves the needs of the addicted gambler and their family.
I know people who have dowsed themselves with bourbon and chugged vodka, so they could enter rehab for alcoholism because their insurance doesn’t cover treatment of gambling addiction. I have seen a severely depressed woman turned away from treatment because she was not an alcoholic or addicted to drugs. Her problem was gambling addiction, and she couldn’t get treatment.
Social change in problem gambling is vast… but this is what it looks like to me.
“… a world in which problem gambling is understood to be a disease versus a moral weakness; where the compulsive gambler is treated with dignity and compassion; where resources and support are available to the compulsive gambler and their loved ones and mental health services are available to anyone willing to commit to treatment.”
From Addiction to Advocacy
Anyone can be an “advocate.” Just as everyone who supports a walk-a-thon doesn’t necessarily suffer from the disease they are walking for; everyone who advocates for social change in problem gambling need not be a compulsive gambler.
Certainly, those impacted directly by gambling addiction; those in recovery and their families, can walk in recovery rallies, attend community events, support Problem Gambling Awareness Month activities in the month of March, and speak out publicly about the impact of this “invisible addiction.” But the road must be paved whereby it is safe to “come out of the shadows and into the light.”
Thanks to many public figures who have shared their own struggles with drug addiction, alcoholism and other addictions, there is a Recovery Movement is afoot in America. Gambling Addiction must become a part of the discussion, a part of the movement and a part of the social change in America.