Problem gambling: Help and healing for the family

What can you do if you’ve uncovered a gambling problem in the family? Advice from someone who knows. Syndey Smith is an internationally certified gambling counselor and former spouse of a problem gambler. More here.

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By Sydney Smith, LCP and Internationally Certified Gambling Counselor

A loved one is gambling.

Too much. Too often. And, with devastating effects.

What can you, as a loved one, do to help?

This article will focus primarily on the family or those affected by someone with a gambling problem. My observations will come from two perspectives, one as a psychotherapist and internationally certified gambling counselor and the second as the former spouse of a problem gambler.

If you’re looking for help, we hope to point you in the right direction! But if you still have questions at the end…let us know. Send us your questions or comments in the comments section. We’ll try to respond to you personally and promptly.

Effects of gambling on the immediate family

It is very common for family members of the gambler to be the first seek out help, often because they want to know how to get the gambler to stop gambling or how to “fix” the gambling problem. With gambling addiction, family members often experience most of the consequences of the gambler’s addiction. They also frequently experience problems in other areas of their own life—physical, emotional, financial, etc. Having someone with a gambling problem in the family can be very stressful for ALL family members, and it is those in the immediate family that usually feel the effects the most.

Due to high stress levels, spouses often experience symptoms of depression as well as anxiety. If the amount of stress persists over an extended period of time, these symptoms will be more severe and the spouse may even begin to experience:

  • panic attacks
  • suicidal thoughts
  • severe depression

Additionally, somatic symptoms related to physical health can surface.

Before you take the first step…

One important thing to think about when considering what steps to take next has to do with how the gambling problem was discovered or revealed. An understanding of how family members, especially in the case of the spouse, found out about the gambling can be critical in the next action steps to follow.

Problem gambling is a very sneaky and powerful disease, and different from other addictions in that it can be hidden for a very long time before anyone knows of the severity of the addiction. Unlike drug addicts, gamblers can look very normal even when they are deep into their addiction. Their physical body is usually not affected in the very visible ways other addictions can manifest. I can test for many other addictions, but I can’t test for gambling. I can’t identify it in the blood or smell it on the gamblers breath—in this way it is an invisible disease.

Some spouses are unaware of the reasons for noticeable changes in the gambling addict’s behavior, usually knowing there is something wrong but not able to put their finger on it. Then, all in the space of one day, the spouse may find out about the gambling and the majority of the consequences.

The severity of the gambling and the devastation can be overwhelming. Within a very short period of time, the spouse may find out that everything they owned—home, savings, 401k, car—is all gone. The life that they thought they knew no longer exists. Alternatively, they may be aware of the gambling and may even have lived with it and watched it progress over the years. Family members who live with years of knowing and dealing with the disease in their life also see their own problems get worse over the years.

Knowing something is wrong…

There were times early in my ex-husband’s gambling addiction that I would accompany him to the casino, just to spend time with him. I hated going and would get bored very quickly but I continued to do it. As his disease progressed, he began hiding his gambling and would not tell me how much and how often he was going. For a long time, I knew something was wrong but I wasn’t sure just what. I was even trained at this time as a gambling therapist.

Denial can be very strong!

However, looking back, I really believe the problem was hidden for a long time. When I did find out the extent to which he had been gambling, I did not want to believe it. I had money disappearing all the time; our joint bank accounts would be drained, he never had money to help with the bills.

The day I noticed my checks were missing and found that he had used them to take out payday loans was the day I really knew and had the proof that he had a severe gambling problem. Things only got worse from that point on. I continued to live with him and his gambling problem for several more years while his gambling progressed to a point that I knew, for my own sanity, I could not continue to live with him if he was gambling. He was not willing to get help.

One can be very knowledge about the disease, yet still be equally affected. Problem gambling does not care who you are, what you do, or how much money one makes, it will take a soul just the same and cause incredible wreckage to the family along the way.

What you can do about problem gambling in the family

So what can be done when one knows they are living with problem gambling in their home? Although there are many things a family member can do, I will list a few high priority suggestions as a professional and as someone who has lived with a gambler.

1. Asset protection, first and foremost.

This involves taking an honest look at the financials. I suggest running a credit report and ensuring that no credit cards or loans have been taken out in the family member names. Remove the gambler’s name from any joint bank accounts as soon as possible, as well as from home deeds and car titles.

All too frequently a spouse may find that a second mortgage has been secretly taken out on their home, or a loan taken against a vehicle. Remove any access to money and things of value immediately. If one feels comfortable enough, take over the bills and monthly finances. This will ensure things are getting paid and taken care of, also lowering the risk of more “surprises.”

2. Seek counseling or support group attendance.

After asset protection is complete, I encourage the family members to seek out their own help or counseling. This can take the form of professional help and/or attendance at 12-step meetings like Gam-anon. Gam-Anon is similar to Gamblers Anonymous (GA), except it is designed for the family or those affected by someone else’s gambling. When seeking out professional help, look for a counselor who is certified in problem gambling or has had specific training on the treatment of problem gambling. Finding the right professional help can be crucial to the family’s recovery process.

3. Talk it through with others who you trust.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to talk about the gambling. Problem gambling is a very shame-based disease and this can keep family members from talking about it, getting help, and even getting better. Anger is an emotion that is often felt much more intensely by family members of problem gamblers than with any other addiction. I have yet to meet a spouse of a gambler that was not full of anger, and sometimes even rage. Having a safe person and place to talk about these feelings and to be validated by what they have experienced is important for a person to experience healing.

4. Focus on yourself and your own recovery.

Family members often come to treatment to learn how to “fix” the gambler or get them to stop gambling. I too have been guilty of this action. However, seeking help is much more about the family or the person reaching out and learning how to experience their own recovery than it is for the person with the gambling addiction. Family members should know that they can take action now without having to wait on the gambler to acknowledge that they have a problem. They can take the first steps and can create change.

Recovery can influence everyone in the system

In closing, I would like family members know that regardless of whether or not the gambler chooses to stop gambling, the family can get better and find hope and healing through their own recovery journey.

About the Author: Sydney Smith, CEO of RISE Center For Recovery in Las Vegas, Nevada, is a psychotherapist and Internationally Certified Gambling Counselor, currently active in her practice which has a specialty focus on the treatment of problem gamblers and their family members. She also works as a researcher with the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, NV. She was the 2016 recipient of the Shannon L. Bybee Award.
About the author
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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