Most of the people who contact our service are interested in one thing: stopping gambling completely. The vast majority of people we work with have made numerous attempts to quit gambling and, unfortunately, relapsed. So, just like you, they have realised that they cannot gamble in a moderate or recreational way. Having an unhealthy/addictive relationship with gambling is not a problem - as long as you don't gamble. The real problem is repeatedly convincing yourself that you can gamble safely - when you have so much lived experience evidence to the contrary. Many people cannot have a healthy relationship with gambling - just as many people cannot have a healthy relationship with alcohol or other drugs. While the Government and Gambling Industry must take their fair share of responsibility for facilitating gambling addiction, they can't do your recovery for you (unfortunately). So, here are some tips for starting out on your recovery journey. While some of these are uncomfortable, I know from working with hundreds of people with gambling problems, that the people who do all of these are much less likely to relapse than the people who 'cherry-pick' the easier ones.
How many lies have you told today? How many lies have you told so that you could gamble today? How many lies have you told to keep your gambling hidden from the people around you….your partner, children, parents, brother, sister, friend, team-mate, colleague, employer, the bank, the credit union? How many lies have you told yourself? Maybe you went to sleep last night and your mind was frantic with thoughts of how you could keep things going or believing that, tomorrow, you could have a big win and everything would be ok? Maybe you woke up and those same thoughts were still there, along with a sick feeling in your stomach?
The opportunity to gamble is all around us and technological advances mean that we can gamble in all sorts of ways 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Most people can enjoy an occasional bet but for others there is a downward spiral and what started out with a ‘harmless’ bet ends with financial, psychological and social devastation.
The progression from recreational gambling to problem gambling generally happens in 4 phases:
The first phase ‘winning’ begins with social gambling during which, at some point, the individual experiences a big win. The excitement of the win provides a psychological ‘hit’ and winning is seen as easy.
As the gambling becomes more frequent, the law of averages takes over and the person enters the ‘losing’ phase. Some people develop insight and stop gambling completely or return to having an occasional bet. Others are unable to control their gambling and problems develop as it becomes a priority over family, friendship, work, education and other aspects of their lives.
As the gambling behaviour becomes more prevalent, the third phase ‘chasing’ begins when the person focuses on chasing their losses, gambling more and more frequently in an attempt to win back previous losses. Problem gamblers might take on additional work in order to fund their gambling or pay gambling debts. They may borrow from family or friends, get loans, steal and in other ways exploit family members, friends and colleagues. The individual often has feelings of guilt, shame and increased anxiety but the gambling continues.
The fourth phase ‘desperation’ leaves the individual feeling hopeless. The individual has tried to gamble their way out of a desperate financial situation but failed. Feelings of fear, isolation, depression and guilt become overwhelming and suicide attempts are common. Many problem gamblers continue to gamble, even in the desperation phase but the thrill of the action is sought rather than the money.
The negative impact problem gambling can have on people’s lives has been highlighted recently in the media with the publication of Declan Lynch and Tony O’Reilly’s book ‘Tony 10’ and Baz Ashmawy’s documentary ‘All Bets Are Off’. Many problem gamblers describe how gambling becomes a priority over everyone and everything else in their lives and the preoccupation with gambling brings a feeling of loss of control. The consequences can be devastating for the individual, the family unit and the wider social circle. Family members of problem gamblers describe feeling ashamed, hurt, helpless, afraid, isolated, angry, confused and distrustful. They often struggle to understand how an otherwise rational person can have behaved so irrationally. Many relationships are unable to survive the financial, psychological and emotional fallout and the family unit may break down.
Problem gambling behaviour can frequently go unnoticed. Unlike other addictions, there are no physical signs that something is wrong - no needle marks, no smell of alcohol, no staggering home. Also frequent gambling brings an occasional win and this facilitates the secrecy and can strengthen the level of denial. In my work as a psychotherapist and having completed a number of research studies on the issue of problem gambling, the hidden nature of this addiction is clear. Despite the growing numbers of people experiencing difficulty with their own or a family member’s gambling behaviour, the number of people presenting for counselling treatment is relatively low. The secrecy involved also means that unfortunately the illness is generally well-advanced before help is sought.
Recovery from problem gambling is not easy but it can and does happen. There are a number of services available to help people work towards recovery which are listed in the ‘Resources’ section of this website. Psychotherapy is one such option. Psychotherapy provides clients with the opportunity to explore any issues or problems that they are experiencing in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental and confidential environment.
In my work with clients, the therapeutic relationship is key and the establishment of a strong working alliance with each client based on empathy, mutual trust and respect is vital. For me, the work with someone presenting with problem gambling behaviour requires an open, empathic relationship which is non-judgmental while also strongly challenging the addictive behaviour. The work involves slowing down and calming the frantic thinking, helping the client gain an awareness of how their behaviour is impacting their lives and the lives of the people around them, and supporting the client so that they themselves can confront reality. Clients often describe how losing the need to lie can bring huge relief, a sense of freedom and peace of mind.
While the addictive behaviour needs to be addressed, I also support clients in looking behind the gambling to who they were before the addictive behaviour began and try to identify and explore the issues that led to the spiral into addiction. We generally find that gambling filled some sense of emptiness and part of recovery is finding new, healthy ways to fill that void. As the therapy progresses, we look beyond the gambling and reflect on the opportunities that recovery might bring as the client rediscovers (or maybe discovers for the first time) the life they want to live.
Acceptance of responsibility is an important part of the process of recovery. Change is supported when the client is able to accept what happened in the past and begin to focus on today, taking responsibility for present day decisions and actions. This concept of living in the day is central to the philosophy of the twelve step program of GA. GA is an important tool in recovery and clients are encouraged to participate in their meetings.
Problem gambling behaviour thrives on lies and secrecy and the further into the illness the bigger and the more frequent the lies and the greater the destruction. So if your gambling behaviour is becoming a concern or has gotten out of control, if you are chasing losses or feeling desperate, what would it be like to break that secrecy? What would it be like to not feel the need to lie? What would it be like to talk to someone honestly, open up about your distress and begin to work towards recovery?
Marie Lawlor is a Psychotherapist, based in Dublin 2. Marie's contact details are available here
Last week, I was fortunate to get an advance copy of a soon to be released book, 'Tony 10'. Although I had read much about the fall and rise of Tony O'Reilly, over the years (mostly the fall), I found myself very quickly being immersed in the world of Tony's extreme gambling addiction. This is, in part, due to the inimitable writing style of Declan Lynch - a man who has written about his own recovery (from alcoholism) and who has previously written two excellent books on gambling (Free Money & The Ponzi Man). The other part of this winning formula is the story itself.
Tony's story was headline news at the time. A post office manager stealing €1.75 million (in cash) from his employer, gambling every penny on his online account and going on the run to Carrickfergus (when the jig was finally up) is pretty newsworthy. What Declan and Tony have achieved with this book is to give a crystal clear insight into the mind of a man on an all-consuming, relentless downward spiral into the devastating madness of a gambling addiction. And while the figures are astronomical, the same story could be told of the person who is losing every penny they have on payday (or dole day).
One of the standout features of this book, is the fact that Declan had access to Tony's account history. Tony only ever had one online gambling account (with Paddy Power) - so every transaction could be followed in a clear timeline. Because of this, we get to see Tony's progress from making a €1 bet (from a €50 online voucher he had received as a gift) all the way up to winning - and then losing- nearly half a million over the course of two days.
Tony makes no bones about the fact that he is responsible for his actions and that he stole the money. This is undeniable and unjustifiable. However, it is mind-boggling that any gambling operator could ignore the extremely suspicious behaviour that Tony was exhibiting - without ever once raising concerns regarding money laundering, the source of his 'wealth' or the fact that he clearly had a massive gambling problem. In this case, it was Paddy Power, but it would be difficult to believe that any other gambling operator, licensed in Ireland, would have acted any differently. If ever there was an argument for gambling regulation in Ireland - Tony's case is it.
Tony's case (along with so many other cases of gambling related fraud) also highlights the need for stricter controls in workplaces. Tony was regularly gambling at work, while also stealing vast amounts of money and managing to make it through several audits. A large proportion of the people who contact our service have stolen from their employer to feed their gambling.
While most of the book is like watching a car hurtling towards a cliff edge, it does end on a positive note. After Tony's time in treatment (in Cuan Mhuire), followed by his prison sentence, Tony trains to become an addiction counsellor. I really hope that Tony's work as a counsellor, along with his story, can help others to recover from gambling addiction.
They say Christmas is a time for reflection and the New Year a time for new beginnings.
When I was asked to write this blog I started reflecting on my last few Christmases, some
while I was gambling and others when free from Gambling.
When I was preparing for a talk I gave at a gambling seminar in September this year I was
going through my online betting history for some power point slides. The scale and
frequency of the bets were two things that really stood out; however, another thing that
caught my eye was that over the years when gambling I had been placing bets on Christmas
Day. Not for events on that day, but for events on St Stephen's day, such as racing and football.
On a day when I should have been enjoying spending time with my family I couldn’t help but
check in with my best friend at the time: ‘Paddy Power’. Maybe knowing that I had the bet
placed, helped me get through that day, or made me feel normal.
In 2011 my gambling finally caught up with me. I had stolen money from my employer in
order to fund my gambling addiction. In July that year this had been discovered and I went to
treatment in Cuan Mhuire, Athy. It was a 3 month residential programme and I celebrated my
Daughter’s first birthday there. Not the ideal setting for a birthday party but I knew that I
needed to be there. I finished the programme in October but the relationships with my wife
and family were extremely strained. That Christmas should have been a joyful time, as it was
my daughter’s first real Christmas: she was 16 months old at the time. For me, it was tinged
with sadness, guilt, regret, shame and the fear of what was to come. I remember that,
although I was free from gambling, it was not a happy time. I was still numb. Anger and
resentment were very evident as my family were still getting to terms with what I had done. I
had embarrassed both myself and them with my actions.
Christmas one year on: my actions were rightly punished as I was sentenced to 4 years in
Prison with 1 suspended for false accounting and theft. I spent Christmas week settling into
my new environment and cell in the midlands prison. The highlight of that Christmas in C
wing was the Eastender’s Cliff-hanger when it was revealed which one of the Branning
brothers had been having an affair with Kat Moon. Such is the need for escapism in Prison
that the soaps are hugely popular. The following week I rang in the New Year with Imelda
May amidst the surreal noise of brushes and dinner trays banging off cell doors. I recall this
being a happier time for me even though I was away from my family. There was a real sense
of relief that I had reached this part of my journey. I had been waiting over a year for
sentencing and now that I knew my fate I could get my head down and try get my life back
on track. I felt back in control.
I spent the following Christmas in an open prison and on my own. I had lost my marriage at
this stage but was still bet free. I was really starting to rebuild my life and even though I was
still in Prison I was content. I had starting my counselling course that September and was
aware that the following year there was a good chance that I would be out on Community
Return and get to spend Christmas with my family.
The following year I did get to spend Christmas with my family. However, my mother had
lost her brave battle with cancer and passed away on the 13th of December. It was a sad time;
especially for me personally. I didn’t get to rebuild the damaged relationship with her as I
wasn’t long out of Prison when she died. Even to this day it is a huge regret that she didn’t
get to see me turn my life completely around. I can only hope that she is looking down and
feeling proud. Christmas that year was really tough and my feeling of loss was huge. I was
now over 3 years free from gambling and studying to be an addiction counsellor. My
relationship with my daughter was getting stronger and this bond was the real driving force
for me in my recovery.
Christmas 2015 was when I met my current partner and this was my happiest Christmas for
well over a decade. I really felt that 2016 was going to be a good year. Positive things were
starting to happen for me. I was starting to reap the rewards for all the hard work I put into
my recovery. I had my challenges and obstacles but discovered new ways of coping and
dealing with what life threw at me.
Talking and being open and honest was a new concept to me but today it is what keeps me
from not going back to my old ways. In March 2016 I started my new role in Dublin as an
addiction counsellor. I have been working there since and am seeing a lot with clients with
gambling addictions. I am using both my training and my own personal experience to try
help people who are struggling with this horrendous and growing problem.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones who have managed to break free of the shackles of
problem gambling. I am looking forward to my 7th Christmas bet free and am very grateful to
be able to enjoy it for what it is supposed to be. However, I am also very aware that there are
tens of thousands of people out there struggling with the fallout of their gambling or that of a
family member, friend or work colleague. For them, Christmas this year will be a time of
extreme stress, hurt and money worries. I have been there and it is not a nice place to be
especially at this time of year.
The good news for anyone reading this that is affected by problem gambling is that there is
help out there. Organisations such as The Rutland Centre and Cuan Mhuire provide
residential treatment for people suffering with gambling problems. Other Organisations such
as Problem Gambling Ireland provide all kinds of support for both the problem gambler and
their families. Also, Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon (Family & Friends) meetings are available,
nationwide. I know that going to treatment saved my life and helped me cope with going to
prison and with getting my life back on track. It has been really hard at times but the support
I have received over the years has played a huge part in my recovery. I wouldn’t be in such a
good place had it not being for the kindness and help from numerous amazing people.
For me personally, the most important aspect of recovery and my first step in dealing with
this addiction was accepting that I had a problem. I then had to take responsibility for my
actions and really want to change. I had to find new ways of coping and make a new life for
myself that didn’t have gambling as the focal point. I have managed to this because of sheer
determination to have a better life for myself, my partner and my daughter. I had to get past
the ego, pride and fear and ask for help. This isn’t an easy thing to do and my one real regret
is that I didn’t look for help earlier. I had to really hit the ‘rock bottom’ before I was open to
the healing process. If I was to offer one piece of advice to anyone this Christmas who is
suffering either directly or indirectly with a gambling problem, it is to reach out to someone
and ask for help.
I remember being asked the question at the Gambling Conference- “How are you now?”
I replied “I have never been in a better place, but it is a pity that I had to go to hell and back
to get here. “
**Editor** Huge thanks to Tony for sharing his experience of recovery from gambling. Tony is an addiction counsellor, working with Cuan Mhuire and in private practice. If you wish to contact Tony for counselling, his number is: 0894109813.
It seems fair to say that we live in interesting times. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail's "love that dare not speak its name" has finally come to fruition; a serial-bankrupt, day-glo builder has been selected to rule the world; and a sports-show, funded by a betting firm, discusses gambling addiction three times over the course of one week. If you've been preparing for The Rapture, it's probably time to put on your Sunday best.
The sports-show in question is Newstalk's highly-popular Off The Ball. Last Sunday (27th November), they began their series of discussions with Declan Lynch. Declan had written an article in that day's Irish Independent, entitled: "Is it the right time to derail our gambling supertrain?" Declan has long been at the forefront of raising awareness around gambling addiciton in Ireland and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to highlighting some of the questionable practices of the gambling industry.
At the time, I thought that this was a brave, if somewhat tokenistic move, on the part of the show's producers. Imagine my surprise when, just a few days later (1st December), Ger Gilroy interviewed recovering gambling addict and Tyrone footballer, Cathal McCarron, on the same show. Ger begins by saying: "I think that it's incredibly important that we talk about gambling addiction and about the industry, as well, particularly as, in the sports media, we have a very close relationship with the betting industry and sometimes that can be uncomfortable for us. On a personal level I have seen the devastation that gambling has wreaked on families and on careers." Ger goes on to show himself to be sensitive to, and knowledgable about, the harm caused by gambling addiction.
Just when I was beginning to think that Christmas had come early - ALL of my Christmases came together. This manifested itself in the form of a third discussion on gambling addiction on yesterday's show (3rd December). The panel discussion included Declan Lynch, as well as addiction treatment specialist, Dr Garrett McGovern and recovering substance addict and poker afficionado, John Leonard (AKA, Sober Paddy). The discussion was wide-ranging, intelligent and nuanced. They covered everything from harm-prevention and harm-reduction to the pros and cons of the 12-step treatment model, gambling advertising and the "gamblification" of sport and the sports media. [By "gamblification", I mean the process by which the gambling industry has embedded itself into sporting bodies and media organisations by getting them hooked on their cold, hard cash.]
By the end of the week, I had to take a long, hard look at myself. This no longer looked, sounded or smelled like tokenistic box-ticking from Off The Ball. In fact, this had the whiff of a group of people who might actually genuinely care about the harm that is caused by gambling in this country, while also struggling with the fact that they (and many of their colleagues) are overly-dependent on gambling industry funding.
As an addiction counsellor, I am always looking out for dysfunctional "Black & White Thinking" in my clients. This sort of binary thinking is often a strong indicator of the type of cognitive distortions which can lead to addictions and other issues. "Life is lived in the Grey", I can hear myself saying, over and over again. However, when seeing the harm caused by gambling and other addictions on a regular basis, it can be easy to slip into a Good Guys vs Bad Guys mindset - or, in other words: "If you're not with us, you're agin' us!".
As I work through my own internal conflict on this one, I have to commend Ger Gilroy and the rest of the Off The Ball team on grappling with the Horns of their own Dilemma. It can't be easy to watch the increasing harm caused by gambling in Irish society, while at the same time deal with the financial realities of commercial radio. At least by acknowledging that the "close relationship" can be "uncomfortable" for them, they, to my mind, are making a step in the right direction. As workers in the addiction field will often tell you, "The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem".
Discussion on gambling starts around half-way through the clip.
Barry Grant, Addiction Counsellor, Founder.