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