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The High Stakes of Gambling Addiction
By Judi Bailey, L.P.C.C.
An addiction to gambling can be a losing hand. For sufferers, survivors and their families, God's healing grace is critical.

Q U I C K S C A N

Spiritual Awakening
Playing Becomes Easier
Harmless Fun or Russian Roulette?
The Causes of Addiction
High Stakes
Deeper and Deeper
Know When to Fold 'Em

Photo from Comstock Images/Alamy

"One night I was going to take my life,” says Pastor John Eades. “I was filled with self-loathing, in the midst of a terrible depression and angry at myself, the casino and the world. I constantly felt foolish and stupid.

“I reached for the gun; it wasn’t in the glove compartment where it always was. Here my wife had taken it to sell, in order to pay the electric bill.”

Planning to kill himself didn’t stop his gambling, though, nor did his wife’s suicide attempt some time later. “The first time I played slot machines I loved it. In three months I was a full-blown addict. Within four years I had lost everything.”

John describes going as long as 36 hours without eating or taking medication while gambling. And there was that awful shame. “I even urinated on myself while sitting at the slot machines.”

Spiritual Awakening

John moved to Tennessee to “get away from it.” But the wreckage to John and his family continued. “My daughter was very, very depressed,” he says. “She had hid in the woods to take her life by overdose. We were all looking for her; in fact, we had a search party out. That night it was supposed to get below freezing. But, instead, when the temperature reached 36 degrees, it started to warm up.

“There were a lot of miracles that night. The biggest, of course, was that we found her in time. We also found dead coyotes next to her. The wonders of this evening were not just something that I experienced. Twenty to 30 people had a spiritual transformation as well: the search party, family members, everyone helping.”

This extended to John’s recovery miracle as well. “God loved me so much that he broke me,” he says. As a result, John began working toward abstinence through Gamblers Anonymous and his church. He was moved to write down his story that later appeared as the book Gambling Addiction: The Problem, the Pain and the Path to Recovery.

John became a minister and began helping gamblers. Now with eight years of abstinence, Pastor Eades writes and speaks on the subject of gambling addiction and has been on panels with other national experts.

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Playing Becomes Easier

A recovering gambler in her late 60s, Victoria (not her real name) had a spiritual awakening when she was pressured to go to Gamblers Anonymous by her husband. “At my first meeting I was the only woman. I couldn’t tell you how I felt; all I know is that I cried the whole time. I cried through the second meeting, too. I just felt bad.”

Victoria’s betting activities took place in bingo halls. “I would see other women buying these pull-tabs,” she says. “At first I’d think, ‘They’re so foolish buying those tickets,’ and then I became one of those foolish women! Once you win your first $100, it becomes easier and easier to play.

“It’s a sickness. I knew it was even before I went for help. It had to be. It eventually escalates. You play a little more, then a little more.”

Victoria went to Gamblers Anonymous when her husband discovered the extent of her gambling. Even though it has been six years since she yanked her last pull-tab and even though it has been six years of attempting to make up for harms done, Victoria still has a lump in her throat when she talks about how much she hurt her family.

“He was furious,” she explains about her husband’s reactions. “He felt degraded. He blamed himself in a way. His response was, ‘What have I not given you?’

“We have a nice place and I have everything I want,” Victoria says. “It’s just a sickness. He didn’t understand that yet.”

Harmless Fun or Russian Roulette?

It is easy to see that John and Victoria have gambling problems, but how is that different from fun, harmless gambling? According to Dr. Valerie Lorenz, founder and clinical director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, Maryland, it’s all about control.

“The fun gambler has control and has no trouble stopping,” she says. “They go out for enjoyment, social gambling, pleasure. Their wagering does not interfere with normal life functions. Compulsive gamblers have no control over their gambling. They do not bet for fun but to escape an intolerable reality.”

Addicted gamblers have lived with incredible emotional pain for years. Most come from troubled homes. “Easily 80 percent of our gamblers come from alcoholic or addicted homes where their parents were poor role models. Therefore, the child never learns control.

“People have no idea how torturous this is,” says Dr. Lorenz. “Most people think that gamblers are selfish and don’t care about anyone else.”

The Causes of Addiction

People become enticed to gamble for numerous reasons. Gaming grows more visible—and more available—each day: Roadside billboards show flashy harness racing, television ads announce “World Series of Poker” tournaments and Internet gambling sites grow faster than backyard weeds. But no one wants to develop a problem.

More Americans go to casinos than to all sporting events combined, according to Norman G. Kruedelbach, Ph.D., of the Gambling Treatment Program at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. Since the pace of legalized gambling has grown so fast, it’s difficult to keep up with the numbers. Gamblers Anonymous estimates that there are at least 10 million problem gamblers nationwide.

Is it just availability that has amplified the problem? Pastor Eades believes that addiction is a function of body chemistry. Dr. Lorenz points more to environmental stressors.

“It’s quite a complicated matter,” says Lori Rugle, Ph.D., coordinator of the Brecksville Gambling Treatment Program near Cleveland, Ohio. “There are multiple factors.” She recognizes four:

Biological vulnerability. “Genetic and neuro-imaging research has indicated that there is a vulnerability, maybe not specific for gambling, but for addictions.”

Learned vulnerability. “As the result of neglect and/or abuse, growing up in addicted, gambling or otherwise dysfunctional families, people learn to trust the unpredictable and not to trust the predictable. Neither do they learn to soothe their own emotions.”

Social situation. Dr. Rugle pointed to the increase of gambling availability, growing stress in the environment including unemployment and the lack of a social support system.

Spiritual realm. “The vulnerability to gamble may also come from an overly rigid religious background, ‘hellfire and brimstone’ thinking, from blaming and shaming, or from the opposite—an antisocial, what’s-in-it-for-me? environment.”

High Stakes

Built into this disorder is the inability of gamblers to recognize how their behavior is hurting them and their family. Friends feel confused and hurt as their pal lives a more hidden, vague existence. Employers suffer from bettors leaving work early, gambling at work or missing days. But nowhere is the pain deeper than in the gambler’s immediate family.

The compulsive gambler is like a runaway boat tearing through the harbor of home, leaving the family tossed about in its wake. The children often become moody and confused as the bettor rides from despair to elation. They feel lost and betrayed, as they have to fend for themselves: The bettor has gone to gamble and the other parent is experiencing bewilderment, panic, anguish and rage.

There are huge costs to the family: financial losses in addition to profound wounds of the heart and soul. For example, 11 percent of wives of gamblers attempt suicide and 25 percent of children of compulsive gamblers have behavior and/or adjustment problems. Many go on to become addicted to gambling.

“The greatest part of the family’s pain is focused around the deception and the lie,” Dr. Rugle says. “I frequently hear them say, ‘You lied to me!’ ‘How could you?’ and ‘How could I have been so stupid, so gullible?’

“It’s almost an emotional rape,” Dr. Rugle says. “Families feel a ‘you-took-this-from-me’ pain. It’s much more painful than just the money used.”

Prior to family recovery, there is a high incidence of suicide in these families, for both spouses and children. “It’s pretty sad to hear a six-year-old say, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’” says Dr. Lorenz. Because of the great amount of pain in the family, younger members often feel neglected and, as a result, unloved. There is a greater occurrence of depression, anxiety and cynicism as the child learns not to trust promises made by the parent who gambles.

Deeper and Deeper

As time goes on, the gambler is no longer betting just in order to win, but instead to recover growing losses. Gamblers refer to this as “chasing,” the frantic pursuit of lost money. And in order to recoup, they take bigger and bigger chances leading to more and more losses.

“At least while he’s gambling,” says Dr. Lorenz, “he has a place to escape these growing worries. Gamblers describe it as ‘getting lost in the zone.’ Then when the fog lifts they start to see how much money they lost.

“This leads to guilt, which triggers the urge to get back to the zone. When they stop, the guilt, inadequacy and remorse return so they’re tempted to revisit the zone. It’s a cycle of torture.”

The compulsion has already sent a deep wedge between the gambler and God. Now the addiction drives the gambler to do things he or she never would have considered before. These could include theft, embezzlement, prostitution, drug trafficking and other activities. Despair and depression increase, leading to confusion and panic that instigate poorly calculated bets, causing even more losses.

Some individuals never regain anything close to life before betting. Spouses leave. Children refuse contact. The gambler swings from being angry and abusive to being a hopeless hermit. Eventually, the gambler even stops betting. Not only does the gambler not have the money to wager, but also there is little physical or mental energy to do so. Some wind up in mental institutions or jails or living on the street. One out of every five players attempts suicide.

Many gamblers, however, reach recovery.

Know When to Fold 'Em

Individuals reach recovery in a variety of ways: a spouse threatening divorce, a suicide attempt by a family member, being fired from work or running out of money. Gamblers obtain help through counseling, self-help groups such as Gamblers Anonymous and their church.

Victoria says she thanks God every day that she doesn’t have to gamble. She has always believed in God and gone to Mass, but now she also utilizes her religion—and an active prayer life—in her recovery. She also attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings.

“I have to go to my meetings,” she says. “Meetings make it. You hear other people and their problems and listen to how others solve things. You learn you’re not alone. We tell our ‘clean dates’—when we quit gambling. This gives new people the hope that, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’

“There are also telephone lists; there’s always someone to call if you feel you want to gamble. There’s a true sense of unconditional love for each other. It’s not uncommon to see members hugging, giving their phone numbers to each other, talking after the meeting to help to share their own experiences or answer questions.”

After a period of time, Victoria says that it’s important to get active. After having used a hotline in her area, she began to volunteer to answer it. “It’s good to know that you can help others out.”

Ex-gamblers learn that it is important to keep in mind the painful consequences of their own activities.

“We usually tell newcomers to attend as many meetings as possible,” Victoria says. “We then say, ‘If you want to quit gambling, that’s our problem. If you don’t want to quit gambling, that’s your problem. Give us 90 days. If you don’t feel better, we’ll regretfully refund your misery.’”

“The longer I’m in this field,” Dr. Rugle says, “the more I realize the importance of the spiritual in recovery. Gamblers are so disconnected. This is a real hard piece for them, connecting thoughts to their feelings, connecting to others. It’s all a spiritual process. By the time they get help, they are half-dead. They feel they don’t fit in; they’re not a part of anything. You have to awaken the spirit.”

She states that gamblers need to acknowledge what they did wrong, make amends to those they wronged and begin the integration of new and old values into their life. “Part of the awakening is also looking at what is positive in life.”

Many see that positive in God and in their families. For restoration to occur, each member needs to express feelings. Psychologist Roger Barrett, Ph.D., of Canton, Ohio, says that negative feelings are like a cork that needs to be popped in order to begin letting out the good feelings. In time, anger becomes forgiveness; despair leads to declaration.

John Eades began his recovery in Gamblers Anonymous but, for him, the answers were in his church. “You learn about God in church,” he says. In fact, his recovery and the message he brings to others are based on the story of the Prodigal Son: coming home again.

“Gamblers have to come to themselves and say, ‘I will arise and come home. It can’t get any worse than this.’” Pastor Eades tells gamblers to go to Bible study groups and services.

On their own, gamblers are helpless. If they surrender their addictions to God, gamblers can, and do, recover.          

To contact Gamblers Anonymous, call (213) 386-8789 or write to P.O. Box 17173, Los Angeles, CA 90017. To find the center nearest you, log on to www.gamblersanonymous.org.


Judi M. Bailey, L.P.C.C., is a licensed counselor and has a master’s degree in education. She is a member of NAADAC (National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors) and has extensive experience in working with gamblers and their families. Currently, she lives in Canton, Ohio.


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