Compulsive gambling very costly: It destroys lives, and families, but it can be treated

Going to play bingo was something 49-year-old Judy did to meet people.

The divorced Chatham mom was lonely and wanted a night out. But in less than a year, the weekly outing became an almost daily excursion.

Although she wouldn't admit it at the time, it was becoming a problem.

"I was going every night and I would spend my whole days off from work there," she said.

At first, she was winning.

"It felt great, I would go back thinking I can win more and then I started losing."

When that happened Judy thought all she'd have to do was play more and she'd start winning again. But that wasn't the case.

Instead, she was faced with mounting money problems despite the fact she had a good-paying job.

Her utilities were cut off and she was facing an eviction from her home.

She had problems, but it really didn't hit her until she used her children's Christmas money to play bingo.

"It was the money their grandparents sent them for Christmas," she said. Judy thought she could use it to "settle everything up and then stop."

She thought she could stop whenever she wanted to. But she couldn't.

She lost all the money. It was only then that she realized she needed help and it was only a call away.

Judy saw a notice in a newspaper offering help if you wanted to stop gambling. She called and visited the counsellor that day.

Over the next several weeks he helped to keep her away from the bingo halls. He also helped her realize how serious her problem was.

"It was nothing for me to lose $70 to $80 in one sitting. If I had $20 in my pocket, it was gone."

Judy said it wasn't until later that she realized she'd pick fights with her teenage sons just to have an excuse to leave and go play bingo.

"I gave up a lot of time with my kids."

And she realized her addiction was hurting them.

Mark also realized that his gambling addiction hurt his relationship with his wife and children.

For years he spent more time at the tracks or playing cards than at home.

He recalled how he'd leave work on a Friday afternoon and disappear for the whole weekend. His family wouldn't know where he was and he's merely return to work Monday morning and back home that night.

"I missed out on my children's lives," he said. "My wife raised our five kids herself."

He added he also lost touch with friends, and his wife, after years of trying to help him break his gambling addiction, gave up on him and walked out.

Gambling, said Mark, was merely a way of life. He started playing cards, and placing bets on the outcome, when he was only 10.

"I thought I could win the world without working, just gambling," he said.

Despite years of trying, he never hit that big win.

Mark recalls how he hurt his family.

He worked in a local factory and made good money. But he gambled it away.

"My wife never saw a paycheque," he said.

Mark then took money out of his children's bank accounts. They had worked for the money and were saving it. He gambled it away.

When his wife, who was fed up with his gambling, left, he blamed her.

She took all his credit cards and left.

"I thought she robbed me and left for another guy. I was angry at her."

But he was the one with the problem and at that point, he still didn't realize it.

Over the next two months, he gambled away the last of what he had.

It was a weekend in 1991.

He went to the race track and came back broke.

"I had no gas in the car and no money for food. I tried to borrow money from my kids. They didn't give me any. I tried to sell my car and couldn't do that.

"The bank was after me for my house payments, everyone was after me."

Mark said he paced the floor for hours trying to find a solution to his problems. He went to work that Monday morning and went to see the company nurse.

"I was shaking like a junkie," he said. "I told her I needed help."

She talked to him for hours and put him in touch with people who could help. She also took him to a local meeting of Gamblers Anonymous.

There, Mark said, "I spilled my guts and cried."

He had hit rock bottom. Finally, he was prepared to do something about it.

Those dreams of having lots of money to spend and living the high life without working, weren't going to come true, he said.

He also realized gambling wasn't going to make him a "big shot."

That was 10 years ago.

Mark is now 65 and he's enjoying life.

He's back with his wife and he's finally getting to know his children.

"Today, the kids think a whole lot of me and I can be there for them more. And if they need money or something, I can help."

That means the world to Mark.

But he knows if he starts gambling again, he'll lose them all.

"Gambling addiction is an illness . . . it's a mental compulsion," said Pat Perrin, a gambling addiction counsellor with the Kent County Addictions Program of the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance.

"People become addicted to the behaviour of gambling . . . it's hard to understand."

With alcoholism or drug addictions, Perrin said there's a substance that people are addicted to.

"When a compulsive gambler gambles, it sets off a reaction inside."

Perrin said those feelings differ. They can ease feelings of loneliness and make one feel better about themselves.

Others, he said, may actually get a "high" from the challenge and the risk.

Perrin said there's a "physical aspect of this illness. The brain starts to produce a substance called dopamine which gives you a high."

The common denominator with compulsive gamblers is the loss of control over their gambling.

Most people gamble for entertainment.

"The gambler starts to gamble for other reasons - escape to get away from the pains of everyday life or they may gamble for esteem," said Perrin.

The Kent County Addictions Program, which is offered through the Chatham-Kent Health Alliance, now provides free counselling for gamblers and their families.

Perrin said this is not a new addiction.

"Gambling has been around for years, it just hasn't been as prevalent as it is now. It's more available than anything else."

He said it's not just the casinos, race tracks, but in local variety stores which sell lottery tickets.

Perrin said often the family will seek help before the gambler.

"The family has had enough of the lying and cheating and spending all the money," he said.

He added the family is also tried of being hurt and abandoned.

"When one family member starts to act irrationally it has an affect on the rest of the family," said Perrin.

"The family is a system and you have to start with the part of the system that's looking for help."

He said about four to five per cent of all gamblers become addicted. That gambling, he said, includes everything from lottery tickets to bingos to betting at the races.

Because gambling is so prevalent, it's harder on those who are trying to kick the habit.

"Every time they turn around there's something," he said. At local fast food restaurants there's contests, raffles at church and scratch and save coupons in the mail.

It's on the television, the radio and in newspapers, he added.

The availability, he fears, will translate into more problems in the future.