An emotional addiction (Video lottery terminals)

The introduction of video lottery terminals (VLTs) to Ontario this fall has generated mixed emotions. The predicted windfall for the government ranges from $260 million to $550 million a year. Proceeds will also go to charities and site owners, and two per cent of government revenues are slated to fund gambling addiction prevention, treatment and research. But in western provinces, VLTs account for the majority of problems among people in treatment for compulsive gambling.

Here, four people with VLT addictions describe how their problems began. All names have been changed

Candace Johnson, 39, worked for the Saskatchewan government for 14 years.

I first played VLTs on weekends when I went to visit my parents in eastern Saskatchewan. The machines came to Regina soon after, and then I began to play whenever I could.

At that point, I was working temporary part - time jobs. Before, I had been a secretary in a minister's office. My job ended after the 1991 election, and I struggled to find a permanent position after that. I was really starting to lose confidence in myself.

VLTs became a source of trying to increase what few resources I had. I spend more and more time on them and cared less and less about friends, family and myself.

You can really lose money quickly. The maximum bet is $2.50. So if you do 10 spins, which take about 30 seconds, you lose $25. You can easily drop $300 or $400 in an hour or two.

My parents recognized my problem at an early stage, and so did I. They bailed me out a few times with phone bills, power bills and rent. In 1994, I couldn't afford to pay my rent anymore, so I moved in with my parents. That was devastating to me, since I had taken care of myself for so long. I became depressed.

I kept playing VLTs in town. Then I began writing bad cheques to cover my gambling. I owed one bar almost $1,000.

Last fall I was charged with fraud and ordered to pay restitution. But I kept gambling and writing bad cheques. I thought I'd earn money and put it in my bank account to cover those cheques.

One day I drove to a smaller town to play. I was scared, and instead of going home, I drove away.

I lived in my car for the next two and a half months. It was the middle of winter, and it was a cold winter. I stole a few purses as a survival measure. I forged names on thestolen cheques to get cash.

I wasn't raised that way. I was really, really scared. On March 31, I was picked up by Saskatoon city police. That was probably the best day of my life. I was in custody until May 9.

As part of my sentence I have to wear an electronic monitoring device on my ankle until November 9, and then I'm on probation for two years. I'm confined to my apartment, apart from certain scheduled appointments.

I'm in treatment and I go to a women's gambling group once a week. I've started attending church, which has been a saving grace.

I'm feeling so much better than I have in the past few years.

The temptations and urges are still very strong. I would like to be able to not have those desires. But I feel fortunate that I've survived.

Anita Dubey

Armand Martineau, 44, lives in Prince Edward Island. His ongoing battle with schizophrenia has been complicated by substance abuse and, more recently, a gambling problem.

It started eight years ago -- playing poker for money and stuff. I had been sober three years and I think the gambling was a substitute dependency -- it filled the void, the action that I was missing.

It got to the point where every time I got my cheque, I'd phone up my buddies to get a card game going. After a while, they wouldn't play with me anymore.

That's when the machines came into the picture. The VLTs were still illegal in PEI when I started but they had them in pool halls.

I'm on a limited income from my disability benefits, so I'd get up in the morning and start thinking about some scheme to get money to gamble.

In the last few years, I was playing at the corner store. My favorite machine is there.

I won $1,000 in one day a few months ago. The problem is, when you win, you have to start paying your debts. I owed the drug store and a restaurant for cigarettes and food, and the phone company. When I came home, I had $575 left.

I've been going to Gamblers Anonymous since 1988. The meetings help me talk about the way I feel. I live alone and I'm a bachelor. Sometimes I feel pretty deprived. I haven't made love to a woman in 10 years.

The gambling got worse recently and I was feeling desperate, so I called up a drug treatment centre. I was there for three weeks. When you're gambling every day, it's better not to have any access to the machines.I was abstinent for six months after that.

In terms of prioritizing problems, the drinking and drugs were much worse for me than the gambling. They made my symptoms worse and I was basically sleeping in a ditch if I wasn't in the mental hospital.

I haven't been gambling for three weeks now, but I don't kid myself that I've got it beaten. I do have a lot of friends and family who support me. I'm still having symptoms from the schizophrenia, so I'm trying to stay focused, with help from my psychiatric nurse.

Ian Kinross

Rhonda Pigott, 47, is a computer technician and the mother of a teenaged daughter in Alberta. She is separated from her husband.

I first gambled on VLTs on my daughter's birthday. My husband took her and some of her friends out and my parents and I went gambling.

It starts very innocently. You're just out having a good time. I played 50 cents a game and won $500 that evening. I thought, 'This isn't bad for a $20 investment.'

Working in downtown Calgary means easy access to VLTs. They're in all the bars and restaurants. I started playing during lunch hours and coffee breaks. I got a real high playing VLTs. I loved competing against the machine. It became an emotional addiction for me. VLT addiction is also a very secretive illness. One thing players always do is go to different bars or restaurants to play. You don't want to be recognized as someone with a problem. There's a stigma attached to VLT addiction. It's perceived that only people on welfare have a problem with them. That, I can assure you, is completely wrong. I've seen university professors and architects addicted.

After about 10 months, the losses were starting to mount. I was losing up to $250 a day by then, and decided to go to Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings.

My husband was supportive and I stayed clean for quite a while.

On Easter Monday 1994, my husband gave me $5 to play VLTs because I had been good for so long. We never thought it would cause a problem.

After that, I was back in front of a VLT at every chance. I would go after work at 5 p.m. and play until 3 a.m. I would maximize my green machine card on daily withdrawals and then borrow money from my VISA card. By February of 1995, I was spending $300 to $400 a day.

I started going to GA meetings again that winter. Often, I'd wait until the last 20 minutes of the meeting before slipping in. I felt guilty because I continued to gamble.

That spring my husband realized that he was married to a liar and a sneak and left me.

I decided to go for help, and received one - to - one counselling. I quit all forms of gambling on December 31, 1995.

I was fortunate enough to keep my job and my sanity through all of this. I have the support of my daughter, who has been great. I'm still tempted to play, but I pray that I will never do it again.

Gerry Luciano

Heather Downey, 29, is the single mother of a six - year old girl in Nova Scotia.

I started using VLTs at a local bar about two years ago. It was mainly because of boredom. They helped me socialize. At the beginning, I would take $5 and cash it in for loonies. Then I started spending more money and time on VLTs.

You think, 'This is my answer. I'm going to get out of debt.' You don't. The machines keep you in a trance, the way they flash, with the lights. I would go out three or four nights a week, and stay from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

I let all my bills go -- my rent and power bills. I bounced checks. I just didn't care. I had a job in a restaurant, which I lost because I was constantly tired. I stole money from my mother and sister. I lost my apartment, because I was behind on the rent. I'm more than $1,500 in debt. Collections agencies are after me.

I think VLTs are worse than alcohol or drugs. If I don't play, I get cranky and irritable. I don't give enough attention to my daughter. If I play, then I'm fine for a few days.

About six months ago, I went into a treatment program in Halifax for a month. I didn't want to go at first, but it helped a lot.

But I still believe the addiction is in me. About a month ago, I started playing with VLTs again. It's not so bad as before. I went last night, I'm ashamed to say.

My goal is to get back into Gamblers Anonymous and take it one step at a time.

Anita Dubey