Fun for many, shame and losses for few

mvoorhis@sierrastar.comMarch 4, 2014 

In a room filled with wispy smoky swirls floating upwards, Diana, almost robotically pulled the lever. Her eyes had a glazed-over, empty stare and she held a half-empty glass of warm soda. Because she had lost all track of time, she was completely unaware that she had left home a couple days earlier, saying she was going to an area casino to do a little gambling. Her family hadn't heard from her since, despite several attempts to reach her on her cell.

Frustrated and worried, Diana's adult daughter, Julie, decided to hunt for her mother at her favorite gambling spot. She found Diana glued to the same slot machine she had sat in front of for the past two days, completely convinced that the machine now "owed" her after all the money she had put into it.

As Diana continued to bet, Julie pleaded and tried to reason with her mother, telling her she was needed at home — but she wasn't sure Diana heard a single word.

Out of desparation, she impulsively yanked her mother's arm, not only to get her undivided attention, but to get Diana to stand and walk out the door with her. Diana wasn't ready to leave, though, and pushed her daughter away. A minor, half-hearted scuffle ensued, security was called, Julie was escorted out, and Diana continued pulling the lever — until she had lost all the money she had brought with her.

According to Gamblers Anonymous, families of problem gamblers typically react by scolding, screaming, reasoning, or explaining how they are hurting themselves and others. They attempt the shame game, threaten to leave, describe how much better life would be without gambling, and cajole or plead — all in vain.

These techniques simply don't work because they are only effective with those who are in control of themselves and their lives. Problem gamblers are unable to control their impulses, and are, more often than not, out of touch with reality.

Connie's story

Connie, 66, started gambling in 1994 when her father died. She went into a deep depression and her husband asked her to quit work to deal with her feelings, which she did.

"Here I was used to getting up, getting dressed and going to work," Connie said, "and suddenly, I had time on my hands and didn't know what to do with it." Connie turned to filling the endless hours and long days playing casino slot machines.

"I went everyday. I socialized, lost my money, went home, and got more money," explained Connie. " I went again the next day, socialized, lost my money, went home, and got more money. In that first year, I gambled away about $10,000 ... but honestly, I'm not sure how much I really lost."

Before long, Connie came to the realization that she needed to find some steady income, so in 1995, she and her family began a business, which quickly grew into a successful venture. So successful that Connie was too busy with the demands of being a new business-owner to even think about gambling for several years.

She was eventually hired by the state and from 2000-2003, Connie had both knees and hips replaced.

"It was a very painful and very long recovery," she said. "To distract myself, I went to the casino to gamble — but I was only gambling in smaller amounts."

However, following a serious work injury in 2005, Connie was forced to go out on medical disability. That's when the gambling began again in earnest.

"I got a settlement from the state of $52,000, and I gambled it all away," Connie said. "Still, I didn't want to admit that I had a problem. I looked at gambling as a stress release."

In 2010, Connie found herself in an unusual position — easy access to ready cash — working as treasurer of a non-profit club in the valley. Connie couldn't resist the temptation.

"In a two-year period, I embezzled more than $55,000. I didn't even try to hide my tracks. I would say to myself 'you can't do this. It's not your money. It's stealing.' But this small inner voice would say 'you're going to win and you're going to pay it all back.'"

Connie decided to listen to the small inner voice and continued taking money from club revenues to fund her addiction, in the hopes of that one big win, which never came.

In August 2013, Connie made the mistake of depositing money into the wrong club account, which caused checks to bounce.

"Club members became suspicious, checked financial records, realized what I had done, contacted the authorities and an arrest warant was issued," Connie said. "It happened that quickly."

Despite this dark secret being suddenly thrown into the light of day, shame and embarrassment kept Connie from telling her family. She went to see her doctor on the morning she was confronted by club members, and because she couldn't stop crying, was given an anti-depressant, along with 90 Xanax tablets.

"I stopped taking my meds for Diabetes and took 10 Xanax instead," Connie continued. "When the sheriff deputy showed up at my home, my family (husband and two adult sons) didn't know what was going on. The deputy asked me if I had embezzled from the club, and I said I had. He said he wasn't going to arrest me right then and there because he didn't think I could walk to the door. I told him I didn't think I could stand — much less walk. So he gave me a citation to appear in court."

Because of the pills she had taken, Connie slept for the next two days and nights. When she awoke, she found her family nearby, committed to surrounding her with loving support during this difficult time.

"They had suspected something was wrong," she said. "Of course, my husband was distraught over hearing the news, but he held me in his arms and said not to worry, that we would get through it together. My children said the same thing — that they would help anyway they could, adding that I needed to get some help."

Connie realized she had a gambling problem when she began embezzling money, but said she just couldn't stop herself. Once it was out in the open, Connie not only had to deal with the shame, but with people she thought were friends abandoning her, or friends who said they would secretly remain her friend as long as no one else knew.

"Living in a small community, it felt like everyone was looking at me, that everyone knew I was a thief. I hated myself. There are people who look at me now like I'm scum. They ridicule me in public places and ostracize me. It's a very heavy price to pay."

Connie contacted the gambling helpline and was given the name of an area licensed therapist, Pat Buffaloe, who has been trained and certified in gambling addictions.

"She helped me understand why I did what I did, and what steps I need to take to try to keep from relapsing," Connie continued. "I realize now that what I have is a disease, that I'm not a bad person, and that I will have to work on my addiction every day of my life."

In conjunction with individual therapy, Connie also attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings regularly.

"When you walk in the door, you don't have to hide anything. Everyone knows why you're there so it's very easy to admit that you've been lying. You can be yourself and are still readily accepted," Connie said. "As you go around the circle and everyone shares, it's the same story over and over again. 'I hid it from my wife until they towed her car away because I didn't make the payments.' 'If I had known that gambling would cause me to lose my wife, my family, my car, my home, my status in the community, I would have never done it — now I live in my motor home — my gambling has robbed me of everything.'"

As Connie comes to terms with her addiction, she admitted that stepping into casinos ever again is out of the question. As part of her therapy, she has signed a form that permanently bans her. Her photo is on file at one casino, which is attached to this form. While it would be impossible for most casino employees to know about Connie, let alone recognize her, she would not receive the pay-out if she hit a big jackpot. This, then, is more a symbolic gesture than anything else — a contract Connie has made with herself.

"I need to stay away," Connie reiterated. "I know if I went in today, I would spend every penny in my pocket. I'd transfer funds from one account to another and I wouldn't stop until I ran out of money."

Connie's case was settled in early December. She was never arrested and pled not guilty to embezzlement. That plea allowed her attorney to work out a deal with the district attorney. In exchange for a guilty plea, she must pay the $55,000 back to the club, pay court fees and complete 100 hours of community service. She has five years to do so, and her parole officer can check in on her at any time unannounced.

"I have to keep my faith in God," Connie said when talking about the path that led her to where she is now. "To not keep the faith is to return to the casino and I'll never win back all the money that I've lost. You know, if I wasn't caught, I think I would have taken my life eventually because the shame and guilt were just so great that I wouldn't have been able to endure it. It's just so hard to believe that even during my bouts of shame and suicidal thoughts, I still couldn't stop myself."

It was a video that Buffaloe had Connie watch that gave her a clearer understanding as to why she did what she did, and why she couldn't stop herself.

" In it, there's a Western bar scene in which an alcoholic is told he can drink the shot of whiskey sitting on the bar, but if he does, he'll be shot. Well, that alcoholic thinks to himself 'he may shoot me, he may not — or maybe I'll get lucky and he'll miss,' so he takes a chance and drinks the whiskey."

"It helped me understand that gambling — like alcoholism or drug addiction — is an illness, something that can't be controlled because the substance takes over."

For Connie, this has been, and continues to be, a difficult journey. Developing and retaining a good support system has been vital to her recovery. She has not gambled since being confronted with embezzlement, but remains well-aware that she faces an uphill battlefor the rest of her life.

Ben's story

Over a period of about six years, 39-year-old Ben lost in excess of $50,000 at Central Valley casino slot machines — a loss he considers minor in comparison to everything else he has lost.

"Gambling is a horrible addiction, one where I lost much more than money," Ben said. "I lost my law practice, my wife, my son, my health, my friends, community respect — losing money is just a very small part of it."

After passing the bar exam in 1999, Ben began his career as an attorney, opening a private practice on the valley floor. He gambled back then, but his viewpoint was that it was for entertainment — a fun way to spend a quiet afternoon surrounded by people. He said he wasn't going for the win, and never actually believed he would win.

It didn't take long for Ben to run through his inheritance of $45,000 playing the slots. A few short years later, he began forging his clients names on checks, which he would cash to fund his gambling habit. This didn't go on for long, though. In just a couple of months, one of his affected clients caught on to what Ben was up to and confronted him. Law enforcement was not alerted, and Ben agreed to return these monies (about $7,000).

At that point, Ben decided to give up his law practice in 2003. As a result, he could no longer afford his house payment so he lost his home. His wife filed for divorce shortly thereafter.

For several years, gambling was not an issue for Ben — it was something he believed he had control over, not the other way-around. Then he started working on a cruise ship, where he had easy access to not only the ship's casino, but the casinos at the ports-of-call. The itch to gamble returned.

By 2007, Ben had been diagnosed as bi-polar and found it impossible to hold down a job. He received $700 monthly in disability each month.

"As soon as I received my disability check," Ben said, "I was sitting in front of a slot machine within a few hours. It was a great release for my emotional pain, and I enjoyed walking in with money in my pocket — even though I walked out broke." At $3 per pull, the money in his pocket didn't last long.

Ben also earned extra gambling money buying and selling musical instruments.

"Any money I could get my hands on, I would gamble away," Ben admitted. "I even stole the leaf blower and chainsaw from my mom's house and sold them at a pawn shop for gambling money."

As unbelievable as it sounds, Ben did not consider himself a problem gambler. Rather, he called it more a problem of not-winning. He also didn't consider it an addiction. To him, addicts were people hooked on alcohol or drugs — not gambling.

"No one knew about it. I was good at keeping it a secret, and never really thought of myself as addicted," he reiterated. "Then gambling kind of snuck up on me and took over my life."

Because every penny he could scrape up went into slot machines, Ben began neglecting his health. He lived off Top Ramen or a quick fast-food burger — that is, when he took the time to eat at all. As a result, Ben was hospitalized for malnutrition a couple of times.

Ultimately, because of the lying and stealing to feed his addiction, Ben lost custody of his 4-year-old son. That's what it took for Ben to hit rock-bottom. He overdosed on tranquilizers and spent three days in a mental hospital for observation and counseling. Upon his release, and with his secret raw and exposed, Ben sought help in individual counseling from therapist Pat Buffaloe.

"Pat, the program and workbook have helped me so much," Ben said. "I've had to examine the enormous price I've paid and the consequences of gambling in my life. I can now admit that I am a problem gambler. I can no longer escape through gambling, and have to face my problems."

Ben currently lives in a group home, and his mother controls his finances (his disability of $700 monthly and his social security of $900 monthly). That way, he's not tempted to hit the casinos. He has also contacted area casinos to have his name removed from their databases to prevent receiving promotional offers.

He attends Celebrate Recovery — a Christ-based recovery program offered in churches in the valley, as well as at the Yosemite Lakes Park Church. He takes a couple of music classes, plays woodwind instruments and would like to teach music one day.

"I've got the support of my family," Ben said. "I'm still young, but I have to start all over from scratch again — and from ground zero financially. It's not the question of the amount one loses — it's what that money means to that person. If a millionarie loses $20,000, it doesn't mean as much as someone on social security losing $50."

With individual therapy, Ben has come to the realization that for people with mental disorders, there is a much higher risk of falling victim to problem gambling because "like me, they are in a lot of pain and are much more compulsive. I just don't know if gamblers realize there is help out there for them, that there is someone they can talk to."

In a particularly reflective moment, Ben added, "Gambling took my pain and loneliness away. You know, walking into a casino is a lot like walking into a church. You're around people. You don't feel isolated, and you automatically feel better. It's like you belong."

Ben admitted that he still gambles a little, spending $50 on scratchers every week or so, but is doing his best to stay away from casinos and slot machines.

"Gambling was such a thrill — but it was also part of a deep black hole I almost couldn't crawl out of," he said. "I guess there are some people who can go to the casinos, lose a couple of hundred and think of it as entertainment. For me, though, I would find myself sitting in the casino at 3 a.m., chasing my losses."

Free Individual Therapy Sessions

For problem gamblers and affected family members, free individual therapy sessions from a specially-trained certified therapist are available by calling the California Council on Problem Gambling helpline at (800) GAMBLER (426-2537). For group support, visit the Gamblers Anonymous website at www.gamblersanonymous.org.

Note: While their stories are real, the names of the gamblers and family members have been changed to protect their identities. The final part of this three-part series examines the treatment process.

In a two-year period, I embezzled more than $55,000. I didn't even try to hide my tracks. I would say to myself 'you can't do this. It's not your money. It's stealing.

— Problem gambler Connie

Any money I could get my hands on, I would gamble away. I even stole the leaf blower and chainsaw from my mom's house and sold them at a pawn shop for gambling money.

— Problem gambler Ben


Gambling Addictions

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry now refers to those unable to control their gambling impuses as having a disorder, similar to those with alcohol and drug addictions.

According to the California Council on Problem Gambling, the definitive similarities and differences between problem gambling and chemical (alcohol or drug) dependency are:

Similarities:

A preoccupation with the behavior or substance, a loss of control and an inability to stop.

Denial is very common in both disorders.

Severe depression and mood swings often occur.

Both are progressive diseases with distinct phases and stages: tolerance and withdrawal symptoms occur with gambling, as well as with alcohol or drugs.

Gamblers are often chasing the feeling of a big win; chemically-dependent people chase the first or most intense high.

There are often blackouts or brownouts.

The substance or behavior is frequently used to escape pain.

Low self-esteem or narcissism are often present.

Dysfunctional families are common.

There is a use of rituals or behavioral patterns.

The high of action gambling is similar to the rush of cocaine.

Numbness produced by escape gambling is similar to opiates.

Immediate gratification is sought.

Differences:

Gambling is often a hidden addiction.

As long as there is money, a physical overdose is not possible.

No biological test for gambling (such as urine, breath, or blood testing).

Gambling does not require ingestion of a substance.

Gambling disorders are not accepted or perceived as a disease.

Fewer resources are available for gamblers and their families.

Severe financial problems require immediate attention in treatment.

High lethal suicide attempt rate.

Spouses are often unaware of the problem.

Financial debt may follow the gambler for years.

Abstinence from gambling has more gray areas than sobriety from drugs or alcohol.

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