Carrying The Message: Sharing My Experience, Strength, and Hope
As has been the case for many others I have spoken with, my own gambling story begins at a young age (10). Family vacations with my father would involve trips to the Ruidoso Downs race track, where I was given $20 for the day to bet on horses. Later, he would teach me how to play poker, and by the time I was a teenager I was playing occasionally, and later regularly, with a group of his colleagues. By the time I was in college, I became involved in a high-stakes pot-limit game, and won enough money over time to move out of the house and get my own apartment while I was in school. There were two men in that game that I (and others) won money from fairly consistently, and looking back I now realize that it was not just because (as I thought) they were “bad” player, but because they were compulsive (pathological) gamblers who would stay in the game until the last card on almost every hand.
When I finished my graduate degree in 1991, I received a job offer from the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas to supervise archaeological work out at the infamous Yucca Mountain Project. I was thrilled to get a job in archaeology, and was excited about the prospects of moving to Las Vegas. For many years after moving to Las Vegas I continued to play live poker. While I never considered myself a professional player, I did well enough to win a little money over the long run, and saw it as an entertaining pastime. I didn’t understand the appeal of the video poker machines…it seemed like a complete waste of time to play a machine, where you had no control over the outcome. Occasionally, I would put $20 into a machine, but never won anything substantial until I hit my first royal flush for $1,000 in the mid-1990s. It was a few years later that I hit a 2nd one, and then very soon after, a third. “Aha! This is why people play the machines!” I thought. Gradually, I played less and less live poker and more and more video poker until soon I was playing video poker almost exclusively. It didn’t seem to matter that intellectually I knew I was never going to beat a computer chip. On the rare occasions I still played live poker, I would take any winnings I had and put them into the machines.In order to keep the fact that I was gambling hidden from my wife, I would almost always gamble during work hours, or during the weekend when I would say I was doing something else. I took out multiple credit cards in my name, unbeknownst to her, and ran up tens of thousands of dollars of debt. I would have the statements mailed directly to my office, so she wouldn’t have the chance of finding them in the mail at home. I would leave work early and gamble until the last 5 minutes before my daughter’s day care closed. On a couple occasions, at the last minute I hit a jackpot that required me to wait until I got paid off by a floor person, and I would have to call the day care and pretend to have a flat tire or be stuck in traffic or some other lie as to why I would be late picking up my daughter. most of the time that I was not gambling was spent managing the lies I had told my wife and/or co-workers as to my whereabouts, and thinking of new ways to find money and time to gamble.
Recognizing that I had a problem, I attended my first 12-Step meeting in 2005, but left that meeting feeling grateful that I wasn’t like the other people in that room, many of whom had lost much more money than I, or had lost their families, or had spent time in prison, or had attempted suicide. “I’ve heard how bad it can get,” I thought….”That will be enough to keep me from gambling again.” For several months I was abstinent, and I took this as “proof” I could control my gambling. When I went back to gambling, for a brief period I was able to control my wagers, and then it was off to the races again. Over the next two years, I repeated the cycle of hiding gambling debt from my family twice more, and when my wife discovered I had been gambling yet again in the summer of 2007, I thought I was going to lose my family. I participated in a 6-week Intensive Outpatient Program through through the Problem Gambling Center, during which I came to understand the importance of regular attendance at 12-Step meetings in maintaining my abstinence and in achieving the process of recovery from this chronic and progressive illness.
Early in my recovery, I embraced the idea of community volunteerism as a way to replace the time I had normally spent gambling with a positive activity. Community service was also a way in which I could begin to make amends to those nameless, faceless (to me) individuals that I had undoubtedly impacted through an unkind word or action while practicing my addiction. Today, service to my community includes promoting awareness of the disease of problem gambling: the reality of its existence, the seriousness of its impact not only on the sufferer but on everyone in that individual’s sphere of influence, and the availability of treatment.I try to accomplish this mainly by sharing aspects of my own story, and information I have gleaned during my own treatment, through review of the literature, and attendance at professional meetings. My hope is that my willingness to share my story will help in some small way to de-stigmatize this illness, and allow others who have been affected by problem gambling to feel that they can talk about the issue as well.
I am so grateful for the life I have now, and I owe it in large part to those who have been involved in my treatment and recovery, including all those who have been present at every 12-Step meeting that I have attended. The disease of pathological gambling is real, it is chronic, and it is progressive. The good news is that help is readily available, and that recovery is also chronic and progressive…today is a good day!