For the past 40 years, Jim and a group of his buddies have gone to the track almost every Saturday. While Sundays are reserved for family time, Saturday afternoons are for time at the races. He is such a nice guy in all other ways that family and friends have come to accept it. Other people play golf or go to ball games or fish. Jim studies the Daily Racing Form and bets on the horses. It’s what he does to relax and to maintain long time friendships.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Jim never, ever, lets himself lose more than he can afford. He has a $30 weekly budget for betting. Once it is gone, he sits back and enjoys cheering on his friends’ picks. If he wins more than he loses, that money goes to fixing things around his house. To him, the time at the track is more about being with his friends and enjoying a sport he loves than it is about gambling. Even though he has at times scored thousands of dollars in trifectas, he isn’t lured to moving outside his personal gambling rules. This is what responsible gambling looks like.
This is Ted
Not so, Ted. He is out of control. Twenty years ago, he had a winning streak at poker that netted him $20,000 in one week. It hasn’t happened since but he keeps trying. Even though he has an occasional win, he generally loses. To support his “hobby”, he is chronically late on his monthly bills and has defaulted on a loan. Unbeknownst to his wife, he has cashed in his life insurance policy and dipped into the kids’ college savings accounts. He has even taken money from his kids. He is anxious and irritable and has frequent fights with his wife about money, time, and, yes, his gambling habit. He always has excuses for not showing up to family events or for taking a “sick day” from work. He isn’t busy with important things. He isn’t sick. He’s at the local casino. His family life is in tatters but he can’t stay away from the game. He refuses to acknowledge it but he is as surely addicted to gambling as a drug addict is to heroin.
Be like Jim
These are true stories, although names have been changed for reasons of privacy. The point is that not all gambling is a problem. Jim’s story is a demonstration that responsible gambling can be a reasonable entertainment. Jim has negotiated time away from the family for his hobby, just as another man might negotiate time to go to ball games with some friends. He doesn’t cloak his gambling activity in secrecy or denial. He doesn’t overspend or go into debt. He could quit going to the track at any time but sees no reason to do so since he loves the excitement of the track and it’s the way he regularly sees friends he cares about.
Ted, on the other hand, is in deep denial — and deep trouble. If he were able to admit it, he would recognize the following signs that he needs help. Hopefully, he is reading this article and sees himself in the following 6 signs of gambling addiction.
- He has lost control of his desire to gamble. At this point, playing poker for high stakes is a compulsion. He remembers the intoxicating thrill of the big win. He is constantly on the search for that “high” again. Poker is always on his mind.
- He stays at the poker table until he has nothing left in his wallet. Losing doesn’t deter him. He keeps playing and betting in a desperate attempt to regain what he’s lost and to finally win or win even more.
- He is spending money he doesn’t really have. He is constantly juggling his bills, paying one bill by not paying another. He is regularly late on making payments. He only pays the minimum on credit cards — while upping the balances. He has borrowed money from family members and friends and hasn’t paid them back reliably. He has even stolen money from his wife’s wallet or from guests at his house. He thinks about how he can take money from his employer without being discovered. He has elaborate rationalizations for this behavior. He tells himself he means to pay back what he takes, that he doesn’t owe “that much” or that the people he isn’t repaying don’t need the money as much as he does.
- He hides his gambling from his family and his friends. Although people close to him know he likes to play poker, they have no idea how often he is doing it or how often he loses. He knows that they will not approve. He knows they will give him a hard time. So he is increasingly avoiding contact with people who would be concerned.
- He gets very defensive and irritated if someone suggests that maybe he has a gambling problem. The conversation goes nowhere because he changes the subject, blows up, blows out of the room or finds a way to accuse others as being terrible friends for even thinking he has a problem.
- He says he wants to stop gambling but he can’t. He has tried to limit the number of times he goes to the casino or the amount of money he spends while there. It never works. His good intentions are quickly overwhelmed by the compulsion to get back in the game.
Hopefully Ted will wake up and recognize that his hobby has become an addiction. Hopefully he will recognize that he has more to lose than money if he keeps it up. If (probably when) discovered, he may lose his marriage and family, the respect of his wife and kids, his job, and his financial security. Hopefully he and his family will stop living in denial and will start getting him the treatment he needs.
There is no shame in becoming addicted to something that is addictive. There is shame in not admitting it and letting it become the dominating driver in one’s life. Treatment is available. Treatment is often successful, especially if the family is involved.
If you recognize yourself in Ted, let this be the wake-up call you need.