When I came out recently about my gambling past, one of the most common responses I got from people is, “you don’t look like a gambling addict!”
What does that even mean? What does a gambling addict look like? Well, in my case a gambling addict looks like a 36-year-old mother of six.
I guess from an early age I had a fascination with winning money and I thought that it was somehow the answer to life’s struggles. I would hear family members talking about lotto, I would get “Scratchies” (lottery scratch cards) in birthday cards and of course, if we ever went to a club I would walk past the “Pokies” (slot machines) and think “Wow! I would love to be able to play them!”
The subtle and not so subtle ways in which gambling is almost intrinsically woven into Australian culture is appalling.
As a teen, my boyfriend at the time loved gambling in all its forms and because I wanted to be around him I quickly joined in. I will never forget that first win. I put in $20 and won $100. ‘Wow!” I thought, why would anyone do anything else?
I was in awe of this amazing machine that I thought had the capacity to make all my desires come true. Slowly, I began to gamble more and more and sit there longer and longer in order to replicate that rush I got from turning the money I had into more.
The “crack cocaine” of gambling
This behavior continued. I would go before work, after work, in lunch breaks, on nights out and days off. It’s easy to see now why some people call Pokies the “crack cocaine” of gambling. I was hooked.
At the time I don’t think I realized the devastating financial effect it was having on me. I was still living at home and mum and dad were supporting me, so I looked at the money I was getting from my receptionist job as disposable income I could do whatever I wanted with.
The threat of homelessness or starvation was never a reality for me. I got paid $1,500 a month and some months that would be gone by close of business on payday. Then I would borrow money from mum or one of my siblings to get by for the month.
I should have gotten help then, but I didn’t even know there was help for that kind of thing. I didn’t know that, left untreated, my addiction would worsen and even linger dormant for periods of time, waiting to resurface when money, time and opportunity aligned.
My life had started to spiral in a very bad direction and I was too afraid to tell my family just how bad it was. All of a sudden, my world took a very sudden turn in the other direction when I met a young guy who was unlike anyone I had ever known. I broke up with my gambling boyfriend and after a few months Phil and I started dating. We got engaged and married within a year.
We were 20 when we got married and had our first baby at 21. When we were expecting our second child at 23 and building our own home, the stress and pressure on me rose to boiling point; I buckled, and old ways of coping resurfaced — and then what also returned was the shame, guilt and regret.
Dreaming of the ‘Pokies’
My husband’s depression that he had also struggled with in his youth made its way into our marriage and from that point forward we were both dealing with pain.
He could never understand the hold and pull the machines had over me and I thought that because he withdrew and kept piling all the stress on me that he didn’t care about me.
The horrible roller coaster of self loathing and disappointment continued for 12 years until I was so completely exhausted from trying to keep up the facade that I was fine and I wasn’t an addict.
I struggled for such a long time with that word and what nearly killed me was the phrase “once an addict always an addict.”
I had wished so many times that it had been a drug or an alcohol issue because then people would have seen and I wouldn’t have been able to hide for so long.
Even the people that I did let in didn’t know how to help me. People thought that if I wasn’t in a venue then it wasn’t affecting me, but it was. I could see the Pokies in my dreams, hear the sounds that they played and there was the grip of fear and anxiety every time the phone rang, worrying if I was about to be discovered.