Never in a million years did I think I would be sat here, writing a blog about how to deal with gambling addiction. But the world works in mysterious ways, and here I am.
Addiction has become somewhat light-hearted in pop culture, with many of us claiming to be ‘addicted’ the most trivial of things, like watching Netflix or browsing Instagram. Today, I’m talking about real addiction. The dark, exhausting, life-ruining kind of addiction, that destroys mental health, relationships and so much more.
I wouldn’t wish addiction on anybody, but since you’re already here, it’s likely that you’re probably already struggling. Perhaps it isn’t you, and actually, you’re a loved one trying to gain a better understanding. Either way, I hope that telling my story will help you on your journey to recovery.
Gambling Addiction Statistics
Gambling is everywhere, and it’s been normalised through its associations with sports, like football sponsorships. It’s as though we’ve become desensitised to gambling advertising, which is hardly a surprise considering over 50% of the UK population will have seen a gambling-related TV ad in the last 2 weeks.
It is estimated that 2.7% of the British population has a gambling problem. It may not sound like that high of a number on the surface, but it equates to around 1.4 million people, and it is growing rapidly. The UK Gambling Commission is regularly imposing further regulations, but with the nature of addition being what it is, gamblers will continue to find a way. (Trust me, I know)
Don’t get me wrong, gambling can be enjoyed sensibly, and is done so by a lot of people. A trip to the casino can be a social event, and the gambling industry is not the root cause of all evil. But what do you do when something you enjoyed casually becomes out of control? What if you don’t even see it happening?
Gambling: The Invisible Addiction
Often described as ‘the invisible’ addiction, there’s no real way to identify a problem gambler. Your colleague, your friend, or even a member of your family could be in the depths of gambling addiction, and you probably wouldn’t know.
It is this unique discretion of problem gambling that makes it so isolating for sufferers. You can’t see a psychological addiction. We sympathise with somebody who is clearly fighting a battle with drugs, or alcohol, for example, and we can stage an intervention. Human nature would be to tell a gambling addict to ‘just stop’ because it seems like such a simple solution, but let me tell you, it’s not.
My Story of Gambling Addiction
I had been a casual gambler for years, never going beyond my means and enjoying all of the fun that came with social punting. Days at the races with friends, small Saturday accumulators in the pub, and even a trip to Vegas or two for a holiday.
In March 2018, I won an 11-fold football accumulator that turned £2 into £2,050. That was back when my stakes were pocket change and I gambled for nothing more than a bit of fun. How things changed. I spent £50 of my winnings on an online slot, which isn’t something I had really done before. I managed to land a very lucky spin and turned that £50 into another £2,000. That day, I withdrew £4,000 from a £5 deposit and felt on top of the world.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the time in which my gambling went from casual to compulsion. It creeps up on you slowly, and denial has a way of keeping us blind to our habits. I don’t know how it happened, but it did, and it escalated beyond belief. I didn’t even ‘know’ I had a gambling problem until I was over £10,000 in debt and having to explain to my sister why I desperately needed financial help – more on that later.
My addiction became my life. I’d spend any waking moment I could gambling, at work, in the middle of the night, you name it. I’d spend every penny I had, and then I had to spend more to try to get my money back. Many times, I won substantial amounts of money that would have helped greatly with my short-term debt, but I still didn’t stop. In fact, I never stopped until there was nothing left. The emotional rollercoaster is exhausting, from a couple of days of euphoria to weeks at a time of sheer misery, guilt, and shame.
As payday approached every month, I promised myself that this time would be different. I wasn’t doing it again. I wanted my life back. But still, I waited up until after midnight for the money to land in my bank account and my entire wage would be gone by the time I was in the office at 9. I put on my fake smile for work, continued driving around in my nice car, and the world thought I had it together. The cruel cycle I just couldn’t break.
It had stopped being about winning and losing and became just about the physical act of gambling. No amount was ever enough. I’d be £5,000 up (on the day) and wouldn’t stop spinning until my balance was £0. I’d then borrow money and put more in, again and again. The impact on my mood was detrimental. I was selfish, and my addiction wouldn’t allow me to think about anything or anybody else. I’d be angry and depressed if I hadn’t been able to gamble, only to be temporarily relieved while gambling, and then fall into a deeper depression when I lost.
Recovery and Relapse
As with many gambling addicts, I only came clean when I had absolutely no other option. I’d fallen into a dark depression that included lying, stealing, and being absolutely consumed by my addiction. I was in a decent job at the time, and so I could pay for my habit… until I couldn’t.
Rent hadn’t been paid and I didn’t have enough money to put petrol in my car to get to work, or even to eat some days. I’d had £15,000 in bank loans to consolidate my debts, making paying the money back to payday lending companies and credit cards much more affordable. This gave me one monthly payment and the chance to start afresh. Guess what? It didn’t last long.
My sister is the only person in my family that knows about my gambling problems, and she has gone above-and-beyond financially to help me. From personal loans to 0% credit cards and colossal dents in her personal savings, she gritted her teeth, and she saved me more than once. At first, her reaction was the same as most would have been – stop being stupid and just stop. As she has watched me self-destruct time and time again, she’s also gained an understanding of the cruel complexity of gambling addiction.
With each confession came some truth, but I never really said everything out loud. The shame is unbearable, it’s embarrassing and incredibly difficult to admit to yourself and to others. I found the biggest step to my final recovery was being 100% honest, holding my hands up, and saying this is the entire mess that I am in. I slowly began to truly understand that I would never win, even when I won, and this was important to recovery.
What Gambling Addiction Feels Like
It’s hard to articulate into just a few bullet points, but here’s a brief indication of the inner thoughts of a gambler crippled by addiction.
- An urge to gamble that takes priority over everything else. Relationships, work, life, hygiene, everything.
- The inability to function day-to-day without gambling.
- Spending every penny you have on gambling, leaving you unable to pay your bills. Then borrowing money to gamble more.
- Lying to yourself and those around you about the level of your problems.
- Feeling isolated, ashamed, depressed, and like there’s no way out. Suicidal thoughts are extremely common amongst gambling addicts.
- Compulsive gambling without any conscious thoughts of consequences.
The First Steps to Gambling Addiction Recovery
I’m sure you’ve heard this all before, but recovery has to start with you. You have to recognise and admit to yourself, first and foremost, that you have a problem. Then you need to speak to somebody else about it. It will probably be the hardest conversation you have ever had, especially if it’s a friend or family, but it’s your turning point. There’s no hiding when it’s out in the open. These are the steps I used to start my recovery process.
- Self-exclude from any online gambling site using Gamstop. This will mean you can no longer hold accounts with gambling operators or sign up anywhere new.
- Install Gamban on your phone. This will block any and all access to gambling websites using a VPN.
- Confide in a family member or friend about your addiction. If you’re not ready to do this, find a support group or therapist on Gamcare.
- Try to find other ways to keep busy during withdrawal such as taking up a new hobby.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself – you are not alone.
Supporting a Gambling Addict
You are not a bad person for feeling angry and disappointed if your family member, loved one, or friend admits to being a gambling addict. You should not feel guilty for your initial reactions, and you’re entitled to feel how you feel.
That said, you are a fundamental part of their recovery. Confiding in you was probably the hardest thing they have ever had to do, and nobody will be more ashamed of them than they are of themselves. They desperately need your emotional support, and hopefully, you will be able to give them that once you’ve come to terms with their addiction yourself.
Gambling addiction is a huge burden for the sufferer and for anybody else involved. It can cause financial ruin for families, break up relationships, and burn every bridge in its way. Living alongside somebody with a gambling addiction can be very difficult, and I recommend you begin your journey by reading this piece of advice from begambleaware.
There are Gambling Anonymous meetings (both online and offline) for the family members of addicts. Talking to others in the same boat can be comforting and may give you some more advice on how to cope with the whole thing.