Cycle gambling addiction
6- Cycle Gambling Addiction
Gambling addicts travel through a series of cycles that eventually leads to desperation and hopelessness. In this the gambling addict resembles the drug addict or alcoholic, who also is pulled along a path that leads to self-destruction. Like most people who try their hand at gambling, the person predisposed to developing an addiction will usually start off engaging in gambling as a leisure activity, something done recreationally to past the time and for fun. But as time passes and the disease of addiction takes hold, the problem gambler will find that willpower alone is useless in controlling or denying the compulsion to gamble. This page describes the 3 phases gambling addicts commonly experience that trap them in this behaviour addiction. The fourth phase, Recovery, is there for those addicts who finally admit they have a problem and are ready for a solution.
- Phase 1- Winning
- Phase 2- Losing
- Phase 3- Desperation
- Phase 4- Destitution or Recovery
Cycle 1- Winning
- The initial phase starts when the gambler has his first big win. For good reason it has been said that the worst thing that can happen to a potential gambling addict is for that person to win the first time they gamble. That first winning wager produces a euphoric state in the problem gambler to be, a “high” similar to what a drug addict experiences when he first had a hit on heroin. From the point of view of the chronic gambler, that first winning bet makes wagering seem like an obvious path to happiness. Gambling equates to easy money – and a possible solution to his problems. He’s a “winner” in the literal sense of the word. The new gambler feels good about himself. And if that first win brought him a significant amount of money, the gambler can play the big shot among his friends and families by spreading around his winnings. The euphoric sensation and the boost to self-esteem of the first win are so gratifying that the gambling addict tries from then on to recreate that experience. In recovery language this is called “chasing the high” a similar phenomenon experienced by all addicts, whether they are addicted to substances or behaviours. The problem gambler is the same as the drug addict who is forever chasing that high he got on that first hit of heroin, or the love addict who never gives up chasing that euphoric sensation of that first love. Once the gambling addict has had his first big win on his favourite mode of gambling, be it the casino tables, at a poker game, the horse races, or internet gambling, he will go back time and time again in hopes of creating another big score.
- During this Winning phase, which typically lasts for about 3 to 5 years, the gambling addict wins more often than he loses, and he gambles within his financial means. He might spend a portion of his salary on his preferred mode of gambling but not to the extent of letting it impinge on the quality of his life or that of his family. Most gambling addicts during the Winning phase believe they have the “golden touch”. They congratulate themselves on being luckier, more talented, or smarter than other people. These gamblers do not see themselves as addicts but as professional gamblers, people endowed with special wit and know-how.
Cycle 2- Losing
- During this painful phase, which usually lasts 5 years or more, the gambling addict engages in his betting activity more frequently, wagering larger amounts of money with the hope of repeating that big win. Being in denial of his gambling addiction, when he loses he justifies it as a temporary stroke of bad luck. He tells himself his former “golden touch” will soon reappear. Yet he loses again and again. But the denial of his gambling problem is strong, as it is with all addictions. n fact, in Alcoholics Anonymous they call alcoholism “a disease of denial.” The problem gambler hangs tightly to the fantasy that winning is the solution to all his problems, as he meanwhile obsesses over recapturing that euphoric feeling he experienced when he first had a big win. Lost is this imaginary world, the gambling addict continues to wager more and more money despite mounting financial consequences. At this phase he might start to engage in risky behaviours. He doubles down, betting big and making high-risk wagers that he cannot afford to lose. Yet because the obsession has consumed him and he lives in a fantasy, he continues to place even bigger and longer-shot bets. In the recovery language, this type of irrational even insane behaviour is referred to as chasing one’s loses. Just as the drug addict endlessly chases to experience his first high, the gambling addict is obsessed with experiencing the high of a big win again.
- At this stage, the gambling addict typically resorts to dishonest and manipulative ways to finance his gambling habit. Having lost money he does not posses, he may turn to someone in his life a friend or work colleague for a loan, being sure to hide from them the reason for needing the money. He may go behind his spouse’s back to withdraw money from their joint bank account. If his wife discovers the withdrawal, the gambler will lie to hide the real reason he needed the money. In desperation, he may borrow money from loan sharks, knowing well the repayment of this loan is dependent on him winning his bets. Or he may go as far as to delve into illegal or criminal activities to fund his gambling habit.
- Like all other types of addicts, gambling addicts put up a front to the outside world. They pretend to be what they are not. They try to portray themselves as confident and stable, as people in control of their lives. Meanwhile, the reality is that the gambling addict is experiencing acute desperation as his life and finances unravel. The addict, though, suffering from an overload of conflicting feelings and fear, is so confused he doesn’t know which image of himself to believe. Though he lives in dread of financial ruin and exposure as a failure, or worse, the gambling addict nevertheless fails to comprehend the extent of his problem. Given the power of denial and self-delusion that comes with addiction, the gambling addict still likes to believe he can stop or manage his gambling whenever he chooses. Like other types of addicts he uses all sorts of mechanisms to minimize or justify his behaviour. In the same way a drug addict lies about his drug use, the gambling addict flippantly dismisses or becomes confrontational when questioned about his gambling behaviour.
- For further information on common defence mechanisms used by addicts in general, please refer to the booklet Disease Addiction – Mental Addiction
Cycle 3- Desperation
- The Desperation phase can drag on for years or may be mercifully brief. At this time the gambling addict is in the full grips of his addiction. His brain reward system has been twisted into abnormal shape and his thinking has become distorted to a frightening degree. He has difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy and spends most of his time obsessing about finding the means to gamble. He may be consumed with worries about where to obtain money, what he will next bet on, when and where to gamble, ways to beat the system, and how to make that big win again. As a result, cracks start showing in other areas of his life, which gets increasingly unmanageable. Having lied and manipulated for so long, he may start to experience family, work, and financial problems. His wife may threaten to leave, his employer may take legal action, and his bank may stop his credit. Even though he may be aware of the extent of his problems and no longer able to deny that his mounting troubles are the consequence of gambling, he is unable to stop by himself. He is likely to feel shame and guilt and be filled with regret and remorse for his behaviour. But because he sees no solution to his predicament, he turns to the only thing he knows that will bring at least temporary relief – and that’s gambling.
- During the Desperation phase the behaviour of the gambling addict takes its toll on his family members and friends. Those closest are most affected, with the spouse being the one most likely to bear the brunt of the damage and chaos caused by the husband’s gambling. The wife who for years tried to no avail to rescue or cover up for her gambling addict husband is now at her wits’ end and realizes with a shock how miserable and meaningless her own life has become. She has come to the point where she finally admits to herself how all her attempts to hold her family together have been futile, and that the only thing her husband loves is his gambling. She may have resorted to taking on extra jobs to pay her husband’s gambling debts. She may have taken on all the responsibilities of raising her children in the absence of her husband, who spent his time consumed with his gambling. She may have spent her own money and sold her possessions to protect her husband from the consequences of his addiction. In the worse cases, she may find she is without a home as a result of her husband’s gambling having devastated the family’s finances.
- Often the spouses of gambling addicts are in worse shape emotionally than the addict himself, who at least has the coping mechanism of his gambling addiction to shut out the world and its problems. Having dealt for years with a steady stream of lies and manipulations, the spouse will often feel betrayed, overwhelmed, and at a loss as to what to do to fix things. Because the wife is living in the real world, as opposed to the gambling addict who is cut off from reality, she bears the brunt of the damage done. Being more aware of the chaos the addiction of her husband is causing, the wife is vulnerable to suffering all sorts of psychological problems. A consequence of this extreme stress is that the wife will often resort to another form of addiction such as abusing tranquilizers or alcohol to cope with the pain and devastation of her life.
- The children of gambling addicts are also adversely affected by their father’s addiction. Being raised in an unsafe and volatile environment, they tend to develop a variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Most children of gambling addicts will go on to develop a form of addiction themselves. At an early age they might be overeaters. They might act out at school, or on the other hand they might over compensate by focusing single-mindedly on success in academics as a way of bringing order into a life upended by chaos. Depression is common among such children. Whether these children later become addicted to substances or behaviours, experience shows they are vulnerable to copying a version of the unhealthy behaviour they learned from their parents. Most children of gambling addicts suffer from some form of psychological or personality disorder. Not knowing whether there is going to be food on the table, whether their school fees will be paid or whether they will have a roof over their head, they live in a state of anxiety. In addition, being raised in a volatile environment where they are uncertain of how to behave around a parent who may one minute shower them with love and the next become violent and lash out, children of gambling addicts tend to suffer from attachment disorders or PTSD.
- Meanwhile as the lives of family members continue to disintegrate, the gambling addict father demands ever more forcefully that they pull together and support him. What he wants is for everyone to act as if everything is all right so that he can maintain his denial and continue with his out-of-control gambling. The tragedy is that despite all the unmanageability and chaos in his life, the gambling addict still believes he has control over his behaviour. On top of that, he thinks others should also buy into this fantasy. The reality is otherwise, of course. The problem gambler has passed the point where he has any control over when or where or if or how much he wagers. Ask him why he has to gamble, and he can’t answer. He doesn’t know why, only that he has to do it and does not know how to stop himself.
- At this point in the downward spiral of the desperation phase, the gambling addict may start to think about ways of putting an end to his misery – by putting an end to himself. Suicidal thoughts may become commonplace. Attempts at suicide are also part of the history of many gambling addicts. Sometimes it takes something dramatic like an arrest or suicide attempt for the addict or those around him to recognize and acknowledge the dire nature of the situation. Such an occurrence may be what prompts the wife of the gambling addict to finally insist her husband take some action. She may threaten divorce or make it clear that she will no longer financially support him or cover up for his gambling.
- Sometimes the gambling addict relents and grudgingly agrees to go for treatment, and he may stay away from gambling for a while. This is a positive, of course, but if the addict has not fully admitted to himself the helpless nature of his condition, his chances for recovery are poor. As with any addiction, the person has to “hit bottom” in order to accept that he has a problem and become willing to surrender to a program of recovery. If the person is still in denial about the nature of his problem, that is, if he believes he still has power over his gambling and can control or stop it, it is unlikely that he will take the actions necessary for recovery. He may pay lip service to his family or even himself, make promises, and act as if he really wants to recover. But deep down he still believes he is in control and fantasizes about the next time he hits the casino. Or he may accept for a while that he has a problem and with sincerity seek recovery and stop his gambling behaviour. But after a period of abstinence the addictive thinking – the rationalizations and minimizing of consequences — returns and he fools himself into imaging that his problem wasn’t so very bad after all and that he can moderately gamble again. So after a while he starts to gamble again and sets the cycle of addiction back into motion. This in and out recovery may go on for a while, and meanwhile his life, his family and work all go downhill. Like other addicts, most problem gamblers end up in dire places. Jails, institutions, homelessness and suicide attempts are common with them. Unless they reach the point where their denial is shattered and they admit absolute powerlessness over the gambling, they are headed for a downward spiral that for some ends in death.
- For further information on the vicious cycle of addiction, be it to substances or behaviours, please refer to the booklet Disease of addiction – Addiction Cycle
Cycle 4- Destitution or Recovery
- Tragically, many gambling addicts never reach the recovery phase, but rather continue gambling until they lose their families, end up homeless or in jails for the crimes they have committed to pay their gambling debts. Among this group are those who never heard that there was a solution to their problem. They never knew that compulsive gambling is a medically certifiable type of behaviour addiction, one for which there is a proven program of recovery. And not knowing there is a solution to their problem, some completely hopeless commit suicide. But even when a gambling addict is aware that a program of recovery exists, that person tends to need to suffer its consequences before they are willing to think seriously about recovery. As with other types of addiction, the addict becomes sincere and willing to recover when he or she hit rock bottom. It is usually at rock bottom when there is a greater chance for addicts to come out of denial and accept they have a problem. Not only do they need to reach that place of humility, the place where they admit defeat and acknowledge their gambling is a problem bigger than themselves, a problem they lack the power and resources to overcome, but they also must become willing to do whatever it takes to recover from it.
- This can be a big hurdle for the gambling addict, who typically has a grandiose notion of his abilities, and is therefore unwilling to believe that someone else has a better idea of what he should do. The gambler may be a man who was once rich and rode the waves of success in every area in his life. Or he may be someone of lower income, yet proud of his former perfect family life and his reputation for integrity in his community and workplace. This is the man who used to boast of his smarts and luck to everyone. The person who looked down on those who did not have it as good as him, those who he considered weak and lacking in savvy. Yet now he is sitting at the corner of a jail cell sentenced to years for the crimes he committed in the course of his gambling. Or he may be crouched in solitary in the mental hospital contemplating how to end his life.
- Like all addicts, he prefers to stay in denial, still imagining he can control or stop his gambling whenever he chooses. It is extremely difficult for such a person to accept defeat, to acknowledge that the gambling which was once a simple pastime has now taken over his life. Many addicts die in denial of their problem, the truth too painful to face, and many continue with their addiction rather than admit powerlessness over their problem. Though denial is a major component of all addictions, it is especially prominent among gambling addicts. Part of the reason for this is that medical and mental health professionals have dealt with the more prevalent addiction to drugs for longer than with behaviour addictions like gambling. These professionals widely accept that drug addiction is a disease and have implemented ways to diagnose and treat the problem. This is less so with gambling addiction, which in some societies is less recognized as a disease, and so there are no set criteria for diagnosis. This only serves to reinforce the denial of the gambling addict. If the professionals don’t consider his problem as a disease requiring radical intervention, than why should the gambler? The result is gambling addicts are less likely to admit to a problem, let alone seek treatment. Instead, they continue with their habit and make excuses for their behaviours.
- But recovery from gambling addiction is possible, and like recovery from any other type of addiction, the first step is to admit that there is a problem. Once the addict can face reality and admit to the devastating nature of his predicament, there is hope for a solution. Once the gambling addict acknowledges that his problem is bigger than he can handle by himself, he opens the door to the possibility of seeking help. Nowadays, especially in the West, there are treatment centres that specialize in treating gambling addiction. In the safe and closed environment of a treatment centre, the gambling addict is able to abstain from his compulsive behaviour for a time and gradually overcome the psychological withdrawal symptoms associated with the early days of abstinence from gambling. But like recovery from any other type of addiction, recovery from gambling addiction is not about simply stopping the compulsive behaviour. Be it drugs, alcohol, food or gambling, these are just the manifestations of the real problem, which need to be treated if the addict wants to arrest his addiction. The drug or the gambling compulsion is a symptom of deep underlying problems that must be addressed if long-term recovery is to be achieved.
- Though some addicts may benefit from a safe period in treatment and rehabilitation to cope with the withdrawal symptoms, recovery from any kind of addiction is about how to avoid old behaviours on a daily basis. After years of sometimes daily gambling, it takes time for recovery to take hold. The addictive habit has become the addict’s natural and default way to cope with life. They know no other way. When there have been problems at home, when work has become difficult, when emotions were too painful to deal with, the gambling addict has used gambling to escape. For most addicts, their addiction is their sole source of comfort. Though this temporary relief was illusory, it nonetheless served its purpose. Whether it was using drugs or gambling, the addict could escape himself and his problems for a while. But when their addiction finally turns on them and becomes a problem in itself and when the addict decides he wants a new way of life, it is not simply about stopping the addictive substance or behaviour. The addict must find new tools and resources to enable him to cope with life in a healthy manner.
- 12 Step programs and Fellowships have proven to be one of the most effective approaches towards recovery from any kind of addiction. These programs have helped legions of seemingly helpless addicts of all kinds break free of their addictions and in the process to learn a way of life that brings them a level of contentment they never imagined possible. There is a specific fellowship for problem gamblers called Gamblers Anonymous that offers a program of recovery that has proven effective in helping gamblers abstain from gambling and rebuild their lives. Membership is free and open to anyone who thinks he may have a problem with gambling. For the family and friends of gambling addicts there is Gam Anon, which offers a program of recovery specifically for those affected by the gambling of someone close to them. Adapted from the Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the 12 Steps of Gamblers Anonymous offer the solution and a template on how to abstain from gambling and live in recovery on a daily basis. There is a slogan in these Fellowships that states, “recovery is not about stopping but staying stopped.” This focus on daily recovery, on taking life a day at a time, is at the heart of 12 Step recovery programs. Along the way, many addicts have had the experience of being able to stop for a period of time, only to slip back into the grip of their addiction. They know they are better off not gambling, but a problem comes up or their emotions become too much to handle, and they go back to what they know will help them cope temporarily. The 12 Steps are designed to treat the underlying causes of addiction, and can be applied to all types of addiction, whether to substances or behaviours. The Steps spell out a program of recovery that deals with the real issue, namely, the addict’s way of thinking and belief system that led him to resort to addiction in the first place.
- The Steps can be explained in three broad categories and objectives: the first three Steps aim to help the addict come out of denial and rely on a source outside himself for a solution. Steps four to nine provide the tools to the addict to rectify the damage of the past. Steps ten to twelve offer the means to live life free from addiction on a daily basis. The following page provides a detailed explanation on what it means to recover using the 12 Steps of Gamblers Anonymous.
- For information on the structure and goals of the 12 Steps please refer to the booklet Recovery 12 Steps