Gambling: The Hidden Addiction

The Hidden Addiction

Tom, a 22-year-old, calls the gamblers hotline from a telephone booth on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. He’s talking about killing himself because he believes he has no other options. He owes $75,000, has no job and just lost $4,000 in stolen money. The hotline volunteer took him to treatment in the only free-standing inpatient facility in New Jersey, at that time. Upon admission, he revealed that he had been in severe alcohol and drug treatment centers for his drug addiction, but never was asked any questions about gambling.

Steve came to treatment after a gambling binge in the casinos in Atlantic City. He was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. He had dilated pupils, sweats, shakes and extreme mood swings. The nursing staff documentation showed that his blood pressure was elevated and that he was very hyper. He denied any use of alcohol or drugs. This was later confirmed through his lab results. He was placed in the detox unit until he was stabilized.

Michelle is clean and sober for 14 months. She never revealed to her addictions counselor, that gambling was her first love. During the 14 months in recovery, she goes from occasional to daily attendance at the racetrack. One day she finds herself at the bar in the track, ready to order a drink. Fortunately, she panics and picks up a telephone, instead, and calls Gamblers Anonymous for help. Today she has 11 years of abstinence from gambling and 12 years from drugs and alcohol.

Compulsive Gambling is a Progressive Disease

Compulsive gambling is a progressive disease in which an individual has an uncontrollable preoccupation and urge to gamble. This results in excessive gambling, the outcome of which is the loss of productive time and money. Eventually, the gambling will disrupt and destroy the gambler’s personal life, family relationships, and vocational pursuits. To the compulsive gambler, the need to bet is no longer a little action or the illusion of a quick or easy profit. Placing the next bet becomes a matter of life and death.

For millions of people, gambling offers a harmless and entertaining diversion from everyday life. For others, however, the simple act of placing a bet is a very different experience, a moment in which they have lost the ability to control their gambling behavior. The compulsive gambler is driven to gamble in the same way an alcoholic needs a periodic drink or a drug addict needs a “fix”. However, he or she does not reveal signs of their addiction on their breath nor by track marks on their arms. This addiction can remain hidden for a longer period of time and it is likely that the gambler will not seek help until it is in its advanced stages.

The Phases of Progression

The first phase of progression, known as the winning phase is when addiction first takes root. Most compulsive gamblers report that they have either had one or more “big wins” or a series of winning streaks. This seems to be the “hook” that encourages the fantasy that they will continue to win and become wealthy from their gambling activity. This phase is usually over in a short period of time, but winning can occur in all phases.

Losing Phase

During the losing phase, the gambler begins to chase their losses in this phase. Their bets get larger and they borrow money from friends, family, co-workers, credit cards, banks and eventually illegal sources. They often delay paying debts and will manipulate finances in order to continue their gambling. They cover up, lie to loved ones and they are often irritable, restless and argumentative. Individuals may attempt to slow down or quit gambling, altogether, but they are unable to stay away for any substantial length of time.

Desperation Phase

During the desperation phase, the gambler spends most of their waking hours in pursuit of the bet and/or the money to make the bet. But the thrill ends upon placing the bet; not upon the victor announcement. The excitement of the win is only to obtain more money to place the next bet. They alienate themselves from family and friends. Individuals may involve themselves in illegal acts (i.e. bad checks, embezzlement, credit card fraud). They experience feelings of hopelessness and despair and suicidal thoughts and attempts can occur.

An estimated 5% of the general population suffers from this addiction. However, these numbers are much higher for alcoholics and drug addicts. In a survey of New Jersey treatment centers in the late 1980’s, 28% of patients receiving inpatient treatment and 22% in outpatient treatment for chemical dependency experienced gambling as a co-addiction. In some cases, gambling was the primary addiction. The potential for cross-addiction or switching addictions is quite high in this population. Unfortunately, many cases slip through the cracks. This is why it’s so important to ask for help when problems begin to surface.

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