Every week I am contacted by people dealing with problems created by their gambling. Most of them have lost everything and are trying to figure out what happened to their lives. All are in deep financial trouble, and many are facing criminal charges. Some are contemplating suicide. Not surprisingly, compulsive gambling has the highest suicide rate of all addictions.
There are two primary aspects of gambling which allow the gambler to get lost in his or her addiction. First, compulsive gambling is known as the hidden addiction. There are no outward manifestations. There is no odor, no staggering and no slurred speech. Often people do not realize a problem is starting to consume a loved one or a friend until it is too late. Second, as long as the gambler has a token (a counter or a chip used to gamble or to operate slot machines), the gambler has hope. The compulsive gambler will only seek help when all the money is gone.
A large number of gamblers have one additional thing in common; they are in recovery from substance abuse. Many in this group have been clean and sober and in a Twelve Step program for many years. The last two people who contacted me both had an active gambling addiction, one with eight and the other with 15 years of substance abuse recovery.
Gambling is an insidious addiction. A person predisposed to developing a gambling problem may spend years gambling socially and suffer minimal ill effects. But that person may eventually cross the line into a full blown addiction. The chains of addiction are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. It can take a lifetime to repair the devastation we gamblers leave in our wake. Relationships are often fatally destroyed due to the betrayal of trust by the compulsive gambler.
Studies have shown that 12-20% of substance abusers attending inpatient rehab programs also have a co-occurring gambling problem. We should begin addressing the issue with this group immediately. This may be accomplished by implementing an aftercare program specifically offering treatment for a gambling problem.
I conducted a survey of substance abuse patients at Brighton Hospital in Brighton, MI. I screened 8,000 substance abusers, primarily alcoholics, for a gambling problem. Sixteen percent of the patients screened identified as having a gambling problem. Interestingly, the majority of the remaining 84% did not gamble at all. The reason for this turned out to be quite simple. The addiction that brought them into the hospital was working just fine; they did not need another addiction at that time. Unfortunately, after treatment for substance addiction, this group may well replace their substance addiction with a gambling addiction. They may leave their alcoholism or drug abuse at the hospital, but walk down the street and find a replacement addiction.
Recovering alcoholics and addicts are a large group of people predisposed to problem gambling. At the same time, they are the most economical and easy to treat. We must educate them about the dangers of gambling, just as we currently educate alcoholics about the dangers of other substances. The theme should be addiction is addiction is addiction. Education will hopefully lead to well-informed and appropriate choices for the person in recovery.
Educating people who are presently in a Twelve Step recovery program holds great promise. There is a need to begin discussions connecting gambling and other process addictions with substance addictions. Recovering alcoholics and addicts should be warned of the devastation gambling can cause a person in substance recovery. I am deeply saddened by the numbers of recovering alcoholics and addicts coming out of Twelve Step-based treatment programs who lose most of what they gained while in the recovery program because of a lack of knowledge about gambling addiction.
The message is simple. If you are in recovery, do not gamble. If you need help for a gambling problem, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Burke lives in Howell, MI, where he practiced law for 25 years. Burke’s book, Never Enough: One Lawyer’s True Story of How He Gambled His Career Away, has been published by the American Bar Association. Proceeds from the book go to gambling victims. He travels the country speaking to groups on the topic of trading addictions and compulsive gambling.