Although Dianne is not a big football fan, she’ll never forget the Monday Night Football game between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys on January 3, 1983. It was the first major bet her husband, Don, placed on a football game. He bet a whopping $1,500 – an amount to cover accumulated gambling losses to date – and lost.
More than 25 years later, Dianne shudders at the memory of that night. She looks back on it as the beginning of a 14-year period in which her husband’s gambling took the family on a roller coaster ride it never wanted.
Shortly after that Vikings game, Don’s gambling losses began to mount. It soon led to another early memory that haunted the family: his young children watched in dismay as a stranger came into their house to remove a Betamax machine, the sales proceeds of which would be used to settle gambling debt. In the first of many gambling-related lies to his children, Don explained that the machine was broken.
In time, Don’s betting advanced from football to all other sports, and he soon had his own bookie. “I bet every day of the year except the Monday and Wednesday before and after the baseball all-star game, the only two days of the year when there was no sports betting,” says Don.
After Don’s bookie was the subject of a police raid, federal agents dressed in suits and badges came to the house. That development sent shock waves through the family. “That really scared the kids and I felt we couldn’t have that,” says Dianne. She subsequently packed up the kids and moved in hopes of finding a more stable home environment.
The sight of an empty house served as the first wakeup call for Don. He began attending Gambler’s Anonymous in 1986 and convinced Dianne he was ready to quit. Only he really wasn’t.
Shortly thereafter, Dianne came across a piece of paper with a list of football games while the couple was away at a cabin. “I was assured by Don that they were old games because he’d quit gambling.” She later confirmed the list was for current football games.
As a result, Don became increasingly sneaky in his dealings. He cancelled handball games with friends and rearranged work shifts so he could find more time for gambling at the casino. Don learned to kite checks from three checking accounts he created, and found himself visiting a banker every day. “I could at least relax on the weekends when the banks were closed,” recalls Don some 20 years later. He was working one job and half of another “to keep all the balls in the air.”
Don forged his wife’s signature a few times to take out loans to pay gambling debts. With a flexible work schedule, Don, who controlled the family’s finances, arranged to be home when he knew the mailman would arrive, meeting him several houses in advance. “The joke was that I was having an affair with the mailman,” says Don.
The cycle of lies and deceit – as well as a general absence from the family – continued through 1994, about eight years after Don first attended GA. On Tuesday, December 27, 1994, he called in sick to work and cancelled a handball match with a friend so that he could stay at a casino. When Don, who called his wife every afternoon like clockwork, didn’t call at the usual time, Dianne suspected the worst. Late that afternoon, a call finally came. “Would you mind if I cashed another $100 check,” Don asked? “Do whatever you want, stay as long as you want, I don’t care,” said his defeated wife of 16 years.
Don came home in the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, but to a bedroom that was locked. He knew he’d hit rock bottom and had to stop gambling. He went to GA that night and has been attending religiously every since. That Tuesday night was the last time he’s every gambled.
Today, Don is well into his recovery and is a thriving member of society. He considers himself fortunate in that GA has helped him, and helped him at age where he can still repay his debts and hopefully accumulate something of a nest egg. Other gambling addicts require individual treatment and counseling to help in their recovery.
The road has been long and not without challenges. “It was particularly tough to quit at the beginning,” says Don. “Even several years into it, I remember seeing a list of football games and asking myself if the Packers would cover the spread, etc.” For her part, all these year’s later, Dianne’s stomach still turns when she sees her husband turn the channel from one football game to another, conditioned for so many years to think he’s checking on games he bet on.
Forgiveness, after so many years of deception, is difficult to grant. In Don and Dianne’s case, a more complete healing didn’t occur until well after Don had quit gambling and the couple had engaged in Retrouvaille, a type of marriage counseling that’s not unlike a 12-step program.
Thankfully, much of the damage caused by Don’s gambling has gradually healed. His daughter, who wouldn’t allow him to attend her high school graduation nor be part of her wedding, has reconciled with Don. “Our kids carried around a ton of hurt from what their father did,” says Dianne. “It seemed like every time we wanted to do something as a family, all the sudden he was gone. For the kids, it was one broken promise after another.”
Today, 17 years into his recovery, Don’s promises are as good as gold.
I was exposed to a variety of games early in my life. Our family played Pokeno — which is how I learned to play cards — and spun dreidels, which was the first game I played that involved money. I won my first big pot at the age of five years old.
As I got a little older, I played poker and pinochle. I remember losing all my money in poker to my neighbors but then watching my father bail me out by winning it all back. I enjoyed the thrill of being a part of that.
I went to a casino for the first time at 21. I enjoyed it. Then, at about age 30, I met a man who also enjoyed gambling. We started playing Bingo a lot and pull tabs. I remember finding Bingo to be slow, so I played multiple cards and also pull tabs between games.
It was about this time when I started to become preoccupied with gambling. I began lying to myself and others about money. I lost a job directly because of errors in my work due to my gambling, which I sometimes did for 24-36 hours before work.
Eventually, I started attending GA meetings with my husband, but mainly to support him. I looked at the others and thought they had more problems than I did. There was a part of me that wanted to stop, but my desire to continue gambling was greater than my desire to not gamble.
I rationalized that gambling helped me when I was feeling depressed, as I would otherwise just stay home and sleep. I became suicidal, but since I only felt that way when I wasn’t gambling, I convinced myself that I should keep gambling.
Eventually, I realized that my gambling was a symptom of a deeper problem. Gambling was a part of keeping feelings down — guilt, shame, remorse, etc. I was doing things that were against my core principles, such as lying to dear friends, writing bad checks, losing jobs, more drinking and depression. I rationalized some of my behavior by thinking that I hadn’t gone to prison or killed anyone.
While I stopped gambling for periods of time, I couldn’t stop completely. My finances were in ruin and I was full of anger toward myself and my out-of-control behavior.Thanks to my fellow GA members, I was eventually hospitalized for a second time for depression and then went on to treatment for my gambling. The last time I gambled was on February 19, 2011.
I learned that you can find hope and meaning from the most unlikely of sources. In my gambling fog, I had neglected so many things, including my dog and my plants. While I was away, a friend cared for my house, including my plants. When I returned home, I saw that my tomato plant had somehow survived and was even sprouting new life; I refer to it as Lazarus the Tomato Plant. I took that as a sign that I was going to grow a new life as well.
I can’t believe all the positive things about my life. I’m proud of who I am today and the work I do with the GA program. In the past, I thought only of myself. Now I think of others and volunteer my talents whenever possible. I’ve grown personally. I challenge myself to do things that make me uncomfortable. I enjoy trying new things and taking new approaches in my life of recovery.
If people reading this are on the fence about whether to seek help, I would tell them to keep coming back. Although I was initially not working the GA program when I attended the meetings, they still helped me — the seeds eventually took. I would encourage others to hang on to the desire to stop gambling. It doesn’t have to be an armload of desire; it can be a smidgeon. The desire to stop gambling just has to be greater than the desire to gamble.
At a very young age, I remember people telling me, “You’re lucky. You’re just like your grandma.”
Well, my grandmother was a compulsive gambler. But gambling didn’t have devastating consequences to her life because she could only gamble the set amount of money my grandfather gave her. Her gambling never caused her to go without food or to miss rent.
I was raised in a very dysfunctional family. My mother used drugs and would let drug dealers and users sexually abuse her for drugs. As a result, I grew up with no boundaries and would do everything I could to not feel anything.
Until my mid 30s, I went to casinos every now and then, maybe once a year. It was fun. But then two things happened. First, I got divorced, and I started going to the casino more. And second, I got a big win.
When I first won big, I remember thinking this should be my job, that I could never make money this fast. My bets got higher to get the same dopamine rush.
It didn’t take long before I knew I had a gambling problem, but I didn’t know how to label it. I called myself a “gamblaholic” because I didn’t know of any other term. Nobody told me to get help.
I spent a six-figure court settlement in the span of three months and lived in seven places in less than a year. I dated men and essentially had sex for money so that I could continue to gamble.
It got to the point where every time I was driving back to the casino, I’d think about ways I could hurt herself. The wanting to die consumed me. I thought, “If I win, I’ll live. If I don’t, then I can always commit suicide.” I tried to commit suicide three times.
I needed and wanted help, so I googled gambling help in Minnesota. I called and had an intake meeting with an outpatient counselor. She highly recommended that I go for inpatient help at Vanguard Center for Gambling Recovery. However, I had joint custody and after a tumultuous divorce my ex would not take my son beyond the schedule. I wanted so badly to get help but felt stuck.
A week after I tried to hang myself, my final suicide attempt, my 18-year-old son finally said to me, “Mom, please go get help.” He said he would take care of the house and his brother so that I could go. I can honestly say that he saved my life. I had no more excuses to not get help.
My gambling often went hand-in-hand with using meth. Thankfully, Vanguard was able to help with both issues. There is no question in my mind that getting over gambling is much harder than getting over drugs, even though gambling doesn’t involve ingesting anything into your body.
Indeed, there is so much that people don’t understand about gambling addiction, even in health care. I work in nursing, and when I talk to the providers about gambling disorder, most say they never received training on the topic. I tell them about the high suicide rate, that you can’t wake up and be sober as you can from alcohol, and that when you look at your checking account, it’s still negative. These providers may see people with gambling problems but have no idea where to send them for help.
I’ve talked to my pastor often and try to share my story at church, where they most often talk about drug and alcohol addiction. I am willing to share my story to anyone if it can help somebody.
If anyone reading this wonders if they have a problem and are on the fence about what to do, here is what I would say. Go online and learn about gambling addiction. Take the 20-question screening to see how many questions you answer “Yes” to. Then, if it’s appropriate, seek help, whether it’s searching for “Minnesota gambling help,” looking into Gambler’s Anonymous or calling the state’s helpline (1-800-333-HOPE). People who are struggling should also know that there are programs to help them financially so they can get treatment.
My story is not very pretty, but I am truly grateful for my addiction because it has turned my life around. My relationships are better, I’m honest and open, and am able to share things that bother me. I’m happy and working hard to earn a paycheck. I appreciate this so much more than if I didn’t have a gambling addiction and hadn’t gotten help. I have serenity.
I’ll never forget the first time I realized there was hope for my compulsive gambling. I was at confession and the priest said, “I don’t normally do this, but I’m giving you the phone number of someone in gambling addiction recovery at Gamblers Anonymous (GA).”
I always had the desire to quit gambling, but didn’t feel like I had the tools or the power to do it. I went to weekly GA meeting, and although I had weekly relapses in the beginning, I kept going. I’ve been going for more than three years, and the meetings continue to sustain me in my recovery.
When I was young, my grandparents and family loved to play Thirty-one and other card games for nickels or quarters. When I won the ‘pot’ it was like a big win for me. When I lost, I remember my grandma saying, “If you can’t play, you gotta pay.” It was always very enjoyable and I was lucky with it most of the time.
In college, I went to casinos with my parents. I brought $20-40 to lose. I played normally and, at this point, didn’t think of myself as a gambler.
After that, I went on a tour of different states to visit different casinos and their different games. My first really big disaster occurred in Las Vegas, where I lost my entire paycheck. I remember walking two miles in the desert with no money and feeling despair for the first time. I continued to gamble and always played until I lost everything.
A few years later, I remember going to a casino and praying because I was feeling attacked by demons at the casino. The people to my right were arguing about money while the faces of the people leaving the casino were distraught. These images were in marked contrast to people just arriving, who were running in and joyful.
At this point, I realized that if I were to continue gambling, I would lose my life’s savings. I decided that I was going to quit gambling, which I did for 13 years.
Then about six years ago, I went to a casino as part of a Christmas party my employer had. I won a TV and split a large 50-50 jackpot, and decided that gambling wasn’t so bad. Within a few months, I had four big wins, ranging from about $1,000 to $6,000. I remember thinking, “This is fantastic. This is easy money.”
I was courted in the VIP program and invited to parties and special events. I went to the casino four to five times a week. I also learned how to get a cash advance on credit cards and how to link my player’s card to my bank so I could take money out in advance. In that year, I lost about $28,000.
Things turned dark for me. I suffered from anxiety and medical issues, including a visit to the ER for a racing heart. I worked overtime, but every cent went to the casino. This went on for three years.
I looked into the Vanguard Center for Gambling Recovery and was told that I could benefit from enrolling there. However, I worried whether going there would jeopardize my job. I felt like I had to choose between losing my job or losing my life.
Between the tools I’ve gained from (inpatient) treatment at Vanguard, outpatient treatment and my GA meetings, I’ve been able to sustain my recovery since May. I know that I can string days together with sobriety and take comfort in knowing I only have to make a decision for the day.
Given my history — and given the nature of this nasty addiction — I can’t say that I’ll never gamble again. But I do know that every day in recovery is a better day than every day spent gambling.
If I could reach out to someone in the grip of gambling — who probably feels that it could lead to some kind of insanity or even death — I would tell them how quickly things start to get better once you start your recovery. In Minnesota, we are lucky to have many great resources, but you have to reach out.
I’m hardly the person you’d expect to develop a gambling addiction. I wasn’t a video gamer, didn’t like football pools and didn’t play the stock market. I didn’t even start gambling until I was almost 50. And even then, I took a roll of quarters to the casino, spent it in 15 minutes, and that was the extent of it.
But within a year, I fell fast and hard. I had a big win at the casino when I bet $20 and won $2,000 in a video poker game. Then I thought maybe I could win $20,000.
I got money from wherever I could. I maxed my credit cards and used the overdraft protection from my bank as a loan. And since I managed the finances where I worked, I started juggling the books and accessing funds, convincing myself I would “borrow” the money, keep track of it and pay it back.
My job performance eventually suffered because I spent so much time at the casino. I remember falling asleep at my desk one day because I gambled for the majority of a weekend, getting very little sleep. I ended up getting fired from my job because of poor performance, tardiness and absenteeism.
I knew it was a matter of time before I got caught for what I did with the organization’s books. The fateful day came a month after I was fired when detectives knocked on my door and went through every corner of my house. After I was arraigned, bail was set at a whopping one million dollars because I had previously gone on a cruise to the Grand Cayman, a place where people are known to hide money. I ultimately received a 51-month sentence, spending 34 months in prison and 17 months on parole.
I know that today there are specialty gambling courts in some states where people can avoid prison time if their offenses are related to their gambling addiction. I don’t know that that would have served me well. I think I needed all the time I spent in prison to come up with a plan for the rest of my life. A wrist slap, at least in my case, may not have been enough.
Once I became resolute in my recovery, I was amazed at how many times the “system” wasn’t really in step with my addiction. Once on parole, I was told not to drink or do drugs, though that was never an issue for me. I was subjected to urinalysis to make sure that I wasn’t doing either, but the test somehow came back positive for ecstasy (later determined to be because of a medication I was taking). Another time, while on parole, I was suspected of stealing cash from my employer, but the theft was later traced to a coworker. It’s at these times — when I was getting healthier in my recovery — that I felt sort of framed as a felon or criminal. It’s at these times — when you feel knocked down — that it’s tempting to turn back to the addiction. The key is continuing to work your recovery program.
Now I focus on sharing my story with others at outpatient centers and conferences. I talk about what it was like to be an addict and how I was able to overcome my challenges. I want to give back.
I look back on the lies I told and can’t believe how intricate they were. I once told my employer that I was gone for three hours for lunch because I was at a gas station and someone’s car caught on fire — and that my phone was lost in my act of trying to help them get out.
I came from a middle-class Christian home. I was raised to not lie, cheat and steal. Yet that’s what I became. Everything takes a back seat to the gambling addiction, which is what’s truly driving the bus.
If somebody hears my story and they’re sitting on the fence, I hope they do some reflection and use whatever resources are available to them and not go as deep into the addiction as I did. I feel physical pain when I hear of people that suspect they have a gambling addiction but continue to plunge deeper.
The message I want to leave people with is not to think that it can’t happen to you. It can. No matter your background or how good a person you are, these things can happen to good people.
The first time I started to think I might have a gambling addiction was when it was suggested to me by my manager at work. She saw that I enjoyed talking to coworkers about my gambling — even laughing off my appreciable losses. Until then, I didn’t give it all that much thought.
I was taken a little off guard by my manager’s comment, in which she actually asked me to watch how much I talked about gambling in the workplace because coworkers might think I had an addiction. But the message hit home for me — she was telling me I should consider that I had an addiction.
At my very next therapy appointment after that conversation I used my therapist’s phone to call the gambling helpline. I knew it was time.
Although I was decisive in seeking help once my manager talked to me — and I took the initial homework assignments very seriously — I still had relapses in the first several years while going to Gambler’s Anonymous (GA). And while I know that others might not return to GA after relapsing, I was struck by the welcoming, nonjudgmental outlook they shared, and so I never missed a meeting.
Two things motivated me to become more steadfast in my recovery. When visiting my father for six weeks before he died of cancer, I had to drive right past the casino. But despite the stress of my father’s health and his proximity to the casino, I never gambled.
The second motivator was the lingering feeling I had the last time I gambled. I distinctly remember how I wanted to drive my care into a wall to kill myself. I didn’t wish to revisit that awful feeling, and I also knew that my father would not want me to do that.
Over the years, I’ve learned about the various situations with other problem gamblers. Our stories always have similarities and differences. Unlike a lot of others, I never lied, cheated or stole. I was always honest with people and confessed when I had relapses. I’m also lucky because I never dipped into retirement savings, though I can only wonder how much more I’d have saved had I not spent so much money gambling.
With the work I’ve done to overcome my gambling addiction along with various other addictions, I’m very familiar with many of the processes, including the 12 steps. In my work in the social services industry, I’m able to provide insights to people when I share my own story.
I encourage others to replace gambling with another activity. And if drinking is also an addiction for them, I tell them to replace alcohol with another beverage of choice that they always have on hand. I also encourage people to reward themselves with jewelry or something else as they reach clean milestones to keep them going.
In August, I will have ten years clean from gambling. I live what some might call a boring 12-step life, but I’ve never been happier and more optimistic about my future.