Read the original article on The Pheonix Spirit HERE.

By Mary E. Berg

When kids turned eighteen in Minnesota, a favorite way to highlight the occasion, especially in the early 2000’s, was with a night out at a nearby casino. They celebrated their milestone birthdays with all the exuberance of youth who’ve reached the legal age to participate in an adult activity. Most adults continue to enjoy occasional nights out at a casino. They gamble from time-to-time without any serious consequences to their health, relationships, and finances. Not everyone is as lucky.

Consider Barbara* (The name Barbara is being used to protect her anonymity), a recovering compulsive gambler, who shared her story with The Phoenix Spirit. While on her honeymoon in the Bahamas, she played low stakes games, had fun, and viewed it as simple entertainment. When she got home, she gambled once, and didn’t enjoy it. For a few years, she didn’t gamble at all. However, in 1995, when she moved to a small town, started a business, and came under a lot of stress, she viewed the casino as a place to get away from it all, to think, relax, and have fun. When her husband lost his job and the financial pressures increased, casinos became more than just entertainment. She went with the idea, “Let’s see if I can win some money to pay the bills.”

On my first attempt, I hit the jackpot, the endorphins kicked in, and I was hooked.For the next six years she went off-and-on, sometimes stopping completely if she’d had a bad episode and lost a lot of money. As a couple, she and her husband identified gambling as a problem. In 2001, they wanted to have another baby and went to the Mayo Clinic for fertility treatment. During one of the pre-treatment screenings, her husband brought up gambling as a concern. The screening team said, “We won’t do the fertility treatments until you deal with the gambling. We’re referring you to a treatment center in Granite Falls.”

Barbara said, “I thought they were crazy. I believed I could stop on my own. I did stop for 18 months. We went back to the Mayo Clinic, and we successfully proceeded with the treatment. However, I had a miscarriage, and after that, I had a really rough time. I just wanted to escape from the world, escape from my problems, and I sought comfort and peace through gambling.” Her use escalated, she and her husband started having marital issues, and they separated in 2006.

One of her business clients told her about his high stakes gambling. She decided, “I’m giving that a try. On my first attempt, I hit the jackpot, the endorphins kicked in, and I was hooked. I moved from blackjack betting to slot machines to high stakes slot machines.”

In her loneliness, Barbara’s use escalated for the next four years, until she said, “Man, this is hurting me a lot. I’m going to stop at the end of 2009.” She did stop. She wasn’t in a formal program; she wasn’t familiar with any 12 Step program. She reconciled with her husband in 2010.

In 2011, something set her off, and she went right back to the casino. For the next six years, she gambled off-and-on quite a bit. She lost substantial amounts of money. She still paid her bills, but wasn’t saving the way she should have, juggled accounts, and robbed from the proverbial Peter to pay Paul. She thought she was only hurting herself, that her gambling wasn’t causing any big family problems, but she’d go to the casino at night, and not be in any shape in the mornings to get her daughter to school. Her marriage was on the rocks again. Her husband lost his job. They eventually divorced.

In 2016 she tried everything she knew to stop. She banned herself from casinos and canceled all her accounts. Yet she couldn’t stop. She’d go back to the casinos, thinking, “If I just don’t carry credit cards or cash cards with me, I’ll be okay. But as everybody knows, the casinos still had a way to get my money.”

Finally, in 2017, Barbara had had enough. She took a month off from her business, and went through treatment at Project Turnabout/Vanguard, Minnesota’s one treatment center focused only on gambling addiction, what Barbara calls ‘an eye-opening experience.’ Counseling sessions helped her recognize the unresolved grief from a traumatic event in her early twenties. Yet, when she got out, she thought it would be easy; that she wouldn’t have to work the program.

“I thought I could just quit on willpower. At 90 days, when I should have been at a Gambler’s Anonymous (GA) meeting getting a keychain {given to members at 30/60/90 days, 6 and 9 months}, I went gambling with a couple of other friends. I spiraled down into a lot of hell. I just gambled pretty hard. I’d have 5 months of not gambling and then relapse, 2 months and then relapse.”

In 2019, a cruise line offered her a free trip with free play. She went with a friend with the intention that her friend would get the free play. “I was in casino jail for a week. I hit rock bottom. I started all the gambling behaviors all over again. The juices got going, the dopamine hits took over. For the entire week, I hardly slept, maybe an hour-and-a-half at night. When I got off the ship, I looked terrible. I’d spent enough in a week to buy a new car.”

Barbara knew something had to change. “I started going to GA meetings regularly. I got a sponsor. Two meetings a week are what it seems I need to stay focused on my recovery. Even though I don’t drink much, Friday nights are when I like to ‘party.’ Now, I’ll go to a recovery meeting on Friday nights to get me through the weekend and a Tuesday meeting. I started other recovery strategies, too. I’ve been a panelist at a mini-conference on gambling and I volunteer to speak at Vanguard, the gambling unit of Project Turnabout.”

When asked about going in and out of recovery, Barbara said, “I would say I was “abstinent” from gambling more than in recovery. True recovery is different than abstaining. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of thinking. When you abstain, you’re still vulnerable. When you’re actively working a recovery program, actually working the 12 steps, and understanding what they mean, it’s different. People have a lot of amends to make. As an addict you have a lot of behaviors, you lie, you cheat, you steal.”

“For me, in recovery, I’m trying to make amends. My gambling was very hurtful to both my ex-husband and my daughter. She’s grown now, but my gambling affected our relationship quite a lot. My daughter felt that it created a coldness between us. I thought I’d always provided for her. I helped her pay for college, buy a car, and supported her. I went to all these activities. However, I was shocked at what she said in the family program. She felt that I was distracted and not really present with her. Making amends is a big part of a recovery program and can take a lifetime. That’s way different than stopping gambling and abstaining. Making amends doesn’t happen overnight.”

When Barbara got serious, in May, 2019, she made it through the first 90 days and kept going. In March 2020, all the casinos closed due to Covid. For her, that was a really good thing. “Covid was a challenging time for my business. I had a lot of issues with employees being gone, out sick, and out due to quarantine. I’m in the financial industry and it was a tough business for a couple of months with so much uncertainty. It was rugged. During Covid, nobody wanted to meet in person and we couldn’t meet anyway because churches were shut down. Project Turnabout started an online recovery meeting that met every Tuesday night up until last summer. I went to that meeting and then every Friday night I dialed in to a phone meeting. That was my trek from starting recovery to celebrating recovery.”

Marti Paulson, the CEO of Project Turnabout/Vanguard, described the center where Barbara went for treatment. “Our center has 20 residential beds for men and women. We treat co-occurring disorders, and hire mental health practitioners to work with the gambling addiction counselors. We hire registered and licensed nurses and counselors. Patients are given very individualized treatment plans. The 30-day stay also includes a one-day program where families can come or they can participate via Zoom. Gambling is a family disease and affects everyone, the same as any other addiction. To leave the family untreated would be a severe injustice.”

“We at Project Turnabout take a neutral stance to gambling. One of the reasons we do is that alcohol and gambling are legal in Minnesota. We want to be there when individuals and families are ready to get help. Second, we receive grants and a great amount of support from the casinos and resorts, both in Minnesota and from other states. We don’t want them to think that we’re against them.”

“Minnesota is a little different from other states. The State of Minnesota will pay for any state resident or family member to go for residential gambling treatment. There isn’t another state in the United States that does that. The funds are obtained through the unclaimed lottery fund, as well as from .05% of the stadium fund. Unlike chemical dependency treatment which is covered through Medicaid and state covered PMAP insurance, gambling treatment is not. It’s a little-known fact that Minnesota offers free treatment for those seeking help for problem gambling.”

When asked about the trends in problem gambling, Ms. Paulson noted that there has been an increase. “We saw the after-effects of Covid take quite a toll on gamblers. Covid shut down casinos. Going to casinos became difficult. Instead, online gambling increased – pool shooting gambling, card playing, sports betting – much more so than the typical casino gambling. Gamblers are very strong isolators.”

In 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a nationwide ban on sports betting. Since then, nearly three dozen states have passed legislation approving sports betting. On Feb. 20, 2023 companion bills were introduced in the Minnesota House and Senate that would legalize retail and online sports betting in the state. The tribes would have exclusivity with sports betting. {As we go to print, no votes have been taken.}

According to Ms. Paulson, in the past, many more men than women struggled with problem gambling, however in the last ten years, similar to alcoholism, the statistics have equaled out to almost 50/50. It’s become much more acceptable for women to go into both bars and casinos. “We’re seeing lots more young people with gambling addiction. Youth are much more likely to be involved in online gambling. We don’t take anyone under the age of 18 in our residential treatment program. The only residential treatment facilities for young people are out state. Gaming is a whole industry within itself. Although gaming addiction is treated much the same as gambling, gaming has a much different, younger population.”

When asked how sports betting factors into these trends, Susan Sheridan Tucker, Executive Director of the Minnesota Alliance for Problem Gambling (MN APG) stated, “Sports betting is primarily done by young men, ages 18-30. The sports gaming operators are trying to lure more women into gaming by changing the look of games so that they’ll appeal to women. Lots of women enjoy sports. The operators are hoping women will also enjoy sports betting. They’re using the terms ‘sports betting’ and ‘gaming’ to smooth over the negative association people have with ‘gambling.’ The mobility, accessibility, and lure of online gambling is concerning. Igaming – which is essentially any casino-type game that is also electronic – can be free to start. These games mimic slot machines, poker, and standard casino games. They allow you to play for free for a fixed amount of time or for so many wins. If you want to continue to play, you need to pay. The gaming operators know how to hook people.”

Minnesotans are very fortunate to have the longest-running residential treatment center in the US and to have their treatment paid for through state funds. When asked if people are taking advantage of this opportunity, Ms. Sheridan-Tucker replied, “Not as many as they should. Right now, only 100 people are in treatment. Research shows that 0.05 – 2 percent of the population has a severe gambling problem. That’s 250,000 Minnesotans, and 10,000 high school students. Nationally, 400 times more is set aside for substance use addiction than for gambling addiction. Yet the brain acts the same way with both.”

Funding for prevention, research and treatment and increased awareness by the public of the issues surrounding problem gambling, online gaming, and sports betting could help so that the next group of high school seniors who go out to celebrate their 18th birthdays will be able to avoid the pitfalls of compulsive gambling. There is hope, there is recovery.

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