The enemy within

THE man with the microphone said that he used to call one street in his home town the Bermuda Triangle.

“There was a pub on the street, along with a bookie’s and a casino. And I used to regularly get lost there. It was my Bermuda Triangle.”

The wit evoked no more than a muted giggle among the assembled audience. There was too much pain on display.

Outside, beyond the windows of the Radisson Hotel, Sunday morning was coming up, brighter and warmer than the first day of April had any right to be. Inside, in an open meeting of the Gamblers’ Anonymous convention, the past was being raked over in the hope a better future may lie ahead. The convention was held in Limerick this year. It attracted members from all over the island of Ireland and Britain. Four rooms were set aside for open and closed meetings, and for Gam-Anon, the support group for the families of compulsive gamblers.

Unlike in other addiction forums, the gender lines in the GA and its associate body is stark. Nearly all of those with problems are male. Gam-Anon is practically all female. The balance is shifting, particularly with the advent of online gambling in areas such as bingo, but that realignment has yet to feed through to support groups.

About 30 seats were occupied. They faced a raised stage on which two men and a woman sat behind a table and related how life and their choices had delivered them to their current station. In the body of the room, much of the detail related was met with nodding heads. One man, middle-aged and overweight, revealed how he began gambling in the local bookies, but then a few years ago discovered Betfair, the online betting exchange.

“I thought I had found the answer to all I ever needed to know,” he told the meeting.

There are a million different stories in rooms like these, but the strength drawn from meetings relies on identification with others.

Two tall screens winged the table on the stage. One is headed “GA Step Recovery Programme”. The 12 steps listed are based largely on the 12-step programme initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous. The other screen is headed “GA Step Unity Programme”, which corresponds to AA’s 12 traditions. There are small adaptations for the specifics of gambling.

Step Four of the AA programme refers to making “a searching and fearless moral inventory…”

For GA, it reads “a searching and fearless moral and financial inventory”.

The detail betrays the extra mountain to be climbed by a recovering gambling addict. When the dense fog of addiction begins to clear, the terrifying steeples of debt still dominate the road ahead.

As online gambling has gathered steam in recent years, so GA has seen a greater demand for its services. In Waterford City, for instance, there are now up to five meetings a week. Three years ago, there was just a single weekly gathering. In Limerick, the frequency has gone from one to three weekly. Provincial towns such as Mitchelstown and Thurles have responded to demands for a weekly meeting. If you’re a compulsive gambler in Cork or Dublin, a meeting is available daily.

Barry began gambling as a teenager. “I was hooked straight away,” he said of his first bet. After leaving school, he secured employment and immediately applied for a credit card. With the Celtic Tiger roaring, banks were falling over themselves to issue credit.

“I went onto Betfair straight away. In the first day, I maxed out the card, which was €3,500. I was in a state about ringing up to pay it back, but when they told me I could do it in instalments, I was over the moon. Off I went again.”

He found the opportunities to indulge his growing habit were better served online.

“Online, you just press buttons. It’s not the same as walking into a bookies and handing cash over the counter, which doesn’t feel right after a while. I was upping my bets tenfold online. In some ways, it was as if you weren’t dealing in real money at all.”

Initially, he bet on the horses in Ireland and the UK. Then, after the last races of the day, he turned to the horses in the US. Betting and following the races was made simple online. “I’d bet on anything, and they give you the chance to do just that. In between races, you could bet on whether the FTSE or the Nasdaq would go up or down in the next hour. I know nothing about stocks and shares, but I got stuck right into it, anything to avoid having to think.

“Then there was baseball. I wouldn’t know a baseball bat from a cricket bat. But you can do all that. Just bet. There’s no skill or knowledge in it.”

He found his strain of addiction embraced isolation.

“I’d just get up, wouldn’t even have to get dressed, and go online. If I had to go out to the bookies, there was some you’d have to avoid after a while, and some faces you’d have to avoid too. I didn’t have to deal with any of that.”

There are scant statistics about those who fall into compulsive gambling in Ireland.

A study by the Institute of Public Health in 2010 found that between 0.65% and 1% of the population suffer from a gambling problem. The 1% figure equates with international research from, among other places, Harvard University. This compares with estimates of around 7.5%-8% of the population suffering from alcohol addiction. In Ireland, this would correspond to 44,000 addicts. While an older cohort would tend to gamble in settings such as bookies or casinos, many find a more convenient home online.

The institute’s paper says “gambling can negatively affect significant areas of a person’s life, including mental and physical health, employment, finances, and relationships”.

“Only a small proportion of those who gamble run into difficulty, but for those who do there is a ripple effect with implications for family and community health and wellbeing.”

It also reported that gambling among adolescents was thought to be two to three times higher than in the adult population. Mick Devine, clinical director of Tabor Lodge treatment centre in Cork, says the age profile of the gambling addict has changed with the advent of online activity.

“More young men are doing more gambling as part of an addiction profile. It’s seductive to do it online as part of their recreation.

“Now you have two types of problem gamblers. There is the dyed-in-the-wool gambler, and then the other who might be young and have problems with alcohol, uppers and that sort of thing, and for them, gambling is more seductive. It started out as a Celtic Tiger kind of thing, but it’s getting worse.”

Devine adds that, increasingly, young men are arriving at centres such as Tabor Lodge with gambling as their prime addiction.

“I assessed a dyed-in-the-wool gambler [reecntly] ... He was just 22. Typically, men like him might start in their teens. It’s all about the adrenalin rush to the brain. They get a great buzz but their feet aren’t on the ground. I’ve had people come who said they were bored before getting into it.”

Evidence of a rise in gambling as a primary addiction comes from the HSE, which compiles figures of those who seek out services.

Between 2008 and 2010, the total number of cases reported rose from 189 to 211. However, the numbers reporting gambling as their main problem rose from 92 to 159. While the HSE figures would only account for a fraction of those with problems, a trend does seem to be developing.

Colin O’Driscoll, a psychologist with strong links to the GAA, has treated a range of young people for gambling addiction.

“One nature of online gambling is your ability to detect consequences is much more reduced than with the pattern of handing over cash [at a bookmaker’s office]. There has been a rocketing number gambling in the last 10 to 15 years and most of that has been online,” he said.

The prevalence is difficult to pin down. One reason for this is that those who present for treatment tend to have reached rock bottom.

The grey area of “problem” as opposed to “addiction” is nearly impossible to quantify. Unlike in substance abuse, the compulsive gambler can hide his secret even from those close to him.

“I wasn’t just a compulsive gambler, I was a compulsive liar,” says Barry. “I could blow a month’s wages in a few hours, and when I faced my parents they’d ask how was I and I’d say fine. I could hide it no problem.”

Among health professionals, the problem is seen as one that has largely been ignored by society. Stephen Rowan, director of the Toranfield House treatment centre in Wicklow, sees significant factors unique to online as opposed to shop-based gambling.

“The accessibility offered by online gambling is significant. I’d say about 75% of those who gamble online are problem gamblers, while about 20% of those who go to casinos would have a problem. One of the big differences online is frequency, how fast can it happen.

“Most of those with gambling problems suffer from poly-addiction. Usually they have issues with drink, cocaine, or sex as well. The thing about gambling, and particularly online, is that it can mimic substance abuse in the rush to the brain. I’ve never come across a gambler who didn’t have other addictions.”

Eventually, Barry’s cover was blown. The extent of his debts were crystallised, his parents awoken to what had unfolded. He went to his first GA meeting in 2009.

Eighteen months later, in Mar 2011, he was back on the treadmill.

“I stole my father’s life savings and went on a binge of it for three days. Online and in bookies, it was just horrendous.”

He’s been in recovery since. He attends meetings two or three times a week. “I don’t handle money, I don’t have access to bank accounts. If I watch a match, I still get the odds. Thoughts of gambling will always be there but I can deal with it. I can drive past a bookies now and it doesn’t mean a thing to me. I can see now that gambling is for people who can have an ordinary bet, and that’s not me. I know now that I can do anything once I don’t gamble.”

He regularly attends GA meetings. The group forms a large part of his life. The same applies to most of those who attended the annual convention this month.

They draw strength from identifying with others and sticking to the 12-step programme.

It’s not all plain sailing. As with Barry’s experience, most who enter GA for the first time relapse. Some never make it back in. Suicide is an issue that is associated more with gambling than other addictions.

“Suicide is the biggest issue with gambling,” says Stephen Rowan.

“About 20% of problem gamblers have attempted it.”

Those who do make a serious effort at recovery have to face the enormity of the bubble they lived in throughout the years of addiction. In doing so, many are confronted by their emotions for the first time, certainly since their addiction began, which, for most, tends to be in early adulthood.

On arrival at the GA convention in Limerick, members were given a folder containing information about the convention. Included among the effects was a packet of hankies. The gesture was more practical than dramatic. In raking over the journey that those present have taken, the fare is raw, and emotions spill out in many guises.

But speak to any of the members and they tend to repeat the same few sentences, about “being in the right place”, and “I haven’t had a bet today”. They are living though the dark side of gambling.

Beyond the fun, the thrill of the flutter, and the heightened interest in sporting events that a bet can engender, there is the dark alley down which some end up fleeing.

They represent a small minority of those who gamble, but the consequences ripple out to families, businesses, and beyond.

Do you have a problem?

* Do you lose time from work due to gambling?

* Is gambling making your home life unhappy?

* Is gambling affecting your reputation?

* Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

* Do you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?

* Does gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?

* After losing do you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your loses?

* After a win do you have a strong urge to return and win more?

* Do you often gamble until your last euro is gone?

* Do you ever borrow to finance your gambling?

* Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?

* Are you reluctant to use gambling money for normal expenditure?

* Does gambling make you careless of the welfare of your family?

* Do you gamble for longer than you planned?

* Do you ever gamble to escape worry or trouble?

* Have you ever committed, or considered committing an illegal act to finance gambling?

* Does gambling cause you difficulty in sleeping?

* Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create an urge to gamble?

* Do you have an urge to celebrate any good fortune with a few hours gambling?

* Have you ever considered self-harm as a result of your gambling?

* Most compulsive gamblers will answer yes to seven questions.

* Source: Gamblers Anonymous

For more on this special investigation, click here.

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