“My name is Adam M. I made my last bet October 17, 2004. I am a compulsive gambler.”
“Hello, Adam,” came the voices, in unison, of the Gamblers’ Anonymous members. They sat around a group of brown tables in the basement of Saint Peter’s Catholic Church in Newington, Connecticut. The room was dimly lit as the only lighting was provided by flickering florescent bulbs. The group occupied just a portion of the large hall in the church basement. Coffee brewed, its aroma wafting through the hall; donuts were stacked by the coffee, along with napkins, styrofoam cups, sugar, a quart of milk, and some white plastic spoons lay on a table that stood to one side of the room.
This was the place where confused people sought refuge when all their money had been sapped from them, or their spouse demanded that they get help for their gambling. Those who committed crimes due to their gambling addiction or pathological gambling were given the option of a jail sentence or Gamblers’ Anonymous—an easy choice for most. Some had reached the bottom, while others would leave and eventually spiral down. A recent large losing streak was only part of my own retreat to this refuge. The heart attack that had accompanied the final day of that loss was what I was more concerned about; I did not want to die.
It was a rainy October night. The dark, dreary, overcast evening was in harmony with the feeling in the pit of my stomach. The chilly temperature of the month of Halloween, the pouring rain, and the moon covered with clouds, only served as a confirmation of my state of mind. It was autumn in New England and, with the rain and the cold wind, the trees were losing their leaf covering. Grim and depressed, I had made the trip here from my home, not knowing what I was going to face in my latest quest for help.
It had been a while since I had been in a Gamblers' Anonymous room—‘a returning veteran’, as Nathan, one old-timer, put it. Over the years, I had made vain—sometimes sincere—attempts to be a member in good standing of this organization. Just as before, I was determined to put an end to my addiction. After fifty-one years, I believed that I had had it—the misery of bumping my head against a concrete wall - and I could not take it anymore.
Just a few months before this, I had taken part in a program at the University of Connecticut. It was a research program, centered on the gathering of information about compulsive gamblers. Along with the fact-finding aspect of the program, counseling was offered. After collecting my gambling history, this cute, twenty-three-year-old, naïve, young lady, with a perplexed look on her pretty face, asked, “How could one man sustain himself in serious gambling for fifty-one years?”
Maintaining my high ego, I responded in a defensive mode: “In spite of more losses than wins, there were always periods of winnings that kept me going.” Just as I had done on numerous occasions, I continued to rationalize.
“That false hope was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for you—the fountain of youth and all of what one could dream about,” The young woman continued on with her evaluation, “Hope is a major force that kept you going.”
In spite of her lack of years, the counselor seemed quite insightful.
Winning gave me prospects for more wins. Lost in my dream world of gambling, I could purchase all the material things that would make me happy; there were diamonds for my wife, new cars for everyone, luxury for my children, travel, eating in the finest restaurants, and everything else that money could buy. Winning was an elation; it lifted you to the highest elevations—it was exhilarating and intoxicating. There were times that I felt it was better than the best orgasm. There were always wins to keep the dream alive.
Losing brought me to despair. The idea of being a loser was demeaning; it carried me down, physically and mentally. It altered my ability to think or function effectively. Each time, I questioned my sanity. Unfortunately, losing did not convert to quitting. I could stop gambling for a short period but, inevitably, the old obsession of wanting to gamble returned to me. After a huge loss, I would drive home with a heaviness in my chest that was frightening. My stomach churned; sometimes I would be sweating uncontrollably. Healthwise, I was putting myself in a precarious state. I could not believe I let myself do this again and again.
In the morning, I would have to face my wife. How could I do that? What could I say to her? Before I even faced her, I could visualize the contempt, as well as the disappointment, I would see on her face. Her feelings mirrored my own. Was it worth it … or should I just end this once and for all?
I did not know who I was anymore. Many times, I felt like a pirate; sometimes the captain of the ship; and at other times, I was the man who walked the plank. All of this was enough to make my life an absolute disaster; I wanted it to come to an end. As a psychiatrist once put it to me, “You are on a cycle of extreme emotions. You go from euphoria when you win to remorse and depression when you lose.”
Thirty-one years ago, I reluctantly entered a Gamblers' Anonymous room for the first time. My wife had threatened to leave me. I was only thirty-five years old, the youngest member in the room. Over the years, I have attended funerals and wakes for many of the older members, remembering their comradeship. They were men who tried to be of assistance to me by pointing out their mistakes, but I did not heed their advice. Over time, some of them went back to gambling, but a few of the lucky ones understood the program and stayed away from it.
I had a number of reservations about going back to Gamblers' Anonymous. Maybe I should go through the counseling. That young woman was young enough to be my granddaughter. What could she tell me about gambling? How could she understand what I had been going through over all these years? Had she ever experienced the things that I dealt with in regard to gambling? No, of course not. She had obtained her information from a textbook, while I had lived it.
It was obvious to most ‘normal’ people that I had to go back to be with people who had been in the same hell as I had been in over the years. They would be the only ones to provide me with the medicine that I needed. I just had to make sure that I was willing to take their advice and follow the directions the support group laid out for me.
Coming back to this place was not an easy thing for me. Like many of these men and women in the room, I had a huge ego. Concerns about embarrassment and humiliation weighed heavily on me. All that day, I debated my return. Even before I came into the building, I had driven into the parking lot, had got cold feet, and then drove out. I said to myself, “You’re making the wrong move.” Ultimately, I turned my car around, drove back up the driveway, and into a parking space next to the church. With a half hour to go before the meeting began, a group of three of the smokers took advantage of the time and gathered in the area near the entrance to the church. The rain was not a deterrent to their other addiction. Then one of the men yelled out to me, “Watch out for those wet leaves!” and the only woman in the group chimed in, “Those leaves can be as slippery as ice in the winter!”
With those caring remarks, a small amount of uneasiness left my body. I thanked them as I walked by them, not saying any more.I had left behind a stream of shattered promises, which brought me to the ultimate awareness that I could not be in control of my gambling. I realized that I was powerless over gambling—completely and irrevocably addicted. My dreams had been transformed into nightmares. The feeling was that of a prize-fighter, battered for fifteen rounds. The towel was being thrown into the ring. Guilt and despair overwhelmed me; I had lost it all. Besides the money, I had lost the respect of family and friends.
Gone were people I knew who had taken their own lives while in despair due to their gambling. I, too, had considered suicide as an option. I had been told that gamblers had the highest rate of suicide of all the addictions. I quickly changed gears, thinking that was not an alternative for me; I still wanted to live.
Oddly, this time I had not depleted all my money—much more money was available for me to squander. It was my elderly father’s money. He had trusted me, and I was letting him down, just as I let the rest of the family down. I had ignored the very principles and standards that had come from my upbringing; the same principles and standards that I wanted my own children to live by. No longer was it just about money. It was about my integrity, my honor, my health, my family, and my sanity.
The meeting was called to order by the chairperson, Mark R., who was celebrating his fifth year of abstinence from gambling. Old business was discussed, then new business. Mark, a thin man in his forties, with graying, black hair and a receding hairline, read a series of regulations that the group had adopted, over the years, for their meetings. A collection canister circulated around the table. Money was needed to cover the cost of the evening refreshments, plus other costs that included the monthly rental of the hall and reading material from the national group. Some people put in a dollar or two, while others passed the cans without putting in anything. Were they miserly, or were they in such rough shape that they could not spare the meager sum that was ‘chink change’ when they were gambling?
In my first Gamblers' Anonymous fellowship, five to seven members was the average number at a meeting. Over the years, the group changed its location and increased in membership. At this meeting, there must have been twenty-five to thirty people. Looking around the room, I noticed that there were a number of women in this Gamblers' Anonymous room. In the old days, women were not in attendance. In those days, only the old timers laid their wagers with bookies. Women would not go into bars or seedy places to place a bet with a bookie. Now, two new casinos were responsible for women gambling. Later in the meeting, I would learn that most of the women were enthralled by the slot machines at the casinos. My initial impression of this group was that they looked like a bunch of serious professionals gathered for a business meeting, not like a collection of addicted gamblers. I remember one establishment that was strictly a gambling club. It was a store, on Albany Avenue, where some of the gambling people hung out playing cards. Others sat around with the Morning Telegraph, the racing newspaper, researching like a scientist looking for a cure for cancer. These racetrack aficionados had all the answers. “You know Little Charlie, at Lincoln, doesn’t run good on a muddy track.”
“I think Mother’s Gold, at Suffix, is right in his race at a mile and a quarter. He closed last time at six furlongs.”
“I don’t know. Perry isn’t riding him this time; Zayas is on him today.”
You would think they were discussing the Pythagoras Theorem or the major political events of the world. The smoke in the store was usually as thick as the foggiest days on Cape Cod as some of the regulars sat there most of the day. Others would wander in in the afternoon, full of grime from their construction jobs.
The leaseholder of the establishment took action all day on horses and sports. In the front of the store was a big red sign which read CLEANERS. Everyone in the neighborhood, including the police, knew exactly what went on in this store, except one unsuspecting woman who walked in with a half dozen shirts one day to be laundered. She must have been new to the neighborhood.
“I’d like to have no starch for these shirts, please,” the naive woman told the owner, as the rest of the group of local gamblers, who were involved in an afternoon card game, laughed silently to themselves.
“It’s the middle of the day…” The woman looked around dumbfounded, especially when all conversation ceased and all eyes focused on her. Then she noticed the cards on the table, grabbed her shirts, and scampered out of the store. The silent laughter erupted into a roar.
An essential aspect of the meeting was an opportunity for each member to give his or her story. Therapy encompassed the individual’s opportunity to open up and discuss his or her gambling and gambling related problems; it was a time for a catharsis, which was necessary in one’s recovery. The format for the therapy was an allotted time of five minutes. With so many members in the room, the necessity for a time limit had been recognized and had been initiated by the group. It was vital that everyone had a chance to express themselves. Therapy was the indispensable element in the meeting for recovery; to express one’s self and to learn from other people’s therapies. When a person finished their therapy, a maximum of three comments could be given by people who had at least ninety days in the program. Cross-comments were prohibited.
A few years back, my attempt to be part of a Gamblers' Anonymous room had been a failure for me. After attending a few meetings, one of the uptight, trusted servants had made a derogatory remark to me. On that evening, while giving my therapy, I had told the gathering that I was going to keep my complimentary points. Comp points, as gamblers refer to them, were reimbursements used by the players. They are given by the casinos to players based on the amount that they wager and the time that they gamble. I mentioned that I was going to use them to take my family to dinners, get gas, and see shows with my wife. I would continue to go to the casinos, but never to gamble. I assured them that this would be done only when my wife was present. I felt that I earned those points and why should I just give them back; they were as good as money.
It was my comment about using my comp points in my therapy that set off an infuriated Gamblers’ Anonymous member. His hand shot up and he laid into me; his angry Irish face as red as the reddest apple. “You want to do things your way and not the Gamblers' Anonymous way? Your way hasn’t worked for all these years. Haven’t you figured that out? People like you aggravate the shit out of me. You want help, but then you won’t listen! Didn’t we just read in the yellow book that addicted gamblers should not go into or near gambling establishments? Ray Charles will see the writing on the wall before you.” His final summation of me was abusively stated - “You are an asshole!” With my defect in character- my temper, I was amazed that I did not rise and go at him. Perhaps the remarks just left me in a state of shock!
I let those disparaging remarks chase me out of the room. How could I become offended? I was the bullshitter, liar, and con artist; the man with the ego who had not wanted to buy into step one of the Gamblers’ Anonymous program that I was powerless over gambling. In retrospect, I can now see the real truth; I could not imagine not gambling ever again. Confronted with the truth, my ego would not permit me to take it.
Would someone belittle me again? Would I react in the same way? I am not good with criticism. Being knocked down was not what I needed at this point of my life. I had to take that chance and remember that principles are more important than personalities. It was different this time for me. I truly wanted to stop my addiction. Finally, the time had come when I believed that I was powerless over gambling.
I kept telling myself that my health was in jeopardy. My second heart attack followed my most recent gambling binge. At age sixty-six, and with fifty-one years of gambling behind me, I knew that it had to end.
I wondered how this group would react to a person like me who moved back and forth from gambling to this self-help group. I was feeling nervous and insecure, which was expressed throughout my body by the sweat in the palms of my hands, the swirling inside my stomach, the dryness of my mouth, and the nagging tightness of my jaw.
My eyes surveyed each individual in the room. The heavyset man with the little mustache, seated in the corner, glared at me and looked like someone who was going to take me apart, just like a good defense lawyer cross-examining a witness for the prosecution. Would someone say, “Adam, we are tired of listening to your bullshit?”
A wave of heat consumed me. I could feel the sweat trickling down from my armpits. I wanted to get up and run out of the room. Through the window, I could hear the thunder and then see the lightning. The rain had become heavy. I could hear the intensity of the storm striking the window like the musical rhythms of a ping-pong ball hitting a table. I felt that something dark and ominous was going to swallow me up.
What about that attractive, well-dressed woman in that button- down, tailored blouse? Such a classy-looking woman did not look the type to be a gambler. What was she doing here, with degenerates like me?
I spotted Bill K. at the head of the table. He was the second member whom I recognized. I used to call him on the telephone and I remembered that he was such a strong GA member. I was sure that he would recall my reluctance to change. He was one of the members who always told me that I wanted to do things my way and not the Gamblers’ Anonymous way, but he never insulted me. Bill’s head-master comments were direct and to the point.
The smell of the coffee permeated my nostrils. I wanted to get up and pour a cup for myself, but, being unfamiliar with the protocol of this room, I hesitated. Then, watching one of the other members fix himself a cup, I figured out the etiquette of the room, realizing I could do the same. Initially, after taking the first sip, the dryness in my throat made it difficult to swallow. Once the warm coffee was able to pass through my throat, however, the muscles there seemed to relax as they experienced the warm, soothing coffee.
It appeared that almost every skin color was represented in the group, as well as different religions and nationalities. A variety of occupations sat shoulder to shoulder— lawyer, teacher, psychotherapist, laborer, salesperson, construction worker, police officer, business person, doctor, as well as an unemployed person, a homeless man, and a retired man.
For a moment, my mind drifted away from the room, recalling a number of famous people who had been consumed by their gambling passions: Art Schlichter, Pete Rose, Eddie Fisher, Larry Flynt, John Daly, and Charles Barkley.
Besides Pete Rose, who may have been one of the greatest hitters who wore a major league baseball uniform, Art Schlichter, a number one pick of the Baltimore Colts, out of Ohio State, took the biggest fall, because of a gambling addiction. Schlichter, a self-described gambling addict, was thrown out of the National Football League in only his second season with the Colts for massive gaming debts. Given a second chance, he returned to gambling. Art Schlichter’s gambling was responsible for a number of crimes that he committed, sending him in and out of various prisons around the country. Schlichter had been picked by the Colts, in 1982, one pick ahead of the great quarterback of the Chicago Bears, Jim McMahon.
Someone on a television program said that Barkley admitted to betting around a half a million on a Super Bowl game, which he won, while Daly confessed to losing 1.6 million dollars in one day in Las Vegas. With a surplus of money, a competitive spirit, and a large ego, I was sure that there were many others who were in the lime light who were caught up in the gambling infatuation.
I read that one of our presidents had a gambling problem. Warren Harding, the 29th United States President, played poker twice a week. He once gambled away the White House china. In fact, his advisors were nicknamed ‘the poker cabinet’, because they joined him in the game.
William J. Bennett, an author and a man that has served three American Presidents, is a high- roller. This is a man that is reported to have lost eight million dollars in the casinos. Ironically, Bennett scorns every other vice but gambling in his writings and in his lectures.
The chairperson went over the rules of the room, placing emphasis on the spiritual foundation of the program—anonymity. The person in charge for the evening went on to say, “Anonymity reminds us to place principles before personalities...” Next, as the format dictated, we read the Gamblers’ Anonymous yellow book—the bible of the program. On this night, my sense of hearing was quite acute. I made a serious effort to listen to each and every word that was being read. I had been a part of the reading on a number of other occasions, but I was finally convinced I was in the best place for me. The Gamblers’ Anonymous book could have been my biography. The book was speaking about me. I had fooled myself that I could gamble normally and control my gambling. I went through terrifying experiences because of emotional insecurity and immaturity. There was dreaming about making the big hit and living in luxury. This is how the book described the compulsive gambler; it was absolutely me.
There is no objective test to determine if you are a compulsive gambler other than the twenty questions compiled by Gamblers’ Anonymous. It is not like drugs or alcohol, where a urine test can determine results. Gamblers’ Anonymous says that you are compulsive gamblers if you answer yes to at least seven of these questions. New members and returning members are asked these the first night in the program or after a long period of absence. I was the first one in the group called on to speak. I answered “yes” to sixteen of the twenty questions. Most compulsive gamblers will answer “yes” to seven of these questions.
When finishing my therapy, I found that my apprehension was ill-founded. Artie C., with his warm, smiling face made a much needed comment: “Welcome back, Adam. We’re glad to see you. It takes much courage to come back into the room.” That cordial remark remained with me. My body seemed to relax after hearing it.
Based on what was related in my therapy, Gene C. made a suggestion that rang a bell with me, “At this stage of our lives, there is no need to try to impress people by being a ‘big man’. It is far more important to be a good person, a loving person, a positive-thinking person, and a forgiving person. The Mr Big Shot image is just a short-term fix that is as phony as a three-dollar bill. The free drinks, the VIP room, the comps, etc., are nothing but ploys with one, and only one, objective — to get your money.”
Support for my latest attempt to quit gambling came from a bright young man, whose family had migrated to the United States from India. Sanjay G. enlightened me with something that he said, “Do not worry about your many attempts in coming back to Gamblers’ Anonymous and not being successful. Take solace in the fact that you continued to return. A gambling addiction is not something you take a pill for and you are cured. It is a disease that is with you all the time. When you come back to meetings, it is verification that you know that you have a problem.”
For me, that validated my belief that I was in the right place for this insidious addiction. The question was, would I have the fortitude to see it through by abstaining from gambling?
No one made a negative comment. Bill never said a word. Ironically, he did not seem to remember me when we spoke during the break.
During that evening, I listened carefully to everyone else’s therapy, and with each I seemed to discover more about myself. It seemed to me that this indicated that I was making a serious effort to get better, but it was only one meeting.
I listened to stories of what members had lost—marriages, homes, friends, and family. One of the group told of his friend, a fellow gambler, whose wife was going to divorce him because of gambling. He ended up killing his wife, in her attorney’s office, and shooting the lawyer, who received permanent injuries from the incident. In the end, he had turned the gun on himself.
As this story reached its conclusion, my mind went back to a recent article in my local paper. Like other moments of despair related to gambling addictions, a woman drove her car to a bridge, left the car, and jumped off the bridge, plunging to her death. The newspaper reported that she had lost money at the casino and that she had stolen from her place of employment. Her despair and ultimate death was a culmination of years of playing the slot machines.
I could not believe that one of the members was a doctor of medicine. The idea that there was no correlation between intellect and addiction made an impression on me. I thought that would probably be true of any of the addictions. I, also, was a true enigma, holding a master’s degree in counseling. I was a teacher—a molder of children’s minds. What would my students have thought of me if they knew of my gambling addiction?
There was another account about a successful corporate decision-maker, who had recently been placed in a federal prison. On his way to nearly a million dollars in debts and stealing others’ money, he was picked up at the casino, where he had made his home and received his mail. This man had a young child and loving wife, who eventually divorced him. There are many of these incidents, which could be compared to the classic Greek tragedies.
I soon found out about the pretty, stylish, blonde-haired woman whom I had noticed when I had first set eyes on the members in the room.
“My name is Maxine R., and since I answered yes to thirteen of the twenty questions, I guess I am a compulsive gambler.”
Just as they did for all the others who had given their therapies, the group responded in chorus, “Hello Maxine!”
Maxine, an attractive woman, continued in a low, nervous tone, “I’m fifty-five years old and I’ve been gambling for just five years. It all started when my husband and I were invited to Mohegan Sun Casino by another couple. After going a few times with the other couple, Tom and I began to go ourselves. Initially, we had it under control; we were winning more than we were losing and having fun. Soon, however, we hit the skids with some serious losses and my husband said that was enough, but I loved it and couldn’t stay away from the casino. In spite of the fact that my husband insisted that I stop, I began sneaking down, using shopping trips and visits to friends and relatives as lies to cover where I was really going. As with all gamblers, I elevated the size of my bets, now losing much more than I was winning.
“At my job, I handled all the money, writing checks and manipulating the takings. I would borrow from the company and pay it back when I had a winning streak. Finally, after three years of doing this, I was caught. When I was found out, I owed the company one hundred and twenty thousand dollars.”
The room hushed when, at this point, Maxine began to sob. Tony L offered her some Kleenex, which she took and continued her therapy. “I was arrested and my wonderful husband, whom I had hurt so much, stood by me.” Once again, Maxine began to weep. “Tom put up money to pay for bailsman and paid for a good attorney. I was facing something like twenty years in prison for embezzling. In the end, we had to sell our house and return seventy-five thousand dollars to my former company. Now, we are living in an apartment in a house that my mother-in-law owns. Also, I have been going to a therapist. I’m finding out that I have a number of character defects. The judge made me promise to go to Gamblers’ Anonymous while I am on three years’ probation. I never want to gamble again. I need your help.”
Now, the chairperson went over the twenty questions with Maxine. The chairperson commented on the result of the test, “Maxine, you have answered ‘yes’ to fourteen of the twenty questions. With those results, we, Gamblers’ Anonymous, consider you a compulsive gambler. Come to meetings and give it a try; you can always go back to gambling.”
With that, Maxine finished what she had been going to say, and the members of the group applauded her.
Sam K., a man that had many years in the program, raised his hand and the chairperson recognized him. “Welcome, Maxine. You are in the right place. My advice to you is to go to as many meetings as you can during the week and follow the program and time will heal you. Character defects are part of your addiction and the professional help you are getting is a good thing. It’s also good that your husband is going to the Gamanon program. He will know how to handle you and your addiction. Good luck!”
When Maxine spoke about letting her husband down, I thought about those I loved and how it had affected them. Oh, how I had let them down! In all the years that I gambled, I lost track of the welfare of my family. It made my mouth dry, and a nauseous sensation consumed my whole being. At that moment, I felt like crap. It is not comforting to realize that you have let down so many of your loved ones—your parents, your wife, your children, and your friends.
Mentioning of character defects sparked another thought. In previous years, I had been judgmental about the people in the room. I had always found fault with others, but not with myself. On this evening, I was quite humble.
As I walked out of my meeting that night, I wondered if I would be able to maintain the effort that many of the successful members of that program had been able to accomplish. Would this be another futile attempt to stop, and end up as it always had? How could I have been so cruel to those whom I loved so much? The only answer I could come up with was that I loved gambling more than I loved my family. What a sick revelation that was!
Along the way, I had made that vow of stopping many times to my family, only to let them and myself down. My memory returned to the time when I had a number of losing wagers. It was school vacation, I had nothing to do, and I wanted to get away. I decided to go visit my son, who was in college in Virginia. I shamefully dumped my grief on him. Crying on his shoulder, I promised my beloved son that I was quitting my gambling. What a coward I was! We stoop to the lowest levels. The memory haunts me to this day. I am truly ashamed of my lack of will power and character.
No longer could I think about what had been; I had to concentrate on what was going to be in my life. I had to think positively. A few years of happiness could be waiting for me. I had to commit to meetings for the rest of my life. As one man had said tonight, in his therapy, “Meetings make it. Meetings are your medicine.” I felt comfortable at this meeting. There were a number of strong members in the room who had abstained from gambling for long periods of time. These men and women might be excellent role models for me to emulate. After one meeting, there was respect for the group. They were firm in their beliefs of the Gamblers’ Anonymous rules, but understanding and empathetic about the nature of the disease from which we all suffered.
I cannot go on hurting everyone around me as well as myself. Maybe I can finally gain some self-respect before I leave this life!
I drove home that evening with a number of thoughts circulating hrough my head, among them the questions could I actually abstain from gambling and where did it all start?
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Written by Lenny Grossman
Here is Lenny's email if you would like to connect with him, firstname.lastname@example.org