Working clinically with problem gamblers is extremely rewarding. Not least when you see people move from the depths of addiction ‘rock bottom’, to a life that starts making sense again. A life filled with gratitude for the normal stuff, that previously was unable to bring on a heartfelt sense of enjoyment. All due to having re-shifted the brain’s template away from this idea that ‘rewarding and fun’ should feel like it does after a win on gambling. Eating a nice lunch, sharing a moment with a loved one, going for a walk in nature or even just basic stuff like being able to live a day without tension and agony about being caught out; those are more wholesome sources of having a good time, and although the difference is not always obvious immediately- do trust that it will be over time. The less remarkable everyday experiences that early on in recovery may not feel like anything special, can longer term become extremely satisfying.
The idea of actually living life rather than wishing every minute away in a rush to pursue a compulsion.
These states are real and durable, a stable sense of achievement and enjoyment, yet very different from the buzz and high that was experienced back in the days of having a win or whilst scheming and planning for the next big bet.
A really horrible feeling described by most addicted gamblers, is the sense of losing sanity and touch with one’s values at the point when it stands clear that enjoyment can no longer be derived from ‘normal things’ because the mind is so blunted by the stimulation of the gambling and so preoccupied by the thoughts and feelings of when you can get away to sin again.
This no longer feels like a life, but rather like being possessed by your compulsions and as if you are carrying out a necessity although a big part of you of course knows full well- the gambling is the highroad to destruction.
THE END OF THE ROAD – WHEN YOU REALISE THE MADNESS MUST STOP
In my opinion ‘hitting rock bottom’ is not a state that people need to reach in order for recovery to begin. Perhaps some people would disagree with this statement, but it seems to me that the main ingredients necessary for recovery are awareness, acceptance and ownership of the state you’ve got yourself into. No doubt do these aspects of peoples’ experience more frequently come together by the time the external reality is literally screaming in your face that your behaviour is out of line, but it is important to know that it can also happen at any time in your addiction journey.
IF YOU ARE AWARE THAT YOUR ADDICTION IS A PROBLEM, HAVE ACCEPTANCE FOR THE FACT THAT YOUR CONTROL OVER THE GAMBLING HAS BEEN LOST (AND WITH THAT I MEAN PROPER ACCEPTANCE, NOT THE TYPE WHERE IN A MOMENT OF MADNESS YOU TELL YOURSELF YOU HAVE A LITTLE PROBLEM BUT DENY THIS FACT TO YOURSELF ALL OTHER TIMES), AND THAT IT IS YOU AND ONLY YOU THAT HAVE TO TAKE OWNERSHIP OF YOUR RECOVERY JOURNEY; THEN THE RECOVERY CAN START AT ANY POINT.
IT ISONLY YOU CAN DECIDE WHEN THAT TIME HAS COME. IF YOU FEEL YOU ARE THERE AT THIS TIME – YOU MIGHT JUST BE WONDERING… WHAT DO I DO NOW?
I know I need to quit. I have lost everything I own and hurt everyone I care for. Where do I begin??
First off, let’s not fool anyone – this is a genuinely difficult position to find yourself in and you need to muster up both every bit of courage plus every bit of compassion that you can find in yourself. The former will be handy when dealing with all the difficult confrontation and owning the shame that might be coming at you during this time. The latter will be crucial in how you relate to yourself.
Number 1: you cannot continue to let yourself down anymore!!
# ACCEPT THAT ALL CONTROL IS TRULY LOST (AND WILL NOT BE RETURNING)
Accepting that you have lost the money is a critical step in discontinuing the perpetual chase for the money you will otherwise feel you are ‘owed’. Reaching acceptance is however harder than it sounds. Having experienced the intermittent win and potentially been ‘up’ by thousands of pounds is likely to tamper with your ideas of what seems possible and realistic. As I always say to clients in my practice (and have previously mentioned in other blog posts)
WHETHER YOU WIN OR LOSE – YOU WILL ALWAYS LOSE!!
BECAUSE EITHER WAY – YOU FEEL COMPELLED TO KEEP GAMBLING!
This means that you are guaranteed to lose your money. This fact isn’t one that you can opt to avoid while you research general odds of having a win. This is the ONE FACT that you need to hang on to! Not only will all your money ultimately be lost, you might also expose yourself to further traumatic situations where you have the sensation of winning lots of money, only to then lose it again. The loss of control is at the absolute core of your addictive problem and without recognising this you will keep coming back for more and the pains will keep mounting. Now; Since we have established that your gambling behaviour is ALWAYS destructive since you will lose every time, you need to protect yourself. How is that best done? By protecting your money and barring yourself to any form of gambling that may be available to you.
I HAVE WRITTEN ABOUT THIS QUITE A LOT BEFORE, BUT I WILL REPEAT MYSELF TO DEATH IF NEED BE; IF YOU ARE NOT ABLE TO CONTROL OF YOUR BEHAVIOUR, YOU MAKE SURE THAT YOU DO NOT NEED TO RELY ON SELF-CONTROL TO STAY AWAY FROM GAMBLING. SET UP YOUR ENVIRONMENT IN SUCH A WAY THAT YOU ARE SAFE TO YOURSELF AT ALL TIMES!
The feelings of desperation and despair brought on by major gambling losses can be difficult to manage. In the case of gambling, we also have an industry which is known to exploit and try to drag people back in, even when individuals have taken proactive steps to end their involvement with gambling. It is understandble that blame becomes second nature to a gambling addict and that loads of energy gets consumed feeling infuriated about the predatory behaviour they have been exposed to, and the injustice of continuing to be victimised even when speaking out. I often see people spending enormous amounts of time in early recovery thinking about all the ways in how the gambling could have been avoided, and stewing on the relentless pursual of the industry. Whist this is understandable and justified, it is equally important to understand that the only way to save yourself right now from going further into your addiction, is to take action to protect yourself irrespective of behaviours you are exposed to by others. This is not to suggest you must like or accept how you have been treated, but merely to stage your action plan sensibly.
I am saying this after watching hundreds of gamblers burning up all the energy their recovery requires on being angry and embittered. Writing angry letters to the industry rather than trying to bar the heck out of these casino/gambling sites, or gambling addicts spurring one another on in fury over what’s taken place rather than actually coming up with active solutions for how to never ever be used like this by the industry ever again. There are those whose activism about these issues have really paid off; laws are changing, stories are surfacing and new anti-gambling initiatives such as banks that block gambling etc are becoming common place. These are really good outcomes of peoples’ efforts and drives to protect others from the gambling-hell. In no way am I saying this to dissuade you from remaining involved in such ventures; but do it only when you have a surplus of energy and you are on the safe side of betting yourself. You have to put yourself first in this kind of situation. If you yourself go down again, all of these efforts will still feel pretty secondary and difficult to fully appreciate if you are still fighting a daily addiction battle. Focus on your recovery first and trust that any learning you have along the road will be just as useful when you share it at a point when you actually feel safe!
#DEALING WITH THE SHAME
Shame is a very real and difficult obstacle for a smooth recovery- I have written a post on this topic before here.
Not only is shame a really intense and uncomfortable emotion to endure- it also tends to lead people to spiral again. When reaching your depth of shame, it is easy to get hooked on the idea that some further gambling can help reinstate any losses incurred, through the process of winning, or simply use the gambling process itself as the great escape from hellish emotion. Nothing could of course be further from the truth and the more you try hard to ‘gamble away your shame’, the worse the shame will become, (even if you may well experience a momentary freedom from it).
If you don’t want to take my word for it, then make sure you backtrack on previous episodes where you went back for a bit more gambling in order to feel better; and try recall how you actually felt afterwards.
Shame is a universally disliked feeling, and one that can cause us to lose all hope and faith in ourselves.
It is however a perfectly natural feeling to have in this context, and indeed it would be more concerning if you felt no shame having hurt people you love, lied to them and let people down. What you want to do is allow for enough self-compassion and empathy for yourself which in turn can take the power out of the most negative feelings.
By the time you are noticing that your shame is strong but don’t continue to shame yourself for it, there is less of a need to act in an attempt to avoid the feelings. We can instead choose to allow for the shame to be present, while we figure out the most sensible direction for our behaviours going forward. Having a feeling of shame does not mean you ARE shameful! Your behaviours may have been, but your behaviours can change at any time- and at this critical time it is behaviour change that we want to focus on!
#MANAGING THE FINANCIAL CRISIS
When you are at the end of the rope with gambling, chances are your financial situation is pretty dire.
Part of why quitting can be so hard, is that ending the gambling also feels (early on particularly) like ending the one way through which you were hoping the money you lost would yet again be restored.
Please rest assured that what you are ending here is simply an illusion.
No matter how much you would have continued to gamble on, the only impact it would have had on finances is a negative one!
At a financial ‘rock bottom’ position; this is not necessarily particularly soothing to hear, because as truthful as it may be, this might feel like the last way out debt is now closed for you .
Working for the next couple of decades as part of a slow-motion climb out of the mountains of debt generated does not feel like a good time!
There are a few things I would recommend for this stage to create both a feeling of control, and a feeling of realism and hope. All at the same time.
1) FIND OUT WHAT YOU ACTUALLY NEED TO SUSTAIN YOURSELF
Some gamblers will find that they have lived way beyond their means (waiting for the next gambling win makes this type of lifestyle feel quite natural) and have as a result ended up with a warped template for how much money they actually need. This is an important time to re-calibrate. Sit down with pen and paper and figure out what your absolute necessities comprise of, and be very clear with yourself; For now this will be the amount to aim for while you are focused on getting back on your feet and repaying debts to others people or institutions. It may not be a time of luxury, but just wait and see how good it can feel to be financially wholesome too!
2) START CHECKING YOUR FINANCIAL GOALS AGAINST YOUR ACTUAL LIFE GOALS AND VALUES.
The reason this step is important is to ensure that whatever financial goals you end up working hard towards actually makes sense and are worthwhile. Sometimes people overestimate just how important the actual money is in comparison to how close one is to living according with our values. An example of this is a man I saw who could not help but gamble whenever he was in a rut of working in a job he didn’t like in order to pay a high rent to live in London where he had no family or friends and was desperately unhappy. He was eventually able to regain his happiness with a far less paid job in a smaller town where he could still have time to spare for important hobbies and friends he had that lived nearby.
The point to pay attention here, is that money alone never makes people happy. Make sure that whatever money you are now urging yourself to ‘get back’ or work hard to earn going forward are going towards something that really matters to you in one way or another. For example ‘ it makes me feel happy and honest to be repaying my sister the money I owe her’ or ‘if I continue to put away x amount, I will be able to move to an area that reduces my commute time and gives me more time for my kids’.
3) GET A SMALL EXTRA INCOME TO SHORTEN THE TIMELINE FOR SEEMINGLY ‘ENDLESS REPAYMENTS’
This may be easier said than done but I have seen it happen many times, even for individuals who did not deem themselves fit to even have one job. For some this could be working as an uber-delivery person, others it could be completing small jobs on freelancer.com, or for others providing language tuition or gardening services on weekends. No doubt is it a strain to add more working hours, and long-term you would want to be very mindful to create a healthy work/life balance, but let’s also face the facts; if you are broke enough to not be able to enjoy any of your spare time, then this might be a good time-filler as well as a way to shorten the pay-back time of your debt, or just make life a little more enjoyable during a very tight time financially
4) START SECURING A SMALL AMOUNT OF MONEY IN A LOCKED SAVINGS ACCOUNT
For some gamblers, the idea of seeing money yet again build up has a very high significance. It can feel very satisfying to see even just a small capital build up, despite knowing it is possibly a lot less than what you once owned. At least it is a start. I have written an entire blog post on this topic before since it is one of those things that often poses a bit of an ethical dilemma for those who still owe money to others (you can find it here) My argument tends to be that if a very small amount can be locked away and increase a person’s feelings of accomplishment in a way that protects from further gambling, then it is still worth it. The reverse scenario often ends up being a series of promises to repay, followed by a feeling of emptiness when yet again facing a zero-balance, which in turn leads to renewed attempts to ‘win back’ the losses.
This way you work things the other way around. You protect a small amount for yourself first -and please trust me when I say; this money MUST be locked away in a savings account or ISA where you are not allowed to access It on short notice. Monzo now has a savings account that requires 90+ days to make a withdrawal. This is what I would consider safe enough – particularly when paired with a partner or another trusted person who will have to help you around a time in the future when a withdrawal will take place. After transferring a tiny amount over to yourself, you ensure you pay all other outgoings and debts owed immediately and ideally distribute any leftovers by transferring them into different currency for example travel card, supermarket vouchers etc.
You might wish to get some help with these steps, particularly in the early days when you are still extremely vulnerable in the presence of money.
The above suggestions are not a complete list of course, but merely a few suggestions of where you can begin when it feels like it’s all one big mess. Try to trust that once you start putting your affairs in order; things will also start changing mentally for you. This often clarifies the follow-on steps a great deal and makes the future appear somewhat brighter. Above all- have faith in that things can change!!
If you feel that you need support at this stage - which would be perfectly natural and expected- do make sure you get in touch with one of the treatment agencies.
- National problem gambling clinic - NHS treatment (London and Leeds)
- GamCare (wide range of support options including counselling, information and
- Gordon Moody Association (inpatient rehab for problem gamblers)
I wish you the best of luck!