Exposing the Dark Side of Gambling Addiction
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Debbie and John's Story

A Young Lawyer and His Family's Struggle with Gambling Addiction

My name is John, I am 35 years old, have been married for 13 years and have three children (eight, five and two). Until a couple of years ago, nobody knew that I was gradually nearing "rock bottom" as a result of a nearly 10 year long gambling addiction. Not only was gambling destroying my family and me financially, it was more importantly destroying my soul. By the grace of God, I humbly offer my story today with the hope that just one person will be affected by the severity of this insidious disease.

My name is Debbie, I am but one of the 60,000 families in Missouri alone that have been devastated by a gambling addiction. My husband John, whom I love and support 100%, is a recovering compulsive gambler. Although many spouses know that their mate is gambling and destroying his/her life along with his family, I did not. John went to great lengths to hide and conceal his addiction. Looking back, I was probably a bit (or a lot) naïve, but I trusted John with all my heart and believed him when he said he wasn't gambling. Not only is John recovering, but also we are recovering together as a couple and as a family.

Upon reflecting back, I (John) would say that I began gambling (and was possibly even addicted to gambling) at a young age. I was by two years the younger of two boys growing up. My older brother and I spent a great deal of our time participating in sports - not only organized sports but often just brotherly pick-up games against each other. It was rare that even a game of "Nerf" basketball was played without betting my allowance (which at that time was probably a quarter) on the outcome. I can remember to this day the sickening feeling to lose game after game, quarter after quarter to my brother, only to beg for just one last game, holding out hope of "getting even". You see, even at that age, the simple competition wasn't enough to satisfy; I needed the "action" and risk that comes with gambling. Aside from the "action" in my own house, this carried on to high school and college as I would bet with friends on video games, the NCAA tournament, football games, or really for that matter, anything. I never once even considered that this was problematic for me.

In 1990, the same year Debbie and I married, I began law school in Kansas City, Missouri. At that time, the casinos had not yet come to our area. I did though play poker once a week with some buddies, and it was evident by the seriousness given to those games that I was much more than just a "social gambler". I would also make an occasional day time trip to the local dog track by skipping a class or two - without Debbie knowing. Funding for these trips would come from school loans or from credit cards. I was pretty much in unquestioned control of our finances, so there was little risk of Debbie ever noticing any shortage of funds.

Once the casinos opened in Kansas City, my journey on the path to destruction began to speed up rather quickly. I began with blackjack, and then when the action was not fast enough, I went to craps, then to the mind consuming and controlling game of video poker. After two years of pretty heavy gambling - funded totally by credit card cash advances, I was in such financial ruin that I had to tell Debbie. This would be the first of many heartbreaking conversations between Debbie and me as promises after promises to "just quit" were left unfulfilled. About every two years during an eight-year stretch, I would either get "caught" or have to come forward with the new depths of destruction that gambling had brought to my family and me.

John struggled with his addiction for over eight years before hitting "rock bottom". What is so difficult to understand is that John had been raised as a Christian, went to church, and had worked very hard to become a successful attorney, yet this addiction had such a stronghold on him that he completely compromised his values and beliefs, jeopardized and eventually lost his career, and nearly drove himself to suicide - all for the sake of gambling. In August of 2001, in yet another heartbreaking moment, I found out from John's brother that he had been embezzling money from his law firm for more than 6 months to support his addiction. He was suicidal and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Obviously, his legal career was in grave jeopardy. After some very difficult discussions, I assured John that no matter what, I would support him and would be there for him but that he needed to get some real and serious help. This time it was not going to be our "secret" - others would have to know and would have to assist.

With Debbie's help (along with my sister-in-law), I was able to locate an inpatient rehabilitation center in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Custer Center was one of the few treatment centers in the U.S. that was dedicated solely to treatment of compulsive gambling disorders. Because we lived in Springfield, we were at least three hours away from even outpatient treatment, and considering my emotional state at the time, this seemed to be the only logical choice. For me, this was my last chance, my last hope to get help, to change my life. I was so (and still am) fortunate that we were members of a church that truly believed in loving and supporting those in time of need. After voluntarily discussing the situation with my pastor, the church provided the financial means necessary to get me into the recovery center. It was also very assuring to know that I had a pastor and a church family that loved me, despite my short-comings, and would daily lift the children, Debbie and myself up in prayer.

There was only a week between my (Debbie) finding out about John's situation, and his leaving for Indianapolis. There is little doubt that those first few weeks were the most difficult weeks in our lives. While John was away in rehab for three weeks getting help and focusing on his recovery, I was left behind with the resulting devastation. The children, ages six, two and 4-months were now without their daddy and not real sure what was happening. Before this time, I had been able to work only part time; now I had to immediately go to work full time while trying to pick up the shattered pieces of our lives. It was inevitable that John would be disbarred (he would later voluntarily surrender his law license). Because all he had ever done was practice law, we had no idea what kind of job he could even get, what kind of money to expect him to make, or even worse whether or not he would be going to jail. I was left no choice but to apply for W.I.C. (financial assistance for women and children); I would receive this aid for about 6 months. It was necessary to seek help from our church in order to pay the bills and buy groceries. Many of our family members also helped out in different ways. As if the financial stress weren't enough, I was also going through severe emotional trauma myself and had to deal with comforting and helping the children understand in their own way what was taking place. John and I were gradually able to explain his addiction and his conduct to the children, and although they don't completely understand, they are fully aware of what gambling is and what it can do to a seemingly "normal" family such as ours. The kids and I were so happy to have John come home and were all ready to begin the rebuilding process.

I (John) am convinced that The Custer Center and the treatment I received there, along with the education both Debbie and I received from the center about the addiction, literally saved my life, saved my marriage and saved my family. Although still scared, confused and anxious about what the future would hold, I came back home with at least some glimmer of hope for a brighter future. I was committed to become the husband and father that my family so much deserved and also committed to remove the wedge I had placed between me and my heavenly Father, Jesus Christ.

John returned home with a recovery plan that included attending at least one Gambler's Anonymous meeting per week; it was recommended that he attend two. Major problem: there was no Gamblers Anonymous group here at that time; the closest meeting was in Kansas City, three hours away. The state-funded part-time counselor in Springfield was not much help either - her experience with the treatment of gambling addiction was limited to her state required certification class. She, because of no fault of her own, was truly clueless in dealing with the severity of this addiction. Fortunately, God blessed us with a loving church that would continue to be there every step of the way - spiritually, emotionally and practically. We were able to find a Christian psychologist who was able to guide us, and through her we found a Christian addiction recovery group. This group was based on the twelve steps of recovery (as found in AA, NA and GA), but applied those in conjunction with Biblical principles and instruction. We weren't trying to replace the importance of John's treatment through G.A., but he needed more, something founded on the principles dear to our hearts, that for John, had been lost along the way.

In April of 2002, although a bit tentative, I decided to take a step of faith and form a Springfield chapter of Gambler's Anonymous. Our church was gracious enough to provide the meeting room and to act as the contact point as far as taking phone calls and such from those interested in information about the meetings. We had in the neighborhood of six to eight people show up at the first meeting. Now, almost two years later, the meeting continues to take place each and every Wednesday night. We have had many come just once, some come for a while only to disappear again, and a steady group of regulars. I am always encouraged and excited to see a new face come through the door seeking help.

We have been very open about John's gambling addiction since August of 2001. We have found that the public is not aware and does not understand this addiction. We hope that because of our willingness to share our story people would begin to listen and understand. With all that we have been through we could never have made it through without Jesus Christ our Savior. I don't know how anyone can make it through such an ordeal without God. We praise Him for all He has done and we know it is only because of Him that I am able to share this with you today.

From the outset of my decision to seriously get into recovery, I was open and readily admitted the wrongs that I had done during the course of my addiction. I cooperated in every way possible with authorities to figure out the amounts of money embezzled from my law firm. I pled guilty to a federal felony count of "mail fraud" and in doing so subjected myself to a possibility of going to prison. After two years of waiting and waiting for sentencing on the matter, the day finally came on December 17, 2003. Fully expecting to receive at least 12 months in federal prison, by the grace of God, my family and I were spared that reality. Because of a lot of prayer and a very thorough job by my attorneys, the Judge was convinced that sending me to prison was not the answer. The judge recognized that I voluntarily disclosed my wrong doing, that I voluntarily sought help with my addiction and that I was actively participating in my recovery and doing what I could to aid others who suffer from the same addiction. Another important factor in the Judge's decision was that my wife, family and church were 100% supportive of me and my recovery. I was sentenced to 5 years of supervised probation, ordered to serve 4 months of home detention (while still being able to go to work, church and recovery groups), and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service. Additionally, I must pay back almost $70,000 dollars that was stolen by me.

As lawmakers might read my (Debbie) story I would ask: Don't the 60,000 families in Missouri torn apart and destroyed by the consequences of gambling addiction matter? Is the money that the state receives by taxing the casinos (that allegedly supports schools and provides employment in the community) more important than the destruction it is causing our families? Not all of these families are as fortunate as mine. In fact, a majority are permanently divided and devastated. Many families have been driven to divorce. Many otherwise law-abiding citizens have gone to prison; many spouses and children left without a mother or father, husband or wife. Even worse, there are more and more suicides stemming from hopelessness and depression over gambling. Do we really want more casinos in our state? Does the government, do the citizens of our state (or others) really want to profit off of someone else's addiction/disease/ illness? I know that there are those people who question this addiction and believe that it is not really an addiction, but just irresponsible behavior and bad choices. Those same people rationalize that if liquor stores can sell alcohol to an alcoholic then why can't casinos be made available the same way. The real difference that I have seen lies in the fact that the casinos are knowledgeable about those who are victim to their devices, they track the "play" of their customers, are fully aware of the amounts of money and time being spent, and then prey on them and entice them to come back for more. That is the difference and it cannot be justified. That is one of the things that sickens me so about the casinos. A bartender is not supposed to serve a drink to someone who is obviously drunk. There are consequences to the bar and the bartender if that occurs, should the patron drive away and kill or hurt someone in an accident. But what about the casino who tracks a compulsive gambler, (and it's obvious who they are if you are tracking them) and continues to give them free rooms, free meals, extra tokens, cashes their repeated bad checks, and notices they haven't left their seat in hours or even days. Who takes responsibility for the destruction of lives and families as a result of suicide, bankruptcy, and divorce? I am not saying that the casino should take full responsibility but that they should share in the responsibility. At least, the casinos need to be prohibited from preying on the compulsive gambler and be held accountable for financing the recovery programs (meaningful ones) that the compulsive gamblers AND their families desperately need. This is not an addiction someone can get over without help.

As you can see, Debbie and I are very serious about our recovery. We are steadily moving forward. We have grown in our relationship immensely and do not look back, but move onward in an effort to continually improve our marriage, our family and to offer a bit of hope to other families who are suffering, have suffered or will suffer in the future.

As I look back now and see John's path to destruction, I wonder that if I would have been more aware and educated about this addiction, I might have been able to set up boundaries earlier. During those eight years of John's addiction I was naïve and scared - not knowing how to help him and thinking that he was just making "bad choices" or being "irresponsible". I truly thought each time his continued gambling came to light that he would just quit. When I received the call from his sister-in-law and brother in August of 2001 informing me that John was not only gambling actively again, but also that he had embezzled money, I was absolutely devastated. This couldn't be real; this couldn't be happening to me! We were "normal", educated, Christian people and this type of thing doesn't happen to people like us. So I thought anyway. But it does and it did. In an instant my life was turned upside down. I couldn't help but think that John would be going to jail and that I would be left alone to care for our three small children. How would I explain this to them; how would I explain to our family and friends? At that time, I had no idea where to turn for help or what I could do to help John. It was all so overwhelming and confusing, in large part because I didn't have the resources available to me to help me understand the addiction. I was married to a man who I all of the sudden couldn't trust at all. You know the outcome and I praise God for being there with me and guiding me each step of the way. Hour by hour, day by day we made it through. We searched for and received a lot of help along the way; some help just came to us. Thank the Lord for the people and the support groups He sent to us. May your lives and hardships be as supported and may you find hope in your trials and tribulations.

May God bless you and your loved ones.