An unsafe bet: Problem gambling claims a toll
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, September 02, 2012
9/02/12 at 3:17 AM
Back when it all began, Jeffrey probably would have bet the farm he could control his behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he knows the fortitude it takes to keep an addiction at bay, and for several years has succeeded in doing just that.
He didn't drink when he was out on the road as a traveling salesman. But he picked up a new habit, going to the casinos, to kill his boredom at night when he was away from his wife and his Tulsa home. No matter which state he visited, he'd walk through the casino doors and encounter friendly people, the lights and action - the party never ended.
And then it did. By the time Jeffrey called Family & Children's Services about 14 months ago, the gambling addiction had him by the throat. Deeply depressed and deeply in debt, a long losing streak had depleted his savings and retirement accounts and put his marriage in jeopardy.
Carol McCoy, a professional therapist, had spent most of her career working with the severely mentally ill. But she said yes when her bosses at F&CS talked about a growing demand at the agency and asked her if she would be willing to get training to help clients with gambling addictions.
"It's not something I've regretted," McCoy said. "It's been a good fit."
Over the years, she's counseled clients from nearly every demographic. Among the ranks are the middle-age women who've had traumatic, unresolved events in their past and usually a more recent loss - a divorce or a death. They often tell similar stories of visiting casinos - initially - to avoid being alone. Fifty-five percent of problem gamblers today are women.
McCoy also has counseled young clients, some of whom were surprisingly motivated to stop gambling, which ultimately would destroy their future.
And, she's counseled plenty of men, many in their 50s and 60s. Usually they fall into two categories: 1) the escape gambler, such as Jeffrey, looking for a quick diversion that turns into an unmanageable monster, and 2) the action gambler, who thinks of himself as a big shot, a high roller, invincible. For both types, the gambling has become pathological obsession.
"I don't have any clients who didn't have some kind of problem before the gambling," McCoy said. What started out as a socially acceptable activity suddenly becomes a secret obsession, an actual disease, which as with most addictions overrides better judgment, reason, relationships, self-respect.
Lying to family and friends goes with the territory, as does manipulation and the willingness to beg, borrow or even steal to sustain the habit.
For the most part society has removed the stigma against gambling, McCoy said. And, it's true that the majority of people who gamble certainly don't end up problem or pathological gamblers. "Eighty-six percent of the adult U.S. population," McCoy said, "engaged in some type of gambling last year," whether it be filling out a March Madness bracket, a trip to Vegas, a raffle ticket or a visit to the casino.
"It's hard to avoid gambling because it's all around us," McCoy said. For most people that's not an issue but for others, the ready access creates a temptation that turns into a monumental, life-altering problem.
By some estimates, as many as 100,000 Oklahomans are pathological gamblers. Another 100,000 likely are problem gamblers, and another 100,000 are at risk for developing a problem. Add in family members impacted by another's problem gambling, and the number of possible victims goes far higher.
"When Jeffrey came to me he was distraught, with suicidal thoughts," McCoy said. He'd largely hidden his addiction. When his wife found out, she was angry and shocked and they separated. He, in turn, became angry with her because he expected her to stick with him as she'd done earlier.
"People's brains aren't working very well when I first see them," McCoy said. "At 90 days of gambling abstinence, there's a definite change in the person and thinking as the brain heals." That change makes it easier for pathological gamblers to control behavior, but even if they manage to abstain, they're not healed because the addiction is a disease.
Jeffrey differs from too many pathological gamblers, who simply aren't willing to admit a problem and seek help. At regular therapy sessions McCoy helped Jeffrey learn ways to identify triggers, to assess and respond to stressful events and to understand his wife's reactions. The couple reunited and attended therapy sessions together. Jeffrey followed McCoy's first piece of advice: Stay away from gambling if you've got a problem.
Jeffrey went so far as to register on a banned-for-life list at casinos he'd visited. At least 11,000 people have registered themselves on such lists in Oklahoma.
After 14 months, Jeffrey "graduated," and no longer receives regular therapy although F&CS follows up with its clients. He is digging himself out of debt with the help of some financial counseling.
While it's common for problem gamblers to have relapses, it's part of McCoy's approach to help them deal with setbacks and to remind them that it's possible, with treatment, to regain control.
"I couldn't come to work if I didn't see people getting better," she said, adding education is key to helping problem gamblers identify and analyze their behavior and for the public to understand the dangers.
Access to legal gambling has never been greater in Oklahoma, with dozens of casinos, racetracks or other gambling venues. Some research shows that living within 50 miles of a casino doubles the pathological gambling rate in the population from 1.5 percent to 3 percent.
F&CS is but one agency offering help. The Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling, headed by Wiley Harwell, has been around a long time and has a help line, 800-522-4700. There also is a national hot line.
Jeffrey's problem behavior appears under control. "He feels pretty confident," McCoy said. But it's an unsafe bet for him and any other pathological gambler to ever consider themselves cured.
Original Print Headline: An unsafe bet
Julie DelCour, 918-581-8379
Illustration by LeeAnn Elias