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Abbey Holmes's story

A close friend of mine looks back on a time in his life, just a few years ago, and it terrifies him.

Gambling took him to a place where he was down and out. But courageously, he’s fought his way back.

I hope that by sharing his story, we can raise some awareness and provide hope for anyone else out there who might be struggling with this horrible addiction.

“I saw a strong man crumble”

We met through a friend when I first moved to Melbourne in 2014 to start my career in sports media, and we soon became best mates.

He was killing it at life and had everything you could want: a great job, a beautiful wife, two young kids.

His addiction was at a very early stage back then. It started with him placing a few bets on the horses, before he moved onto the dogs and then a multitude of other betting markets as well.

He’d seen the highs of winning and like so many others, he fell into the trap of thinking that the next rush was always just around the corner. Whenever we hung out as a group, it became ‘normal’ that he would be placing a couple of bets.

At about the three-year mark, we saw the cracks starting to appear.

We’d be at the pub having a few drinks – or in my case, soda waters – and I started paying attention to how much money he was gambling.

He’d bet thousands of dollars on a single race. I’d never seen anything like it.

At first, I assumed that he must have been making a lot of money. That’s a mistake I’ll never make again, because in reality he definitely couldn’t afford to be gambling that much.

He was out of control.

After a couple of big losses one night, I could see in his eyes that something was wrong. It was written all over his face that he was in a bit of strife.

I asked him how he could be OK with losing that much money. And that’s when he opened up to me, and some other friends, about what was really going on.

He told us that he’d lost a lot of money. He’d lost a lot of other people’s money as well, and some of them were his mates. He was missing out on work opportunities because of it and he knew that if he didn’t sort it out, he was going to be in a lot of trouble.

I’d never seen anyone in such a dark place before. It broke my heart. But even then, he still wasn’t at the point of acknowledging that he needed to get help.

It was only the start of him making that realisation.

In the months following that conversation, it went from him saying he was an ‘idiot’ for losing a bit of cash, to telling us that he was going to lose the family home and that his wife would leave him if she found out.

And that’s when he hit rock bottom. I saw a strong man absolutely crumble and break down in tears.

He went from being a larrikin we all loved and adored, to someone who was very vulnerable. It was a scary time for all his friends and family, as we were worried about his mental health and what he might do.

His wife eventually did find out what was going on, and that was heart-wrenching for her. She’d thought they were in a great financial position, and then suddenly she was finding out that her family was in the hole, with two young children to take care of.

She more or less had to say, ‘If you can’t put in the work to stop what you’re doing and get us out of this situation, I’m going to have no choice except to leave you and take the kids’.

He’d always wanted to be the one to provide for his family, so realising that he was actually putting their futures at risk was a massive blow to his self-esteem.

That was the catalyst for him turning around and saying, ‘I need help and I need to talk about my problems so I can get back on track’.

Fortunately, he also had plenty of mates waiting, ready to help him find his feet again.

“A massive bottler, like me”

Addiction certainly doesn’t have a switch that you can flick to get better immediately. Recovery is something that takes a lot of time and effort.

For my friend it was a real challenge, as speaking up isn’t something that comes easy to him. He’s a massive bottler, like me.

If I get sad or stressed, my friends know that they need to extract information from me. I tried to use that same strategy with him, picking the right moments, to try and get him to talk about things, because the second you shut down and refuse to let people in you can find yourself in a very dark place.

He went to counselling as well, which was very helpful, but as friends we just wanted to make sure he knew that we were there for him. And to make sure he knew that he could talk about anything with us.

His wife stood by him during that time, helping him get out of that horrible, dark place. And even though the toll on their relationship was too much in the end, and they separated, he couldn’t have got through that period without her support.

“They aren’t seeing reality”

Working in Melbourne’s sporting circles, I can tell you that gambling is out of control.

I’ve seen it firsthand, and it’s a dramatic issue that needs to be spoken about a hell of a lot more than it is currently.

In professional sport, there is a certain profile that people think they’re supposed to fit, regardless of whether they are male or female. The culture is to be strong and show no weakness. That comes at a cost.

We’re talking about men and women who are role models to people young and old, which comes with a lot of pressure as well. That can make it even harder for them to speak up and get help.

But in the last couple of years, we’ve seen people start to let their guard down and show their vulnerability.

Wayne Schwass has been an incredible leader on that front for the AFL, opening up about his gambling and mental health problems. More people need to follow his example.

As a sporting industry, we need to show Australia’s broader society that we are real people, and that we make mistakes like anyone else. We need to do a better job of leading the conversation.

I don’t think people really understand just how common problem gambling is in Australia, by the nature of it being such a hidden addiction.

A couple of years ago now, one of my best mates was going out with an AFL footballer, and he stole a lot of money from her family, because he had a gambling addiction.

I’m talking more than $30,000.

And bless her, she stayed with him for another 12 months and tried to help him through it, until she couldn’t handle it anymore. I can’t imagine what she must have felt during that time.

It was another experience that taught me how when it comes to gambling addiction, so many more people than just the person who is placing the bets are dragged into things.

I don’t think people understand that it’s a mental health problem we’re talking about. These people usually have the intention to pay people back, but then they lose the money and it’s gone.

And that’s the problem, they’re not seeing reality.

There’s a delusion that the next race will be the one that changes their life, or that the next spin of the pokies will give them that winning feeling. But that’s just not how it works.

“The first step is honesty”

I love going to the races for the social side of things. And I’ve placed bets before, usually based on my favourite number or the colour of the silks the jockey is wearing.

When I’ve had a win, I’ve felt that rush too. I can understand why it’s intoxicating for a lot of people, and why they can lose control.

If you’re in deep, or you feel like that’s the direction you’re heading, honesty is the best policy.

You can’t just rely on yourself. You need to be able to talk about it and seek help. Your friends and family will want to help, and professionals are available as well.

But they can’t help if you don’t let them. So regardless of how scary it might be, the first step is honesty, so you can begin to own the situation and your recovery.