The accidental advocate
by Anna Bardsley
When the pokies first came to Victoria, they advertised on TV: ‘Cheap and cheerful. Come and have a flutter’. I used to go with five women. We never lost more than $20 and we’d just walk away. Out of that group, though, probably four of us ended up with gambling addictions.
One night I had a huge argument with my husband. It was cold and wet with nothing open until I drove past one of the venues. I knew it was safe for women on their own and I also knew how it worked. The machine calmed me down. The symbols appeared and the music played, and I stayed for hours.
I didn’t know then that I was dealing with an addictive product. I lost 10 years of my life to the pokies. It was a clear pathway to the solution becoming the problem.
The solution becomes the problem
I grew up as the oldest girl of six children, so I was a little mother. Then I married young and had five children, the first two by the time I was 21. Life was a constant juggle to fit in what I wanted to do and what the family needed me to do. In the midst of all that, I never learned to look after myself.
I lost 10 years of my life to the pokies.
Two of my children died, the first when I was 25, the second when I was 40, and it felt like nothing would ever be safe again.
My life just spiralled and my then-husband and I grieved differently. I went to the pokies because I thought I deserved a break. I went gambling because I didn’t have what I needed in my married life. I went whenever I had a moment to spare and made excuses. I was disconnected from everything and everybody.
There was no rock bottom for me, but I remember looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, ‘Who are you?’ How did I become that person?
Secret gambling shame
I wanted to change but I didn’t know how. The shame of my secret gambling held so much power over me that it was impossible to ask for help. I thought I just needed to suck it up and stop doing it. I thought it was just me; I was the broken thing. I didn’t understand that the machines had rewired my brain.
I thought it was just me; I was the broken thing.
I had periods of stopping, lots of them, because I was so disgusted with myself. Gambling was sucking time, money and my self-esteem. But it felt like two steps forward and three steps back. I’d be triggered by something as simple as being in the wrong lane when I drove home and turn into a venue car park. I did set limits and meant to stick to them.
Then I went to a social inclusion group that provided people with alternative activities over a year. That led into serious counselling when I found someone who could handle all the tragedy I’d experienced. It took quite a while to establish a relationship, but counselling has been central to my recovery. I’m still in counselling now, stripping away the layers of what’s hard to handle.
Group work and group support have also been a huge help. I’ve joined therapeutic groups through Gambler’s Help, including art therapy because I’m a bit of a crafter. I joined Arnold Zable’s storytelling workshops for people struggling with gambling and wrote a piece that was included in the book From ruin to recovery: Gamblers share their stories.
Stripping away the layers
We turned our stories into theatre pieces, and that led to Three sides of the coin, a theatre project I’ve been part of for more than five years now. We re-enact our own story and our own pain. Audience reactions are always encouraging: ‘Bringing lived experiences to life is an incredibly powerful learning tool!’, ‘Amazing! Provides hope and encouragement. Confronting’.
I’d long been an advocate for Compassionate Friends, a group for bereaved parents. Lived experience gave me a voice then, and I’m using it again to speak up about gambling. I’ve become an accidental advocate, talking on national radio and television for all those tens of thousands of people who can’t. I’ve even been escorted out of the gallery at Parliament House alongside Tim Costello, so I’ve become an accidental activist too.
This is the getting-a-life stage of my life.
I take responsibility for going to the venues and spending my money, but why are the people who put money in the machines the only ones responsible? Government and industry need to share the shame. I stopped using the term ‘problem gambler’: we are people harmed by gambling.
I call myself a fortunate woman. I am grateful for having a roof over my head, for my kids and grandchildren.
I’ve faced up to myself. I’ve come out. This is the getting-a-life stage of my life and the best part is not pretending to be what I’m not.
Anna Bardsley is a member of the Lived Experience Advisory Committee, which provides perspectives from personal experience of gambling harm to inform the work of the Foundation.
Anna will be performing in a Melbourne Fringe Festival show in September called What’s your gamble?, presented by Three Sides of the Coin.