by Lisa Clausen
It’s a bright spring day in Melbourne, a season bursting with promise and thoughts of new beginnings. But it’s also the sort of day that makes Brendan Ivermee remember how much he loves horseracing. For much of his adult life, the Spring Racing Carnival was one of the busiest times of year, a time of spending big and giving fellow punters advice. But these days, after gambling derailed his life, Brendan’s tips are very different. ‘My message to other gamblers,’ he says, ‘is to think about it before you hurt someone who really means a lot to you.’
Of the day in 2012 when he pled guilty to stealing a significant amount of money to fund his gambling, Brendan remembers only that he couldn’t stop crying. When his lawyer asked if his distraught client could go home before he was sentenced, the judge refused, saying ‘he might as well start getting used to it’. Brendan was taken to a cell with a plastic mattress. He couldn’t believe that his gambling had led him there. His children were just 12 and 15.
A better life
Brendan’s own father was a chronic gambler with an alcohol dependence, whose only outing with his family was to the races. Having grown up in a violent home with little money, Brendan chased a different life. ‘I wanted the nice house, this picture-book scenario, a lovely wife, a couple of kids – which fortunately I’ve got – and all the trimmings that go with it,’ he says. ‘But even though I always worked, I just didn’t think I was ever going to catch up.’ It was only when having a bet and a beer that the Victorian accountant felt in control. ‘I thought I knew everything about it. I knew you couldn’t beat the pokies, but I thought I could beat the horseracing system.’
Having grown up in a violent home with little money, Brendan chased a different life.
After Brendan’s first marriage ended, gambling became even more of an escape. But when he thought he’d got lucky, things got worse. ‘I won tens of thousands of dollars in six months,’ he says. ‘I won all this money and I felt respected. I developed this lifestyle, and then felt there was an expectation to maintain it. It was stupid, but that was the way I thought.’ Soon he was betting, and losing, thousands of dollars a week. Then he began embezzling from his employer. ‘I would lie in bed at night thinking if I can just stop now, it’s not too late. I was looking for that magical cure so that I could put the money back and keep living the life.’
'Think about it before you hurt someone who really means a lot to you.' - Brendan Ivermee
Brendan, now 52, won’t forget the devastation his gambling problems caused to those around him, especially to his two children. His daughter had to move schools to escape scrutiny when he went to prison. His son used to call Brendan’s mobile phone just to hear his dad’s voice message. ‘I always consider them to have been the most affected,’ Brendan says sadly. ‘When they needed support and help, I wasn’t there for them.’
A second chance
Brendan’s second wife left him soon after he began a three-year prison term, but before she did, she contacted Gambler’s Help at Geelong’s Bethany Community Support. Brendan says the support given to him by Bethany, particularly by his counsellor, through weekly sessions while in prison and for 18 months after being freed, was life-changing. ‘My counsellor has opened up my eyes to lots of different things, to understanding myself,’ he says. ‘I have a perspective now that I didn’t know existed – it’s changed my life for the better, far better. I was hiding everything before, but I’m not doing that anymore.’ Agreeing to talk about his addiction was terrifying, but he now knows it was the key to recovery.
'My counsellor has opened up my eyes to lots of different things, to understanding myself.' - Brendan Ivermee
Since his release three years ago, Brendan has been rebuilding his life with a new partner and his children. He no longer bets. But a criminal conviction has made finding a job almost impossible, and only through a friend has he found some labouring work. The stigma he feels has prompted him to develop a website that he hopes will eventually link people who have criminal records with employers willing to give them a chance. ‘I want to pay my own way,’ he says. ‘But it’s so difficult for people like me to get beyond what happened.’
Some of the friends Brendan has made since prison don’t know his story, and he suspects they would, like so many of his old mates, disappear if they knew. But he’s determined to warn others about the false promises of gambling, as he did in an address to the Foundation’s Gambling Harm Conference in Geelong in August. ‘If I can help someone get a job, or help them out of a gambling hole,’ he says, the hopeful sun of spring warm on his back, ‘I’ll feel I’ve done something of value.’