At 11 or 12, I had a win on the Melbourne Cup and Dad gave me a ten dollar note. Then when I was 15, my parents gave me money to get to and from school. Instead I’d walk and not buy lunch so I could go to the TAB on the way home.
I created spreadsheets which I hid under my bed with all the horse racing data: horse number, gate number, condition of the track, colour of the horse, weight of the jockey. I studied statistics and analytics at university and thought my maths brain was setting me up to get rich quick.
Instead, by the age of 19, I’d alienated everyone in my group of friends and lost all my savings on a horse that my statistical data told me couldn’t lose in the Ballarat Cup. It ran eighth. My response was to think, ‘Hang on, there’s something wrong with my system’, and instead I started to keep data on the frequency of numbers drawn in TattsLotto. Number two came up every five weeks!
It was the adrenaline rush using this ‘system’ that didn’t exist except in my mind. I was spending $400 a week on Tattslotto and scratchies. Then in 1992 the pokies were introduced to Victoria, no system required. I thought it was the way to get rich quick.
My soon-to-be wife and I would play them together in a really dingy pub but, about six months in, the bug bit me and I started going on my own. I felt shame at going to these dingy dives on my own and I soon became deceitful. There were four venues between home and work and the number of times I said I had a flat tyre or was stopped by the police – all lies to explain away the time I spent playing pokies.
We got married and bought a house which I managed to pay off in three and a half years. Suddenly I had all this disposable income. I got a $10,000 credit card which I couldn’t afford after three months. Eventually I had eight of them to balance payments for each other, all from different banks, and my own post office box so my wife wouldn’t see the statements or the final notice utility bills.
Still, she started to click. All these unexplained absences and expenses. Was I having an affair? So I started going to the venues in working hours. Then it was my boss calling me out. ‘Where did you get to? Who was your meeting with?’
By about 2006, I had talked to five or six gambling counsellors but always over the phone, never in person. I was deceiving them as well. I spoke about my relationship, my financial hardship and my mental health, but they were side effects of my gambling. I’d then be frustrated that the counsellors were addressing the symptoms, not the cause, and stop phoning them. Until you admit to yourself that you have a problem, you’re just mucking yourself and others around.
In 2007, my wife was sick of the lies and asked me to leave the family home. I became homeless and lived in my van. I’d miss work because I couldn’t afford the petrol to get there. I lost access to my three children and my mental health deteriorated further. I’d alienated myself from all my family and friends due to the shame of my gambling, but the bug still had hold of me and I continued to gamble.
I attempted suicide three times and my lightbulb moment finally came when I woke up after the third try. ‘I have three beautiful kids, a loving mum and dad, a supportive brother and sister, a good job. How much time and money have I wasted gambling?’
Within 24 hours, I went to Gambler’s Help counselling in person for the first time. I stopped gambling and part of my recovery was to tell my loved ones why I’d been absent for so long. My brother and sister thought I was on drugs. So did my boss. She said, ‘I would have put money on you being on drugs’.
Everyone was very supportive, but I’ve never told my dad. He’s old school and I don’t think he’d understand or be supportive.
I did a ten-week gambling program that was a real eye-opener. I was asked to return as a mentor and I started to educate myself on the psychology of gambling, the technology of the machines and the government’s position.
Here I was, not at the end of a rope or with a stack of pills but in a position to help others.
I’ve now done over 30 public speaking engagements on gambling harm. I’ve become a peer facilitator for others suffering gambling harm and I’m running an eight-week program called Getting Even at Banyule Community Health Services. I’ve also run a peer support group that runs for almost a year for people who’ve completed Getting Even.
Seeing the progress people make with the support of their peers is so rewarding. They see they’re not the only ones and can talk in a secure and honest environment. Many of them have isolated themselves because they don’t want anyone to know about their gambling. There’s so much stigma and shame.
I’ve now been gambling free for five years and the debt I accumulated on eight credit cards has been paid off. My mental health has stabilised and many of the mental health issues are a thing of the past.
I’ve reconnected with my children and the rest of my family and some friends. My daughter now lives with me in a home I’ve bought and there are no more final notice bills.