Eyes wide shut
The first time I saw poker machines, I was 20, attending a conference interstate. A woman was sobbing in front of one of them. I put my arm around her and then I went and told the barman and he said 'Don’t worry about it; she's probably just done her pension'.
I was floored that someone could be crying in public like that. I couldn't ever see myself being in the same position but years later I was sitting at a machine in a darkened venue at 2 am when a woman burst in and yelled at her husband: 'Get out of here; you’re bloody addicted' and I thought, 'Oh my God, is that what I look like?'
When I was younger, I enjoyed playing Keno on a screen. My father had warned me about poker machines but when I was invited into a Tabaret gaming lounge in my forties, I thought I was playing something different because they didn't look like 'one armed bandits'. I thought I was playing mechanical bingo that was called Keno. That erroneous thinking had a huge impact on me.
For the first couple of years I was using the machines two or three times a week. I was a single parent who thought she was out socially but what I was really doing was leaving my daughters at home unprotected.
Later on, I remember asking myself as I drove back to them in their beds: 'Why can't I stop this? Why can't I just go in and come home at the right time?'
If I’d earned $400 that day, it was blown before I got home
In my business selling recycled linen to retailers, I got to know every poker machine venue between Mt Eliza and Campbellfield and every public toilet, but I also knew how to avoid every public toilet so I’d have an excuse to go into the pokies.
If I’d earned $400 that day, it was blown before I got home.
My girls had moved out by the time I relocated to Melbourne for a fresh start. I’d never had a problem working – as a teacher, selling houses and as a consultant – so I sold my house and planned to put the money aside for a new business.
You tell yourself a lot of things when you’re a problem gambler. If I drove past a Tabaret Club and the carpark was full, it meant the machines were paying out and I should go in. If everyone had gone home, they were about to pay out again.
If I was working at night I’d go to the pokies to calm down and feel like I was starting my day. Once I went to the casino on a Tuesday morning and came out on Thursday. I’d spent $5000 – the last of my money from the house – and I was absolutely devastated.
Everything we’d known as a family was gone
My kids had been unable to reach me and came to the unit. At that stage I thought everything we’d known as a family and all the trust we had was gone.
As a young person I was pretty cocooned growing up on the Mornington Peninsula. Going to university really opened my eyes but I still didn’t come close to understanding addiction until it brought me to the brink of suicide in my fifties.
After losing my entire pay, I’d gone in search of a bridge. The Westgate was the second location I chose that night. I remember seeing the bow of a ship emerge below with all its lights on and realising how scared I was of heights. I got a jolt when it’s horn honked and I stepped back and thought about how mentally unwell I was. I drove straight to a hospital.
Search for a bridge ends up in hospital
I’ve spent a long time now highlighting the risks of problem gambling. When I tell my story publicly, I sometimes hear the response: 'If you’re mad enough to lose your money, that’s not my problem.'
Thankfully that attitude is less pervasive now with more education about the extent of harm that problem gambling causes.
Quitting involves a tough withdrawal and the best form of recovery is one that includes long term monitoring and constant reappraisal.
The first time I went to a counsellor, I was shattered by the invasive therapy and cried my eyes out. When I left, I went straight to a pokies venue.
Learn to see yourself as someone who can overcome
Eventually I accepted support from Gambler’s Help. With problem gambling, you’re a mess emotionally, financially, in your career and with your family. With Gambler’s Help you can get counselled in all these areas and learn to see yourself as a person who can overcome it.
For me, it’s been a journey like no other. More than once I’ve convinced myself I can still gamble if I just slow down but I feel more confident each year that if I do fall off the perch I’ll be able pick myself up quickly. It helps me to hang onto something my daughter told me: If nothing changes, nothing changes; it’s up to you.
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact: