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Pauline's story

Smiling older woman poses in front of vibrant flower field

Pauline O’Loughlin

Back in the social swing

Back in the early 1990s when driving with a dear friend to New South Wales, he’d stop at every club in every town. I hated being left in the car park, especially at night. One time I was so scared and angry that I stormed inside and he gave me $5 to sit down at the pokie machine next to him. I won $200, which was how much I earned in a week, and I was addicted immediately.

I’m a bubbly person who loves a chat but I quickly learnt that other patrons don’t want to be interrupted by anyone when they’re watching the colours and lights of the demon reels. I became secretive, taking different routes to the ATM thinking that no-one knew what I was doing.

Gone were the days of manicured hair and bright colours. I became very dowdy and unkempt and didn’t bother matching my clothes. I was so susceptible to a dopamine hit and on a big downwards spiral.

Watching the demon reels

I was a shift worker so I didn’t earn easy money or good money. When I worked the 3 to 10 pm shift, I didn’t want to go straight home. I’d go to a venue until the money ran out then go home to try and sleep, but all I saw when I shut my eyes were spinning reels. It was so exhausting that I’d sometimes fall asleep in the toilet at work the next day.

I was like a zombie but no-one knew what was going on. My friends became suspicious when I’d borrow money.

‘I was like a zombie…’

My friend and I both decided we had a problem and went to Gamblers Anonymous in the late 1990s. We heard all the horrible stories about relationship breakdowns and losing houses. One older gentleman there said, ‘You may think none of this applies to you, but add the word “yet”’. That stayed with me. The experience didn’t work for me overall; it made me feel like I was just a gambler in life and nothing else.

Not giving up on myself

I didn’t want to give up on myself. I kept going to the pokies but I also went into the city to get self-excluded and picked up a Banyule peer support leaflet. I started to attend their sessions and learnt about addiction. It was such an inclusive environment and, even though it wasn’t enough to make me stop, it made me assess myself.

I put myself into some very vulnerable situations. I was leaving venues at 5 am when no-one was around and walking alone through deserted suburban club car parks. My addiction far outweighed my fear.

‘I put myself into some very vulnerable situations.’

The day came that I lost my admin job. I had the key to the safe, embezzled money and was caught. I had to go to my family and tell them what I’d done. That was a terrible day. Everything had come home to roost. I was glad my parents weren’t alive to see that day but by then I’d already gone through my inheritance.

I was having counselling, including with Banyule financial counsellor Kelly. There’s the saying, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will appear’. That has been Kelly for me.

I put everything on the table; I held nothing back. She got me out of trouble, including getting debts wiped and a moratorium on my mortgage.

I went through my super and the sale of my house. My car was repossessed. I haven’t got out of it easily.

There was no excuse. I was my own worst enemy. The only thing holding me back was me. What am I going to do for myself? That was the question I kept coming back to.

A better version of myself

I’m now 22 months into recovery. I had a 20-minute relapse. I put a few coins into a machine and distinctly heard a loud voice behind me say, ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here anymore.’ I turned around and there was no-one there. That voice was me.

‘The only thing holding me back was me.’

I’ve now retired into a better version of myself. I have my own home again. I don’t say no to any invitation to coffees and brunches with friends. I go to the theatre in the city and it’s so nice to take part in society again.

Now I’m involved with the Foundation’s Lived Experience Advisory Committee and Three Sides of the Coin. Just in case I’m triggered by any of that work, I touch base regularly with my counsellor.

Addiction thrives in the dark and frankly I’m no longer prepared to live in silence, in dark places.