For me, it started with a happy occasion. My family would go to a hotel in Hawthorn for birthday lunches. We’d light the candles and sing happy birthday and then everyone went into the venue to play the pokies. I didn’t. I wasn’t interested. I just stood and watched. This was 20 years ago.
And then one day, I went there alone. I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Life was good. I was 42, a single mother of an eight-year-old boy, and probably not really aware of the stresses of single parenthood, or the loneliness. So there was that. But really, the main thing was I had time on my hands and some extra money in the bank. I didn’t value money in the way people save for a house. I liked excitement and I used to spend it on travel. Suddenly I was spending it on poker machines.
On the face of it, I wasn’t out of control. I took parenthood really seriously and didn’t let my gambling impact on my son. I wasn’t there every day. I’d play in the afternoons, three times a week. Sometimes, I’d take my son to my parents; they’d babysit, and I’d go and play. It was my night out. Two years went by like that. It all seems so harmless right? It didn’t seem an issue until I ran out of money.
Digging the hole
Two years went by like that and suddenly I was having trouble paying the rent or a telephone bill. That’s when I started borrowing money off friends. A thousand here, a thousand there. It was diabolical: the gut wrenching thing of sitting down to a coffee with friends and building up the courage to ask for a loan. It’s an awful, disempowering moment to go through. Still, I always paid it back. One lawyer friend lent me $5000, and I paid it back $100 a week. With the friends I trusted, I told them what the money was for. The only friend I lost, I cut off myself: a woman I’d known since we were five. She said I couldn’t expect other people to bail me out. I felt she didn’t even try to understand the kind of problem I was facing.
Because, for me, with the machines, I knew I’d been taken over by something else that wasn’t me: the real me wasn’t really a part of it. If that sounds delusional, well, that’s how it was. I was digging a big dark hole for myself.
I kept borrowing money and eventually declared bankruptcy. I gradually had to pay it all back, which took years, and left me in the position of not having much savings.
Eventually I hit the wall. It’s the point where you want to die. The hole was too deep. The amount of money lost and the crappy let-down feeling of it all just got too much. That’s what you’re left with. It’s a legal form of entertainment, marketed as a bit of fun, but when it goes bad … well, everyone I’ve met who has gone through this has contemplated suicide. I was lucky to have my son to keep me going.
I just knew I had to get help. The dam has got to burst eventually. One night I literally threw myself on my parents lounge-room floor and sobbed for 10 hours and didn’t move. Anyway, they were great.
One day I saw an ad in the local newspaper for a group called Getting Even – and that was the beginning of the journey back. It was a group of about 12 people that met once a week … and run by a counsellor from Gambler’s Help. I think ultimately what makes the best counsellor is someone who’s been there and has had that lived experience. They know exactly what you’re going through. And the group experience was exceptional. We sat in a circle and told our stories and we all felt very safe and not judged. Every story was different, the commonality was the depths of despair we’d sunk to.
One-on-one counselling didn’t really do anything for me but being in the group was the beginning of my recovery. Years later, I’m 60 now and I’ll never own a house. Had I not been introduced to the machines I absolutely would own a house now and not be in the vulnerable predicament that I’m now going to have to live with.
But for 15 years I’ve been a public speaker about these issues. And during that time, I’ve relapsed twice, and had to start all over again. It’s an important message to know you might relapse. It’s a fact of addiction.
Today I’m a speaker with the re-SPIN program, reaching out to people who have been ground down the way I was. It’s raw but honest and hopeful. Get help and you’ll eventually get your life back.