I grew up in Northern Ireland. My dad didn’t gamble at all, my mum bet on the Grand National, the equivalent of the Melbourne Cup. SP offices, our TABS, were unwelcoming places tucked away in side streets and alleyways. Pubs had a “fruit machine”, a very basic version of a poker machine that took small coins and had low payouts. My brother was fond of those.
I emigrated to Australia in 1999. I knew nothing about gaming machines until one fateful afternoon while having a few drinks with friends someone said, ‘let’s play the pokies!’ She put $5 into a machine and much to her excitement won $300. A lucky win for her – unlucky for me.
I started gambling regularly at a hotel on the way home from my daughter’s childcare centre. Not every day, and not huge amounts. The first time, I stuck $50 in a machine and played for just a few minutes when suddenly the machine rocketed up to payout $800. I took the jackpot and walked out, but I didn’t tell my wife about it; gambling was something I tried to keep hidden over the ensuing years.
We moved to Cobram in Northern Victoria. There were no pokies hotels but across the river, in NSW, lots of little towns had big casino-like pokies barns. I didn’t have a car so I stayed away most days. However, on Friday nights a courtesy bus every half hour took people from Cobram over the border. I told myself I just went for the raffle – once I won an electric chainsaw – but prize values paled in comparison to the amount I put through the machines.
We moved to the Western Suburbs, where the only pubs for miles were pokies venues, and I was pretty friendless and lonely. Until then, I hadn’t consciously realised my gambling was a problem. I was annoyed when I lost money, but that turned into bouts of shame and anger as I played the machines more and more. I also drank heavily and took amphetamines. One time at the footy I got blind drunk and completely emptied our bank account into the machines.
Amphetamines, or speed, have a hypnotic effect on the pokies – they dial the addictive effect up to 12. I gambled big and won big. I wanted to cash in and leave but I was like a zombie, pushing the buttons as thousands of dollars trickled down to a few hundred. Eventually my wife arrived with our infant daughter and literally pushed me off the machines before the security guards chucked us all out.
My marriage ended and I returned to Ireland for a few years, ditched the speed habit and the pokies. But I missed my daughter terribly, so returned to Melbourne, and then remarried. I didn’t mean to start playing the pokies again but their hold on me was still strong. There are three venues within a five-minute walk from my house and soon I was sneaking out of the house late at night to gamble. I wasn’t taking drugs, but I was drinking heavily. I’ve always hated that pokies joints run pretty much 24/7 while other pubs have a 2am license. More odds stacked against me.
I admitted I had a serious addiction and started attending weekly meetings with Gambler’s Help. I went into alcohol rehab and gave up drinking for a year. But my willpower only lasted so long. Again, I started sneaking out of the house in the wee hours, drinking and losing money. My wife had a furious row with the manager of one venue, asking why they kept letting me in when I was clearly in trouble.
One day my counsellor and I agreed that we’d come as far as possible on the journey together. We’d done a lot of cognitive behaviour therapy, examined my childhood and talked about the reasons I might gamble, but I was still doing it. Sporadically. Then and there I decided I needed to stop. So I did. I walked out of the session and didn’t play the pokies again.
Except I did, briefly, years later when my new infant child almost died from a heart problem and spent a long time seriously ill in hospital. I turned to alcohol and prescribed tranquilizers to cope, and gambled on the pokies. But only a few times. And when she recovered, I stopped. I didn’t want to go down that path again.
Recovery is like strength training for the mind. The more you resist temptation, the more you add meaning and richness to your life, the easier it is to resist. One of the ways I’ve found this meaning is by fighting back against the gambling industry, campaigning for better regulation of machines and venues.
Sharing my story also helps me to fight back.