I LOST my values, my morals, my dignity, my self-respect, my confidence, my mental wellbeing, my financial independence, my integrity, property, people’s trust, friends and family — but, most of all, I lost myself.
These are the words of Mary*, a woman who is speaking out about her addiction to gambling in the hope that it will help other women in her position to seek help.
When she underwent treatment for her addiction with Cuan Mhuire, she was the only woman on the programme.
She is six months into her recovery and believes that, even in childhood, her attitude to things like card games was different to other members of her family.
She says: “Looking back now, the interest in gambling was always lurking, waiting to be explored. I remember certain behaviour I had surrounding innocent family card games, competitions etc and how I enjoyed the high of winning. Years later it was evident to me that the thrill I got from when I placed a bet was a compelling feeling, gambling was now grabbing my attention.”
In her 20s, she attended horse racing as a social event with friends.
However, she notes that her enjoyment again was different to that of her friends: “I was the one that had to study form, place a higher bet than my friends and, if I won or lost, I always had another bet.”
She loved “the chase” that betting gave her.
And she says: “From there, gambling was an intermittent activity in my life, manageable, not problematic at all, not at least until my I hit my early 30s. Unfortunately, that’s when my problem gambling started, peaking in my 40s.”
By then, online gambling was available and she describes this as her “achilles heel”.
She continues: “I chose this type of gambling because of what it could offer, which is secrecy. They [those offering online gambling opportunities] also offered VIP events, big bonuses. They knew me better psychologically than any medical professional could.
“I was the perfect client due to my compulsive tendencies. This online secrecy was a major attraction for me and enabled my gambling.”
She says that online gambling is “the ideal platform”, especially for women.
She explains: “Historically women did not gamble, their male counterparts did. Women who gambled were subjected to judgement, which in turn brought shame and unworthiness as a homemaker, a mother etc. Over the years there has been a huge shift in the gambling gender profile; women now are more active gamblers.”
She says she never went to bookies because she wanted to keep her habit a secret from everyone around her.
However, she says: “This part of the addiction brought its own destruction and, as years crept by, my life was slowly changing; I was changing. Isolation was now my preferred place to be — it became my best friend, along with any device that had internet access.
“I made terrible choices. I didn’t really care for anything just as long as I could gamble.
“No matter where I was, 24/7 I had access to this addiction in my pocket.”
She is reluctant to discuss how much money she lost through gambling because she says that problem gambling is a much deeper issue than the money spent on it.
“Problem gambling does not choose any specific profile type — it can be a college student, a housewife, a doctor, a solicitor etc. The only difference between them is the amount of funds they can access.
“Treatment doesn’t differ as the disease ultimately has the same effects on their lives. Without downplaying the seriousness of say drug and alcohol addictions, gambling is probably the most destructive in the family group of addictions. Money is the drug to gambling addicts and, therefore, they don’t take account of the monetary amounts spent either losing or winning because the only thing that matters is that they always have money to gamble at whatever cost.
“A person with a gambling disorder will lose absolutely everything they have and more to the disease without a thought.
“So how much money do they lose? It is my experience that the answer to this is relative to the amount of funds that any one person can access, because whatever funds they have access to will most certainly be gambled. Amounts lost to gambling have no limits and can horrify the bravest risk-taker, but a gambler is blind to what they spend and will keep giving the bookmakers everything they have until they have nothing left.
“They will ultimately be either rescued by family and friends, surrender voluntarily or, worse, become another statistic to the ever-increasing high suicide rate associated with problem gambling disease.”
Mary says she spent much of her time in addiction able to function in other parts of her life and was in denial about her gambling.
She adds: “I was in financial difficulty and had been trying to fix it by gambling, which was mindless. I lost control towards the end. When you’re immersed in this madness, it’s hard to see a way out and, for me, I had no more means or answers to the damage I had caused to myself and loved ones.
“I contemplated ending my life at this point.”
There were times when she turned to stealing and to moneylenders to help fund her gambling, and says: “I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone”.
After finally turning to her family and friends, she began seeking help and went to her GP, who she praises for his understanding. Eight months later, she began a 12-week programme with Cuan Mhuire during the first lockdown, after having searched and searched for help for female gamblers. Before a friend found Cuan Mhuire, Mary had contemplated seeking treatment in the UK.
She urges people who are in the same position as she was in to reach out for help.
She says nobody can stop gambling by themselves.
“Like every gambler, you will think you can. I did and failed numerous times. I’m not saying it is easy to ask for help — for me it was the hardest thing I ever had to do — but, until you do, you are risking your life. It’s as simple as that.”
And she says: “When in treatment I was the only female gambler within the group, within the facility actually, but never was I ever made feel uncomfortable.
“I was made feel like I was important again, I mattered, I was worthy to recover and, to be honest, it was like being introduced to normal life again.”
She concludes: “Overall, it’s been six months since I last gambled and take each day as a blessing. I often reflect on how my dire situation could have been salvaged if only I was given the same recovery opportunity earlier in life and had access to the knowledge I have now today.
“Recovery is no easy task and it has its moments, but with strength, faith and good people around you, it is possible. Anything is.”
The comments come as counsellors working with gambling addicts are highlighting an increase in the number of women presenting for treatment in the past 12 months.
Michael Guerin, senior clinical psychologist at Cuan Mhuire addiction treatment service, said that mobile apps are facilitating more and more people to develop problem gambling habits.
He added: “We are seeing more women now than before. Ten years ago, there was no such thing as women coming forward.” He said he has come across cases where women have lost hundreds of thousands of euro.
Barry Grant of Problem Gambling Ireland said online casinos have facilitated women to gamble in secrecy around the clock: “The arcades would have had a closing a time and people can be seen coming in and out of them. But a smartphone is a super-casino in your pocket.”
* Not her real name.