By Paulette Sears

No one knows for certain why some people can engage in recreational gambling without it becoming a problem in their lives, while others’ gambling behavior becomes a problem that can develop into a destructive addiction in their life.  But what is clear is that gambling does become a significant problem in many individual’s lives.  It may start off as a social activity that one enjoys occasionally, but can slowly or quickly develop into a progressive, destructive problem that impacts the individual’s entire life, including those closest to him.

The reality is that any object can become an addiction in an individual’s life and can impact it greatly, including alcohol, drugs, food, or material objects (shopping), and gambling.  What all addictions appear to have in common is a physiological component.  It appears that any addictive behavior, even those that do not include a substance, produces a “rush” or “high” that is an important reinforcing aspect of the behavior.  Problem gambling may first begin in response to chasing a big loss or trying for another big win, but ultimately as the behavior progresses into an addiction, it is the high that is ultimately sought by the individual.

Like other addictions such as alcohol or drug abuse, problem or compulsive gambling involves the physiological effects of tolerance and withdrawal.  Soon, no amount of winning becomes enough for the addicted gambler.  As mentioned above, for the problem gambler, it is no longer about the money, but rather the high one obtains in the anticipation of a big win.  Unfortunately, for the problem gambler, the more they gamble, the more they inevitably lose, and the chase for the winning high only increases following the depressive emotional lows of the unavoidable losses.

Once caught in the addictive loop of gambling, the chances of the individual removing him or her from it is slim.  Fed by the addictive high, the problem gambler’s addiction only strengthens.  More money and time are increasingly put into the service of obtaining this high, often at the expense of family and work.  Like most addictions, the addicted gambler’s life revolves around finding ways to engage in the behavior.  For the gambler this involves locating more money and time to pursue gambling.

Like many addictions, gambling is destructive to the individual’s life, as well as those closest to him or her.  The individual engaged in an addiction is often adept at finding ways to keep their behavior secret.  This is often easier for the compulsive gambler than for the individual addicted to drugs or alcohol. The gambler’s addictive behavior is not readily apparent.  There often are no outward signs that would make others aware of this addiction. For the problem gambler, a change in physical appearance or speech is not present to indicate the high he or she has been pursuing.

What are the Signs of Gambling Addiction?

Often, the partner of a problem gambler is more likely to suspect an extramarital relationship because of the individual’s time spent away from home.  The problem gambler’s spouse and family are likely to experience significant emotional distancing that is an inevitable consequence of the individual’s preoccupation with gambling.

Unfortunately, the addicted gambler pursues his addiction without thought or concern regarding its impact on those he or she loves most.  It is not unusual for the problem gambler to drain a family’s savings or retirement account before his or her spouse even becomes aware of the gambling problem.  Finding out that there is no money left to withdraw from an account may be the spouse’s first clue that a problem exists.

The following questions, taken from, (Behind the 8-Ball: A Recovery Guide for the Families of Gamblers, by Linda Berman and Mary-Ellen Siegel, Excel Press, 1998, pp.65-69), will help you determine if you may be involved with someone who has a gambling problem.

  1. Are you puzzled because your family is always short of money?
  2. Does the person you are wondering about sometimes borrow money to pay ordinary monthly bills although there has been no known change of income   or specific increased expenses?
  3. Has anything of personal or property value mysteriously disappeared?
  4. Have items of personal or property value been sold to pay debts?
  5. Is the person secretive about money?
  6. Does the person seem to be more reckless about money than other people and not really weigh his or her chances?
  7. Have you discovered secret loans?
  8. Does the person continue to acquire different credit cards?
  9. Has this person ever urgently requested you to co-sign a loan?
  10. Do you have any reason to question whether the person has filed an accurate or, for that matter, any IRS return?
  11. Has there been a change in the way the person handles money? Example: Paying bills late, in part, or not at all.
  12. Has the person reordered spending priorities? Example: Giving up his or her car and taking public transportation, not buying needed new clothes, neglecting basic home maintenance.
  13. Has the person let health or life insurance lapse?
  14. Do you have to resort to subterfuge to get money you need from the person? Example: Overestimating some expenses, under-reporting your own income, stealing from the person.
  15. Has the person ever been in trouble with the law because of money?
  16. Does the person sometimes pay bills far in advance for no apparent reason?
  17. Have you noticed that the person avoids certain friends, acquaintances, or family members?
  18. Do you suspect the person has taken money from you?
  19. Does the person use double-talk when you try to discuss spending, income, or assets?
  20. Has the person dipped into savings, pensions, or other assets or cut back on or stopped contributions?
  21. Is the person seeking new ways to earn extra money? Does he or she already have a second job or work overtime although there are no known additional expenses and you see no evidence of additional earnings?

If you answered yes to at least 7 of the 21 questions, something is going on, and it may likely be a gambling problem.

According to the South Oaks Gambling Screen (SOGS), the following are signs of problem gambling:

  • The individual gambles more than they had intended.
  • The individual feels guilty about the way he or she gambles.
  • The individual wants or feels that they want to stop, but can’t.
  • The individual gambling is hiding betting slips, lottery tickets, gambling money, and other signs of betting.
  • There are arguments over how the individual gambling is handling money.
  • The individual gambling is borrowing money, but not repaying it.
  • The individual gambling is losing time from work or school due to betting money or gambling.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), suggests that signs of problem gambling may include:

  • Preoccupation with gambling (reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next venture or thinking of ways in which to gamble)
  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
  • Trying to control, cut down or stop gambling unsuccessfully
  • Feeling restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling
  • Using gambling as a way to escape problems or bad moods (helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)
  • Returning to gamble after losing money gambling
  • Lying to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling
  • Committing illegal acts, such as forgery, fraud, theft or embezzlement to finance gambling.
  • Jeopardizing or losing a significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
  • Relying on others to get out of debt

 What You Can Do?

If you are the loved one or friend of the problem gambler there are things you can and must do to protect your family and ultimately the problem gambler.  The following suggestions are provided by Gam-Anon. Gam-Anon is an organized fellowship of men and women who have been affected by the gambling problem and is founded on spiritual principles.

  1. Accept and learn to live with the fact that compulsive gambling is an illness.
  2. To question or interrogate the gambler will serve no purpose. You are powerless over this situation. If the gambler has something the gambler wishes to hide, the truth cannot be forced from the gambler. Why try?
  3. To nag your gambler about past losses or to talk of what might have been if the gambler hadn’t gambled will prove to be detrimental to the gambler’s recovery as well as yours.
  4. The past is gone and you will not find peace of mind until you can accept it without resentment.
  5. The gambler, not you, should be responsible for calling the gambler’s creditors to make restitution. Don’t take this responsibility from the gambler.
  6. Experience has taught us that it is not helpful to borrow monies or co-sign notes to cover gambling debts, while the gambler is gambling or when the gambler comes into Gamblers Anonymous.
  7. It is not recommended that the spouse go to work specifically to cover gambling debts.
  8. Prudence tells us that compulsive gamblers are seldom able to handle family finances. Perhaps this condition will be altered as the gambler progresses toward recovery.
  9. Discourage friends and relatives from lending the gambler money.
  10. Gamblers Anonymous is a program for the compulsive gambler. Loved ones should not interfere.
  11. It may be well to encourage the gambler to go to the first few meetings, however, after this the Gamblers Anonymous activities must be left to the gambler. To force the gambler to attend meetings is very apt to do more harm than good.
  12. The gambler’s gambling debts were not incurred over a short period of time, therefore don’t be discouraged if the gambler finds it necessary to pay back small amounts of monies over an extended period. Normal family expenses must come first.
  13. Recovery is a very slow process for the gambler. Give the gambler your encouragement and have faith.
  14. Do take an honest inventory of YOUR character defects and work on them.
  15. Come to Gam-Anon even though your gambler may continue to gamble. We understand your problem and if you have an honest desire we can help you through our program.

How to Talk to Someone Whose Gambling Concerns You

  • Try to remain calm, unemotional, and factually honest in speaking with the gambler about his or her behavior and its day-to-day consequences.  Remember you are emotionally involved.  Changing your attitude and approach to the problem can speed up recovery.
  • Let the gambler know that you are reading and learning about compulsive gambling.  This can have the effect of “professionalizing” the illness; in other words, you feel it is serious enough to warrant attention.
  • Learn all the facts and put them to work in your own life.  Don’t start with the gambler.
  • Attend GA/Gam-anon meetings, or meet with a competent counselor who has had experience in this field.  Go yourself.
  • Encourage all healthy, positive activities of the gambler and cooperate in making them possible.
  • Be compassionate, be patient, but be willing to act.  You can’t cure the illness, but when the crucial moment comes, you can guide the person to competent help.
  • The subject must remain on gambling.  Do not allow the gambling person to change the conversation toward other topics.  Discussing other topics will simply dilute your message, and the gambler will interpret this to mean that you are not really serious about the specific problem, which is gambling.