The Fear behind her Poker Face

I’m delighted to have Liz Karter from Level Ground Therapy guest blog on gambling addiction in women. She is also the author of ‘Women and Problem Gambling’ which is availbe to buy here.
Liz Karter
Liz outlines what she deals with in her work:

Imagine you are right now face to face with your greatest fear. A spider? The unfamiliar sound when you wake in the dark? Public speaking? Next-and please don’t think about it- just ask yourself what is your first instinct? Do you confront your fear head on? Or instinctively do you freeze on the spot, or run the other way? The ‘fight,’ ‘flight’ or’ freeze’ response to fear at times of acute stress was first described by Harvard professor Walter Bradford Cannon He found that instinctively we do one or the other. I imagine most of us would agree with his findings. I know I do. See me go when a sizeable spider enters any room I happen to be in…

In my clinical practice working with gambling addiction since 2001, specialising in gambling addiction and women I have been taught by my clients that gambling is essentially an instinctive response to fear. It is an attempt to take flight; to escape into the gambling action because it feels like there is no alternative, that to stand and face, to fight back is not a viable or a safe option. Gambling addiction might appear from the outside to be all about risk, but for women who fall inside its painfully cruel trap it feels like the only way to play it safe.

Women with gambling addiction are rarely seeking a buzz or a high although a win here and there might temporarily lift a low mood. The win is not the aim. The motivation for gambling addiction is not the money.Women with gambling addiction chose forms of gambling that offer total absorption in the activity. When I first began to practice very few women presented for treatment with gambling addiction. Those who did would be addicted to traditional slot machine games.
The repetition of play, focussing on the symbols on the machine, the flashing lights, the unique sounds all combine to have a hypnotic effect. Play with traditional slots is relatively low cost meaning that provided she has enough coins to feed the machine hours can lost in the experience, taking her out of her life. She is distracted from her uncomfortable thoughts by gambling and therefore from any painful feelings which the thoughts trigger. She takes flight from the darkness of depression, or the relentless, exhausting hyper vigilance of anxiety, or the isolation and loneliness that form the stark, cold landscape of her life.
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In the last three or four years I have treated ever greater numbers of women who have become addicted to gambling online. Often I am asked by the media to point the finger at which types of game are to blame for this rise; is it bingo, or poker? The findings of my clinical practice are that the type of game does not matter. The woman who is addicted to gambling is not gambling because she enjoys the game, but because she is not enjoying life outside of the game, in either her outer world or her inner world of thoughts and feelings. Just as with the woman who plays the slot machine, the addicted online gambler finds that when she is gambling, for that time all her fears and anxieties and world of pain fades away as they are outshone by the lights and primary colours on the screen.
Time ceases to exist.
She freezes her fears of not being good enough, or of her overwhelming responsibilities, or the painful reality of her life, or the dark thoughts and feelings that are the nightmare of her inner world, or fear of attack from another. Sadly, too as with any addiction she freezes her personal growth, her relationships, her potential; any good things that might be present in her life become frozen and, by comparison, meaningless to her.

A similar escape route might of course be taken through drugs or alcohol. Indeed many women come to me with patterns of cross addition. Those who do so often report feeling that recovery from gambling addiction is so much harder than that from drugs or alcohol. With gambling addiction it most frequently means going cold turkey. There are on the whole no drugs that have proven affective for the withdrawal symptoms as there might be for other addictions. In the UK the high prevalence of legal advertising for gambling products means that she must deal daily with temptation and painful reminders of that she craves, but is battling to resist.

For some women, their choice of gambling over other forms of addiction lies in the fact that while gambling they are able to psychologically and emotionally escape the harsh realities of their real world as they might with drug or alcohol use, but unlike with drugs or alcohol they remain physically present and in control. For the eighty four per cent of women I have worked with who have experienced abuse in childhood or domestic violence as an adult, this sense of control over physical self feels vital. The lack of obvious physical symptoms enables her to conceal her problem for years longer than she might conceal drug or alcohol addiction.
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Gambling addiction has a high cost in time and of course in money ‘Gambling money,’ as it is seen through the haze of addiction, has no value other than to buy time out in the craved experience. What happens when her money runs out? A shocking crash into the harsh reality she was desperate to escape Now added to the original fear is anxiety and panic for her increasingly dire and suddenly all too terrifyingly real financial situation, and the even more vulnerable and insecure position this leaves her in. Crippled by shame and guilt at the consequences for herself and those close to her, in this moment she might tell herself in all sincerity “This is the last time. No more. I cannot go through this again”. It is at this point she will need all the help and support she can get to follow through with her resolve, because stalking along in the shadows, just behind her, are all the fears she was taking flight from in gambling only magnified by the anxiety and depression that the gambling addiction has created. The instinctive urges to escape will return despite all she rationally knows; that is that gambling addiction ultimately will destroy her.

The only way out of the trap is to somehow find the courage to stand and face her fears. It is only when we stop running and stand and turn and face what we are afraid of that we truly know what it is we need to deal with. We grow stronger through working out realistic options for how to deal with it, making adjustments to day to day life situations, resolving past pain. Hidden beneath the chaos of gambling addiction the women I have met with are amongst the most resilient, courageous, caring women I have had the pleasure to meet. They are survivors. They have taught me that with the right kind of support and guidance it is always possible to move beyond the frozen, lifeless landscape of gambling addiction and to thrive.

This weeks Recovery Rocks interview is with a recovered female gambler.

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