Karen L is not what most would picture when asked to describe a compulsive gambler. Educated with two college degrees and brought up in a ‘normal’ (as opposed to dysfunctional) military family, she’s traveled the world. She is also a military veteran, spending almost 10 years in the Air Force and worked in the club management field holding many positions of responsibility. She’s lived in Las Vegas for 20 years, of which the last 12 years have been spent in recovery working as the unpaid administrator for a self-help gambling hotline in the Las Vegas area. She is a valued member of the Executive Board for Lanie’s Hope, a national advocacy group serving as a catalyst for social change in problem gambling.
This is her story:
It would seem to be ironic to most people that a person with a serious gambling problem could find successful recovery in, of all places, Las Vegas. The fact is, it’s true and I would not want to live anywhere else. To begin to tell you the entire, sad story of my gambling addiction would require a book or two, but suffice to say that I did not become a compulsive gambler because I lived in Las Vegas nor did it happen overnight. I am extremely thankful to Veronica for her wonderful blog, Recovery Rocks and am honored that she has asked me to write a post about my experience and recovery.
As a child of a military family growing up, my family moved quite frequently and it seemed, almost always in the middle of a school year. From an early age, I had to learn quickly to adapt to new people and surroundings so that I could ‘fit in’ with others. Being an avid reader of all types of fiction, I also had developed quite an imagination and a taste for embellishing the truth. I was happiest when engaged in tomboy activities and always up for a dare; in fact, it was against my nature to back down or give in to anyone. It was that same stubbornness and pride that would keep me in action, long past the time that I should have surrendered and sought help for my addiction.
The first time I ever experienced Las Vegas in the early 80’s, I was in love. It was “Disney for a gambler…the happiest place on Earth” and I vowed that I would return and live there. I returned a few more times for vacation over the next 15 years and finally moved to Las Vegas in 1994. Over the next five years I was content to play my one or two sessions of bingo and a few dollars in a nickel machine, never feeling an overwhelming urge that I HAD to gamble. So, what changed and ‘turned’ me from a person that liked to gamble to one that was consumed by the bet? For me, I began to cross that line when I discovered video poker and it became an all-consuming, life-changing activity. No longer was it just a fun activity, but one that I was compelled to do every day. I worked and slept a few hours a day, but most of my days and nights were spent in front of that video poker machine. I couldn’t even bring myself to drink anything because it would mean having to leave the machine to go to the bathroom. I would sit for hours in front of that machine, smoking pack after pack of cigarettes and getting home for a few hours of sleep before my work shift and repeating the cycle day after day.
I always seemed to find the money to gamble, but never seemed to have money to buy new shoes or get a manicure or get my hair done. Having exhausted my resources for more money other than my paycheck, I began to take money from our savings, cashed in my savings bonds, mutual fund, borrowed from my 401 and yet, it still wasn’t enough to support my ‘habit’. I had a post office box at work so was able to hide the bills from the credit cards I’d taken out without the husband’s knowledge and a locker at work hid all of the ATM receipts. The stress, the secrets, the distress at not being able to gamble because I’d exhausted all possible resources began to take its’ toll on me. By mid-2001, the husband knew I had a serious gambling problem but as far as I was concerned, my only problem was I needed more money to support my habit. He had taken all the checkbooks, blank checks, credit cards, ATM cards and put me on a strict allowance. I had even taken a part-time job to help fill my hours but all it did was provide me with some additional spending money. The fights were escalating and he was constantly threatening to not only remove me from the bank accounts, but to kick me out of the house. The more I called his bluff and he failed to carry out his threats, the more I pushed. Inside, I was dying and just wanted to stop this vicious cycle. I began to think about suicide and how best to carry it out. I had Plan A and Plan B, but the reality of it was that I truly didn’t want to die, but I knew I could not keep living this lie.
I made a call to a hotline from one of those brochures found in the casinos, supplied by the Nevada Council for Problem Gambling with the slogan “When the Fun Stops”. Up to that point, I had never heard of 12-step programs and also never realized that I had an ‘illness’. My next discovery was that I was not crazy and more importantly, there was hope, help, and I was not alone. In respect for the 11th Tradition, I will not go into how that program changed my life other than to say that it has allowed me to live in the gambling ‘capital’ of the USA and not be fearful. I have a very healthy respect for this disease and know that it is dormant for now. I have learned so much about myself and this disease and grateful that next month I will recognize 12 years of recovery from gambling.
One of the reasons that I share my story with others is so that other gambling addicts will know that there is help and hope; that they don’t have to do it alone or feel shame. Over the last few years there has been an underground movement of sorts that seeks to encourage people to no longer be silent and remain in those ‘anonymous’ rooms. One such movement by Faces and Voices of Recovery, as well as the remarkable movie ‘Anonymous People’ directed by Greg Williams are encouraging people from all walks of life to come out of the shadows and share their stories of despair and hope. People, like Veronica Valli with her blog highlighting people of all addictions to share their secrets and celebrities, like Kristen Johnston who’ve written their stories (“Guts”), so that others can see they are not alone. In addition, I’ve been involved with a small organization (www.lanieshope.org) that seeks to be a catalyst for social change to humanize the disease of compulsive gambling. It is our hope to advocate for change and to see treatment for gambling on same parity of alcohol and drug addiction.