GAMBLING: "ADDICTED TO THE ACTION"
Before the boats came to Missouri, things were different for Mary* and her husband John* (*not their real names). Occasionally, they would visit the race track for an evening's entertainment. She says they'd take a set amount of money to the track, and "when that was gone, we'd leave."
On vacation once in Iowa, she remembers boarding a casino boat. Although they had a good time, as she recalls now, the distance discouraged her husband from wanting to make the long trip. "My husband was never willing to drive four to five hours to Iowa to gamble on the boats," she says.
After Missouri voters approved casino gambling boats in 1992, the couple's lives changed. Now, with several boats in the St. Louis area, gambling was never far away. Initially, Mary says they visited the boats together for an evening out. "At first, it was recreational," Mary recalls. "It was fun."
As the months passed, Mary began noticing a change in her husband. The amount of time they spent on the boats became steadily longer. "I used to play coins in the slots, and he'd play blackjack," she says. "I used to hold a bucket of coins for the slots, and he'd come to get scoops of change from the bucket. I never knew how much he spent. I thought he was breaking even."
Their visits to the boat grew more frequent. "It got so that we would always go to the boats whenever we went out," she says. "Then the amount of time he wanted to stay got longer and longer."
Mary says she first realized her husband had a gambling problem when one night, he ran to catch a boat. "I thought that was strange," Mary recalls. "You either board the boat here or there, but there was no reason to run to catch a boat."
She remembers the last time she went gambling with him. "It was our 21st anniversary," she recalls. "He tried to make up for the fact that he gambled all night on our 20th anniversary, so he took me to dinner on the boat. It was the last time I went with him. I won't watch him gamble any more."
Mary says she thinks gambling is much harder than alcoholism or drug addiction for people to recognize as an illness. "When drugs or booze are put into the body, it's mind altering," she says. "But with gambling, it's in your mind all the time. Your head is spinning and wants action."
Once, when Mary and her husband were driving somewhere, she noticed her husband flicking his wrist repeatedly as he drove. "When I asked him about it, he said he didn't know he was doing it," she says. "He was thinking about gambling - and he was actually throwing the dice in a craps game."
Mary says she thinks that for many people, compulsive gambling doesn't have the taboo of being as bad as alcoholism or drug addictions. "That's because people don't think the gambler will kill anyone or hurt anyone. But that's just not true." Mary knew first-hand what problem gambling can do to a family.
Several years ago, she says she tried to commit suicide. "I was so distraught at all his behavior," Mary explains. "I cut my wrist to show him that I could bleed. I kept cutting it. I felt like I was no longer a person to him. I wanted to show him I was a real person with feelings."
Mary says she reached the point when she finally sought help from a support group for family members of gamblers. At her first meeting, she recalls telling the group that she "felt like the dirt on the bottom of his shoe," or "like a piece of furniture no one paid attention to until it broke."
Her involvement in the group has really helped her, she says. She learned how to make sure she and her children were secure financially. She has a safe in her house - and only she knows the combination. Every night she says she locks up her purse, credit cards, cash on hand, and any valuables. Her husband brings his check home to her. "This is a progressive illness," Mary explains. "What happens over time is that the addict's unacceptable behavior keeps getting worse, until your whole world is upside down."
She refers to her husband "spinning" and says it's not the winning that keeps problem gamblers going - it's the action.
"Gambling is a disease that's addicted to the action," she explains. "Accessibility increases problem gambling. For my husband to get to work, he has to pass three gambling boats. That's hard. And he has to pass every billboard along the way. I can understand his problem."
Her husband looks physically different when "his addict" is in control, according to Mary. She distinguishes between the "gambling addict" and her husband. "His addict is a vile, nasty person," she says. Addicts try to keep secrets, and they lie about everything, even when they don't have to lie. I love my husband - but I hate the addict."
How do you tell the warning signs that a person is becoming a gambler?
"I wouldn't know where to begin," she says. "At first, it looks like such an innocent thing. Like the first pack of cigarettes I got when I was a teenager, but it took me 30 years to quit smoking."
Mary says she believes that in the not-too-distant future, everyone is going to be affected by gambling in some way. "Everyone is going to know someone who has a problem with gambling," she warns.By R. Miller
"Gambling - Good for Missouri, or a Bad Bet?"
September 15, 1998