The Metamorphosis of a Chronic Gambler

by Jack Rivera

The saying that "Life is a gamble" is an adage with which I couldn't agree more. In fact, I agreed with it so wholeheartedly that I embraced its message both literally and figuratively. I got out of hand; at one point, I associated everything with gambling — from presidential elections, to football games, to what my wife would prepare for dinner. I made every scenario into a bet. Luckily for me (see what I did there?), the light at the end of my gambling tunnel saved me.

I never meant for gambling to become a vice, much less an obsession, but it was never difficult to convince me to play “just one more game.” Winning feels good. No, scratch that. Winning feels great. Not only can it mean that you’re a hundred (or a thousand) dollars richer, it’s also an automatic ego boost. Seeing the ashen faces of my opponents after I beat them and take their money is priceless.

But, the welcoming appearance of the gambling arena is a misnomer. Sure, it looks, sounds and feels grand with the glowing lights, the buzzing of the machines and the plush carpeting, but looking back, it was actually just a trap for people looking for distractions while wasting their money. I should know — I’ve been there.

It Started with a Wager

It may sound ridiculous but my first inclination to gamble materialized when I made a stupid bet with friends a few years ago. We were playing a series of card games, putting the most random stuff at stake. There was an unopened can of beer, a limited edition cigarette lighter and a potted plant. I was hell-bent on getting the lighter — and I came close until one of my friends laid down his winning set of cards. No one really likes losing; I was no exception. While it’s fine to lose a lighter to a friend, I felt that I had to become skilled at card playing, just in case we had another match.

I scoured a bunch of articles, blogs and videos to learn to play several card games. I may not have won the limited edition lighter, but it didn’t mean I wasn’t as skilled. I grew better as I continued to play a few rounds with my friends, and I even challenged the one who won the lighter to put it up as a wager. I won.

My penchant for gambling didn’t stop at playing against friends for unique winnings. One day, I went to a casino with some of my buddies to try my luck. I sat at countless tables and played every game possible.

Even back then, I understood how upsetting losing could be, but losing money to people who aren’t your friends is so much worse. I started to take the games more seriously, and my competitive nature grew exponentially. Eventually, I began to hit the casino alone, betting more money with each visit. I desperately wanted to win.

The Stages of My Addiction

 Phase 1: Beginner’s Luck

The single best thing that can happen to any budding gambler is to press all the wrong buttons. I may not have won the limited-edition cigarette lighter the first time, but soon, my luck changed. Unlike other gamblers who play to forget problems or to make more money, I was primarily in it for the fun. But the more I realized that I should probably stop, the luckier I became. I won a lot of the games and my losses paled in comparison. Quitting felt like an impossible choice.

In retrospect, this should have been my first sign. The victory tasted so good, but it didn’t always feel right. People say that when something’s too good to be true, it probably is — well, the money and the ego boost were real, but they weren’t meant to last forever.

Phase 2: Playing the Rush

When I was still gambling, I would often hear from my friends and fellow players that a good way to determine whether a person is already addicted to something is if the person declines when someone asks him to quit. I thought this idea to be trivial and assumed it didn’t apply to me, until my wife pointed out that I was spending too much time playing. I wasn’t able to help my son work on his science fair entry and I missed my daughter’s dance recital.

I didn’t realize the extent to which I was missing out on things at home until my wife called it to my attention. I tried to defend myself, but she couldn’t let go of how disappointing I was acting when it came to the kids.

Phase 3: Card Sharp

One fight led to another, but still, I didn’t back down. Although I began gambling less frequently (which was no easy task) after my wife and I first argued, I compensated by spending more money. I was becoming rather good at playing, so I was increasingly confident about betting more. I tried online gambling to supplement my hobby, but it became quickly apparent that my opponents were also improving.

Phase 4: Wakeup Call

When you’re a gambler, losing money and incurring debt is inevitable. Players who seek to make up for their losses depend on the money they bet — the money they haven’t won, the money they don’t have. This is one of the realities of a sick gambling cycle — but it is reparable situation. I’m quite grateful that while I had to learn my lesson the hard way, it didn’t cost me everything I have.

During my final year of gambling, I almost missed my son’s graduation day. It was an evening ceremony, and if my wife hadn’t badgered me to celebrate the family milestone, I would have turned into the worst possible version of myself and I would have disappointed my child. My wife was understandably frustrated and my kids were growing distant — I couldn’t bear it. Gambling holds the power to diminish not just your savings, but your relationships as well.

A Life Free from Gambling

Just like any addiction, gambling is a tough habit to break. It’s a vice that propelled me through hell just to give up. But, I couldn’t cause more strain on my family and our finances. They neither needed nor deserved it. I can’t be grateful enough to everyone who helped me triumph over my addiction. Here’s how I did it:

Call it by its name

The first step to overcoming a problem is to acknowledge it exists. Admitting to myself that I had an addiction was difficult and saying it out loud to other people was mortifying. But, since I was determined to start over, I called the problem as it was and encouraged my family to do the same. Once I admitted my gambling addiction, it became easier for me to try a genuinely positive hobby.

Involve your family in the process.

I am lucky to have a loving and supportive family. My wife confessed that my addiction nearly drove her insane, but she never thought about leaving me. She worked hard to explain to our kids what was happening in a way that wouldn’t drive them to resent me. I owed it to my family to include them in the arduous process of rehabilitation, withdrawal and quitting for good.

Pursue a new hobby.

I can’t stress enough how indebted I am to my family — not just for staying with me throughout the ordeal, but also for being with me through every step of the recovery. When I started dealing with my gambling problem, my wife suggested we adopt a dog. She thought that a new addition to the family could strengthen everyone’s sense of responsibility and serve as a welcome distraction as we cope.

Seek professional help.

Speaking to a psychologist or participating in Gamblers Anonymous may not be a solution for everybody, but it can definitely help. I also sought help from a specialist who guides people working through gambling problems. There is no one-plan-fits-all solution, so it’s important to find a recovery regimen that works for you.

The gambling addicted chapter of my life is now closed. My main regret of the addiction is the damage it did to my family and my well-being, but now that it’s over, I can say that I am a happier, more self-actualized version of myself.

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