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Published March 17 2012

All bets are off: Addict says gambling was way to suppress feelings

Curt’s drug was the slot machine.

The local man could spend hours plugging dollars into the slots. In three hours, he could go through $500.

At one point, he’d hit the betting button so many times that he developed carpal tunnel syndrome.

Curt may have told himself he was looking for a big payout, but today he knows better. When he gambled, any anxiety or pain was replaced by a merciful numbness.

“That’s not money. That’s not what you’re putting in there. It’s a feeling-changing medication that allowed me to slip into a numbing state,” says Curt, who shared his story on condition of anonymity.

Reality wouldn’t hit until Curt finally returned to his car, many hours after his gambling binge began. Then the endorphins subsided, only to be replaced by self-loathing and a realization of what he’d done.

Curt equates that chaser of post-gambling regret to an “instant hangover.”

His experiences reflect results of a new data analysis conducted by WooMi Phillips, assistant professor and hospitality management program coordinator at North Dakota State University.

The survey of 136 adults from throughout North Dakota and western Minnesota found that 77 percent of respondents believed their gambling was a way to escape personal problems or relieve uncomfortable emotions.

The results help give insight into the minds and motives of problem gamblers. It’s estimated that about 3 percent of North Dakotans struggle with problem gambling, says Lisa Vig, director of Lutheran Social Services Gamblers Choice, a statewide gambling addiction treatment program.

Vig says the survey reinforces what counselors have taught for years: that gambling can act like a drug to dampen internal pain.

“Most problem gamblers describe positive euphoric feelings while gambling or they experience emotional numbing or ‘zoning out,’ ” Vig says.

An addict-in-training

During his strict Lutheran upbringing in a small North Dakota community, Curt believes he already was an addict-in-training.

He learned that if something bothered him, he shouldn’t show it. He became proficient at talking his way out of almost any situation. And he learned how to put on a good front, even if he felt like a fraud inside.

“I never really felt as good as the people around me,” he says.

Curt struggled with a drinking problem in adulthood, but sobered up in 1979. However, his interest in gambling surfaced as tribal-run casinos cropped up around the region. His work in sales created plenty of opportunities to travel – and gamble.

“I should have made the connection that a double martini and putting $500 in a slot machine are both ways to change feelings,” he says.

Dual addiction is fairly common for problem gamblers. Nearly 30 percent of respondents in the NDSU study reported they had sought professional treatment for other addiction problems before seeking help for gambling.

Curt first came to Lutheran Social Services in 1999 after his gambling led him to borrow money from others and file for bankruptcy.

Through one-on-one counseling with Vig and Gamblers’ Anonymous meetings, he was in recovery for 3½ years.

But gradually, he stopped attending GA meetings. And one day he found himself stopping at the Shooting Star Casino in Mahnomen “on his way” to Grand Forks. He walked in and plugged money into a $2 machine. On that first try, it paid out $6,000.

“My reaction was not one of excitement or euphoria,” Curt says now. “It was, damn, move over. I have to get this over with. It had no meaning whatsoever.”

Life as a closet gambler

Curt spent the next few years as a closet gambler, plotting how to visit casinos during business trips and how to make sure his wife didn’t see the tax forms that list gambling winnings.

Each time, Curt says he vowed that this was his last spree and he would never do it again. But then the feelings of restlessness or discomfort returned. He would think of his next casino visit, which filled him with the adrenaline surge of a drug user anticipating his next fix.

Curt also experienced “chasing behavior” – the attempt to recover one’s losses by further gambling – a hallmark symptom of compulsive gambling.

He recalls once driving down the road with $7,400 in gambling-related credit-card bills on his car seat, next to a $7,600 commission check.

At the time, he could only think of one thing: “Yes, at least I’m even.”

Some recovering addicts describe an “aha” moment – that flash of clarity when they realize they’ve bottomed out and need help. Curt says that moment hit when he contemplated suicide.

“I was sitting in my car along the interstate, looking at the bridge abutment and thinking it looked very inviting, and how I could make it look like an accident,” he says. “But I hated to waste a car just to die. I couldn’t even do that right.”

Curt returned to LSS in May 2011 and enrolled in the Gamblers’ Choice program. He learned that a drug he’d taken to treat restless leg syndrome, Mirapex, had reduced his inhibitions severely and amplified his already-pathological gambling problem.

Mirapex has a dopamine-restoring action that may make a small percentage of patients hyper-compulsive in areas such as gambling, Vig says. Since 2005, the drug’s manufacturers have included warnings of these possible side effects on its packaging.

Time to rebuild trust

The Gamblers Choice program offers services like gambling evaluations, group and individual counseling, family counseling and financial counseling.

That financial component is one reason why the program works, Vig says. Counselors may sit down with family members and make sure the compulsive gambler doesn’t have access to unlimited funds and isn’t listed on financial documents.

Curt does not have a checkbook and rarely carries cash. Instead, he relies on gift cards for necessities like gas or groceries.

He says he doesn’t resent this, as he understands ready cash is a dangerous trigger for him. “It’s like locking the liquor cabinet,” he says.

Another component of the program is to focus on the emotional undertow that drives people to gamble, Vig says.

In general, she adds, compulsive gamblers struggle with impulse control, delay of gratification and acceptance of the sometimes painful business of life.

Today, Curt works on those lessons daily. He attends his Gamblers’ Choice groups as well as GA. He has a sponsor. And he works daily on his spirituality.

“I’ve learned to say, ‘God, I can’t handle this. Let me be able to turn this over to you.’ ”

It’s not easy. He admits his addiction devastated his family, and he has to work daily to regain their trust.

And he can no longer ignore the emotions that fueled his compulsive drive to find the next casino.

“I want to get to the point where my belly-button feelings are the same as the ones I’m exhibiting,” he says.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525