My gambling and recovery
Having developed an addiction to gambling aged around 11 years old, which morphed into a destructive cycle of ‘payday’ gambling as soon as I began regular employment from the age of 16, I have spent my entire life battling gambling and a depression associated with it. Whether the depression came before the gambling is impossible to reflect upon and, in truth, is not something that matters a great deal to me.
Trapped in a cycle of payday gambling
As I entered my late teens, it was only pub fruit machines that were available for me to lose my wages on, having developed the addiction playing as a child in the local arcades. I became a police officer aged 22 (2003), and it was at that time that FOBTs were emerging and lured me in when I entered the bookies to make a football bet. With a vast increase in wages, and it now being a monthly wage, I soon found myself losing my wages around payday, and living a cycle of scraping through the remaining 28 days of the month – by borrowing money from friends or family to cover my petrol to get me to work and being inventive with my food purchasing. The depression this brought upon me, whilst dealing with a new high-pressured career, resulted in me blocking out this pain using cannabis and alcohol to get me through the remining days of the month.
Seeking help and trying to stop
Knowing my new career was at risk from this lifestyle, I made a disclosure to the police and they paid for CBT treatment for me. Although, following this, I managed to refrain from gambling for a year and cannabis also, online gambling began to emerge, and I began the same cycle of payday gambling again, from now on a mixture between online gambling and FOBTs. I also began to spend large sums on football betting and would often chase losses, in-play, between 2006-2008. I sought further counselling in 2008, which again resulted in a period of abstinence for around 6 months. But in general, I was trapped in the cycle of gambling, despite the assistance and support of partners.
In 2015 I made further disclosure to the police (this time Dorset) about my gambling and cannabis use. I instantly had to refrain from using cannabis, which was a good thing as its use had detrimental effects on my life and exacerbated the depression. Dorset Police were very supportive of me, on the whole. They referred me to several different counsellors, psychiatrists and psychologists, but things ultimately got worse for me before they got better, despite having this treatment.
Using my detective skills
A combination of finding a good therapist, together with my own journey of using my detective skills to delve into my gambling history, ultimately freed me from my destructive gambling. My investigations led to me to discover two important things that existed, which I was never made aware of:
2. The rules that companies should follow, The Gambling Act 2005 and the License Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP) (requirements by the Gambling Commission for those given a licence to supply gambling in Great Britain).
I then set about a process of reviewing vast amounts of material, including retrieving many hundreds of emails I had sent and received to the 75+ online gambling sites I had gambled with and all the marketing emails they had sent me. I obtained around 25 Subject Access Request (SAR) bundles and retrieved of all my previous banking transactions.
Realising I was exploited by industry not sticking to the rules
Seeing before my eyes the evidence that I was let down by multiple companies that exploited me and failed to adhere to the rules that should have safeguarded me, led me to challenge the companies concerned.
I spoke to some directors and lawyers of companies that ultimately accepted responsibility for these failings (albeit never actually admitting it) and paid me money back which helped me rebuild my life. The majority of companies didn’t care in the slightest and took no accountability.
Getting no assistance from an ineffective regulator
Then my engagement began with the Gambling Commission and it soon became evident that they were an ineffective organisation that was designed to deliberately not assist persons like myself. My evidence of clear failings was of little interest to them and I learned, the failings suffered by others weren’t either. Eventually the Commission informed me that they would no longer communicate with me. As a serving police officer, it seemed alien for an organisation that is meant to look into failings of those they regulate, to be dismissive of evidence.
I asked the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate my complaint against the Gambling Commission (this being the first complaint they have ever received, remarkably), but they found no failings existed because the Commission did everything via their policies (which are written to deliberately not assist the public). I then set about forming a relationship with the Commission and invited them to utilise me to help them bridge the gap between the public and themselves. They didn’t take me up on the offer and it’s no surprise to learn that the National Audit Office has released its findings recently that the Gambling Commission is ineffective.
Putting past hurts to good use to help others
My intention is therefore to utilise my skills as an ex-detective, coupled with the knowledge I have learned about the gambling industry in general, and work with those that aren’t afraid to hear about the bigger picture – ultimately to try and minimise harm for others.
The ‘individual responsibility’ rhetoric dissected
As many of us are aware, the term ‘responsible gambling’ has been a convenient and popular message that continues to be clung to by the gambling industry and many prominent organisations that are beneficiaries of industry funding. Many gamblers are conditioned to accept this and don’t really think deeper. What this clearly implies is that the foremost onus for one’s gambling is placed on the gambler. In simple terms, the convenience of this message is that whether you’re a sufferer of gambling disorder or other related mental health disorders, it’s down to you to resolve this before anyone else can intervene.
Accepting ‘responsibility’ did not help
From my own personal journey, I can state that I accepted ‘responsibility’ for being addicted to gambling around the age of 23, this being the year 2004. As a consequence, between this year and up until 2017, I sought psychological assistance from a variety of counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists. Yet all the way up until 2017, I continually relapsed and spent time gambling.
I was continually puzzled and asked myself over and over, ‘Why am I doing this to myself’? ‘Why am I engaging in an activity that causes me such huge harm?’ Whilst everyone’s journey is different and their disordered behaviours are also, I was able to come out of my gambling primarily as a result of utilising my skills as a detective – and harnessing my ability to be extremely focussed when glaring injustices began to be unravelled by my personal investigations into my own gambling history.
The biggest thing that became my protective blanket was the wealth of evidence that clearly displayed that I had taken responsibility for my disordered behaviour repeatedly. This gave me the leverage to present to the gambling industry, the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group and the Lords that there could be no argument from them that I hadn’t taken steps myself to resolve my behaviour.
I have often described myself as a ‘payday gambler’ or binge gambler and despite the Gambling Commission and some prominent industry figures stating to me that such a problem isn’t widespread, I remain convinced it is – just down to logic and hearing from many others that were in this pattern. My pattern of gambling was largely around payday, being the end of the month. Despite knowing that that the previous month I may have done the same, the compulsion to gamble took over and again, after a day or two, my entire wages were gone.
By learning that this was a pattern in my life, I would make sure that all my bills were paid, so unlike many others, I didn’t find myself suffering from a spiral of crippling debt. I did, however, spend the majority of my gambling life with at least one and often two constant overdrafts, typically amounting to around £2-4k.
I recall that around 2006/2007 out of the blue, my bank wrote to me to say that my overdraft had been withdrawn and I was expected to pay the entire sum of £2k back. This has never happened again. Afterall, someone that is in constant debt and continually pays the interest is a good customer.
So, my pattern was that after losing my pay, typically around £1500-£2000, I would write the online gambling site an email to state that I had a gambling issue and wanted to be permanently excluded from gambling. To be clear, the sole reason for this was because at that time of extreme anguish, I, of course, never wished to repeat what had happened.
Then, when the time came around (which could’ve come after several months of ‘self-control’, whereby I may have managed to clear my overdraft and have a plus balance), I would simply search the internet for ‘online casino’ and open an account, paying very little attention to the company that this site was with.
Always (maybe 95% of the time), I would end my tenure with them with the same message. I have even done this on some rare occasions when I withdrew a positive balance (once I believe).
Asking why gambling companies aren’t responsible
The evidence from my gambling history clearly shows that my own personal responsibility had next to no effect on preventing the years of harm I endured. Furthermore, what about those that didn’t take any ‘responsibility’ whilst they were clearly suffering from disordered gambling because they felt it impossible to do so? What about those that didn’t have the same luxury of having their treatment paid for? If clear harm markers blatantly existed, why should a company simply wait for the individual that is suffering to intervene themselves before they did?
The simple answer is that the personal responsibility message has been pushed so hard that the industry wants us to believe this is the path we all must take. Thus, until they hear from the gambler themselves that they have a problem, industry is absolved of responsibility.
I can however dispel this myth because I took responsibility, despite clearly suffering from an uncontrollable mental disorder. I sent up to fifty emails to online gambling sites taking responsibility and asking to be self-excluded. I saw a total of 8 different counsellors/ consultants during my time of gambling.
That is a clear example of someone taking responsibility, yet still not having the ability to stop the evidently destructive and illogical behaviour I was engaged in.
Exacerbating shame and guilt by being told the onus is on you
Whilst some may argue that personal responsibility has to be at the forefront, I do not. For the majority of disordered gamblers and previously disordered gamblers, they are overtaken by an immense feeling of shame and guilt. By telling them that the onus is on them exacerbates these feelings, especially when relapsing.
For me personally and many others, the shame and guilt subsided when it became clear that the responsibility to adhere to the rules was completely disregarded by the majority of licence holders and appeared to be permitted by the Gambling Commission. Coupled with discovering that I was suffering from a mental disorder clearly said to me that taking responsibility myself was not going to resolve my disordered gambling.
Gambling disorder is a health issue
At the commencement of giving evidence at the Lords Select Committee on the Social and Economic Impact of the Gambling Industry, with three other persons that have suffered from gambling harm, we were asked how we would like a key area of wording to be addressed. For example, ‘problem gambling’, ‘disordered gambling’ or ‘gambling addiction’? Collectively we agreed that ‘disordered gambling’ would be the appropriate choice.
Some previous sufferers don’t see the term ‘problem gambling’ as being one that is an issue. That’s OK, but I do. Quite where the term originates from is irrelevant to me, but I certainly view the term as another conveniently watered-down phrase that suits the industry and certain industry-funded bodies that are prominent in the UK. If professionals, individuals or organisations want to use this outdated phrase, then I won’t take offence. However, those that see the bigger picture may understand my reasoning for replacing it with ‘disordered gambling.’
Discovering gambling disorder made sense of my behaviour
When going back to my constant question throughout my gambling life – ‘Why was I doing this?’ – the self-discovery of the existence of a mental disorder associated with my behaviour became somewhat of a lightbulb moment for me.
Bearing in mind that I had been seen by several top consultants to assist me with my gambling, not one ever mentioned gambling disorder. The treatment was exclusively focussed on depression, which ironically, caused me to become depressed. Yet when I discovered that gambling disorder had been certified as a mental disorder within the DSM-5 since 2013 (the DSM being a main ‘go-to’ for said consultants), I began to ponder why none of these experts ever mentioned it. Reading about it myself made so much sense of my personality and behaviours, and I couldn’t help but think that if my treatment was based around it, then my recovery would have kicked in a lot sooner.
Finding relief by understanding I was suffering from a mental disorder
Moreover, in-part, it led me to begin a process where so much guilt and shame I had always carried around with me, began to ease. Believing that my gambling was something that I had to deal with and take responsibility for was simply not true. If it’s not clear already, the reason I became passionate about referring to my own gambling as being that of a ‘disordered gambler’ is because it medicalises what I went through. When I discovered that I have suffered from a mental disorder, to describe my tortuous years suffering as being a mere ‘problem’ doesn’t sit well with me.
Asking why industry is not protecting those with a health issue
By medicalising the issue, you are able to focus on it being a health matter, and it therefore assists in being able to get away from the industry-favoured ‘personal responsibility’ mantra. Additionally, by doing so, there is an ability to directly questions to the industry and individual gambling companies, about how they have responded to such ratification of ‘problem’ gambling as a recognised mental disorder.
Some may argue that gambling addiction has always been known about. This is true, but up until 2013 it wasn’t certified as being a mental disorder. If the core business is a product that could be associated to a mental disorder, it would be an obvious question to ask of the industry and individual companies – how they built processes and policies, to protect both themselves as a company from exposing themselves to customers suffering from mental disorders, and indeed protecting the welfare of the customers that were sufferers of such. These are questions that demand answers.
If the industry utilised experts in the field of psychology for example, to design products that maximise ‘playability’ (aka addictiveness) and profit, you’d assume that they would have hired experts to mitigate against the risk of gambling disorder.
This can lead onto the next topic of enlightenment form my journey, that being the Licence Conditions and Codes and Practices (LCCP).
Rules the industry broke while the Gambling Commission did nothing
The License Conditions and Codes of Practice (LCCP) are something that I had never heard of until the latter part of 2017. Afterall, would a disordered gambler really have delved into the rules that are there to protect them? Probably not.
However, is there an argument that potentially through my journey, I may have been enlightened? I would say, yes, but the obvious reason for these not ever appearing in my sight during my years of gambling would be that, if the companies I am engaging with are actively breaking the rules, and moreover permitted to do so by the ineffective enforcement and regulation from the Gambling Commission, they’d hardly have let me know.
Imagining if industry obeyed the rules and safeguarded rather than exploited problem gamblers
But just imagine that all the companies I gambled with actively followed the rules, they identified my play as clearly indicating disordered gambling. Then, hey presto, it might not have been me that was sending the emails to self-exclude. Perhaps they would’ve sent me the email to say something along the lines of:
Dear Mr. Macey, in conjunction with the LCCP (pick a number from the many regulations that that the LCCP includes), we have identified that your gambling activity with us potentially displays traits of disordered gambling. As a consequence, we are suspending your account until we can be satisfied that this is not the case.
In addition to this, please review the attached link, which is from regulatory enforcement action taken by the Gambling Commission in 2014 and shows the parallels between your behaviour and the subject of the enforcement action.
Whilst we cannot return the sum of £xxx to you that you have lost over the past day/hours with the company, we will ensure that you are excluded from all of our platforms (link inserted to show all the gambling sites owned by this licence holder) and that you will not receive any further marketing material from us in the future, as this would constitute further breaches of the LCCP.
If we don’t receive the required evidence within 24 hours – for example, the source of your wealth, to ensure that we comply with money laundering regulations – we will take this regrettably necessary action. And here’s a link to show how you can access free and independent support to address your possible gambling disorder.
Could the above scenario one day be a reality? Should it? Some might say that it is impossible to ever eradicate disordered gambling, because someone that doesn’t want to stop gambling won’t. Whilst that may be true in some cases, it’s also very true to say that a vast number continue with their disordered gambling and want nothing more than to be able to stop doing it. The key principles of the above scenario are that, with early and proactive intervention, from all companies, complying with the rules rigorously, then it would become difficult for the disordered gambler, whether in denial or not, to be able to continue with such behaviours.
Lacking compliance and enforcement by the regulator rather than lacking rules
My personal belief is that the LCCP have actually kept up with the digital world, as technology has progressed through the years. However, it is a lack of compliance and enforcement of these rules that has led to the government reviewing the Gambling Act and potentially making significant changes. With the impending government review, the Gambling Commission’s effectiveness must be scrutinised.
The founding of Gamvisory
Gamvisory’s arrival was brought forward as a direct result of the GC’s announcement that working groups led by gambling companies had been created to discuss such issues as ‘VIPs’ – including the biggest licence holders, most of which have received financial penalties through regulatory action as a result of continued failings in the very areas they are due to report on.
It could be argued that the involvement of these companies is key, and perhaps that is true.
But not without the involvement of Experts by Experience, the very people that have been affected by such practices as VIP schemes, often with devastating effects to their lives.
This announcement reflected extremely poorly on the GC and quite rightly so. It caused obvious outrage to many and, as a collective group, we were not prepared to be ignored any longer.