Whilst writing this, to protect the anonymity of everyone there will be no mention of any names or specific details regarding the meetings. I first walked into my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Autumn 2007. At the time I can remember being in a state of despair, caught out again by my wife after umpteen promises to stop gambling. Being a compulsive gambler meant being a compulsive liar. The two went hand-in-hand. The ultimatum had been laid down; stop gambling, get help or lose my wife and my daughter. Amanda (my wife) was absolutely doing the right thing too, she had to protect our daughter and herself from the emotional and financial damage I was causing. I was a bad husband and a bad father. I had convinced myself that once I had become a father, my gambling would either stop or just be more controlled. Ah that word, ‘control’. That is something that I did not have, the gambling controlled me not the other way around. I had to gamble, I had to have my fix. That said, I loved my wife and daughter and wanted to stay with them and try and put things right.
We were already in huge financial trouble despite us holding down decent jobs. My gambling had got so excessive through spending through the wages at lightening speed, plus racking up over £40k of debt on 3 credit cards, all in the short space of time of roughly 18 months. At this point I was 32 years of age and had been in the full swing of gambling addiction since I left the army, which was in February of 1996. I do not even recall if it was Amanda or myself who made the initial call to GA but I do remember that the phone number at the time on the website was of the chair of one of the 2 meetings. To this day though I remember the anxiety and stress I went through leading up to attending my first meeting. I had no idea what to expect, who would be there, was there someone there who would recognise me? It did not matter really, as all my friends and family knew what I was and knew well before I went to GA, I knew that this moment could and should have happened sooner.
The drive from the house to the Tuesday evening meeting in Swansea was torture, I had to drive just to try and concentrate on something else for that short space in time. Amanda kept reassuring me that all would be fine, she must have been as nervous as I was though. The Tuesday meeting included Gam Anon people such as partners, parents or anyone there to support the gambler and for themselves for support too.
Walking in I felt like a child at the first day of comprehensive school, a fish out of water. I sat down as the room started to fill for the 730pm start. People introduced themselves by the same means, for example, “my name is X, I am a compulsive gambler.” When it got to me, I remember looking at Amanda sat next to me, holding my hand tightly. I had no idea what to say, was I to repeat other people’s statements, was I a compulsive gambler? I was, but saying that in a room full of strangers, which had grown now to about 30 people, was absolutely terrifying but I muffled the words, “my name is Nick and I am a compulsive gambler”. I looked around the room for some sense of acknowledgement, which I had in abundance from the smiling faces of support. Many in that room had muttered those same words for the first time previously, could understand and empathise with my situation. As a newbie, the chair addressed me first. He was calm and reassuring which allowed me to relax a little. He explained how GA worked and how these meets work. Amanda as a Gam Anon was offered the chance to go to another room where there would be a separate meeting, she chose initially to stay with me to support me. That was her strength, the power to put someone else first despite needing as much help and support as me. I did not know where to start really, as there was so much to tell but I started to talk and lay bare the facts of this illness and the damages it was causing and had caused. I was shaking like a leaf, stuttering my words and was not sure if I was making sense. People listened attentively and Amanda was a constant reassurance. That constant fear of being judged hung over me but was quickly subsiding as the talk went on. Looking back, it is safe to say that no matter what I told them, they had heard it all before from many others. They spent a good 30 minutes going over things and offering support and advice on how the programme worked. Amanda did go in next door and spend about 30 minutes in the Gam Anon meeting which we were both glad of. The drive home felt good, I had made the first steps in attempting to address my gambling. I knew there was much to do and the raw emotion of it got to me on walking through the front door, where I broke down and sobbed for what felt like a lifetime.
We continued to attend the meetings for roughly 3 months. Being able to compare where I was emotionally and psychologically is much easier to do now. I can see now why the relapses came. I remember challenging bits and pieces of the programme, things like giving up the money, accounting for my time and getting receipts for things I purchased. It is safe to say I was not ready to give up. The feeling of losing my family drove me there but I wanted to continue gambling subconsciously. After 3 months and much manipulation I got back to normal ways and had worn Amanda down to accepting that we did not need the meetings and we could just put things into practice. This was my inroad to relapse.
My gambling started back slowly and secretively, using all ways to access money. It all came crashing down around my eyes within a year. By now mountains more debt and blazing arguments at home were common. It led to us breaking up and the marital home being repossessed as I had driven Amanda to bankruptcy. I was destroying everything and everyone around me. Not much time after this, came the first suicide attempt. Looking back again it was a cry for help. It led to a three month stint in a mental health hospital. On leaving the hospital I was to be homeless. I had exhausted so many avenues of support. Friends and family continued to pop in and see me but also the power of the GA group and family was so good that, on Sunday evenings the chair of the group would pick me up at the front door of the hospital and bring me to the meetings and then drop me back. This is why I can and always will advocate GA, going there with no judgement but compassion and understanding. It can be the most difficult thing to do walking back into meetings after a relapse. You build up such bonds and trust within the group, you feel you have let them down. They support you nevertheless and the recovery starts again. One day at a time.
On writing this I have been going to Sunday meetings off and on for twelve years. In that time, I have had 3 relapses. I now know my “triggers” for these relapses and work to ensure these never happen again. For me the key to my disordered gambling has been escapism. In terms of recovery I have not always followed the programme, some people’s recoveries have been easier and they continue to attend meetings and remain gamble-free and support the new disordered gambler walking through the door. It always takes me back when I see the pain and hurt on these people’s faces. That was us all at one time. To be fair, I know that GA is not for everyone. Despite it being peer led there can be some criticisms of it, especially as some see it as a religious group due to some of the literature around the programme. I am not a religious person but have learned to accept the terminology and use it in my own way. Some will argue that GA might need streamlining and brought into line with current times and trends. I can only talk from my experiences within Swansea and say that I have seen many come through the door and stay, and continue to come, and many who attempt it but disappear after a few weeks. Whether they are gambling still, remains to be seen, I hope for them they are not. Over the years it is safe to say that it has been male dominated in Swansea but it is great to say that there are women coming to meetings and they are embraced and welcomed as much as any. We do actively try and encourage more women to come and if they are reading this then please reach out if you need the support. This addiction does not show any bias and affects so many. For me I always take something positive out of every meeting I go too and plan to continue to attend meetings as best I can. The programme works if you embrace it and have the will to want to stop gambling.
It is not controversial to say that if you are seeking treatment and support for a gambling issue, then an abstinence method is the only way. You do not treat an alcoholic by teaching them to “control” their drinking. They must go teetotal. The same methodology goes for the disordered gambler.
I live for the day and my recovery is as it says on the tin, ‘one day at a time’. I will continue raising awareness and trying to break the stigma attached to this horrible illness. Many more need support and education and there is much to learn in this field. Admitting you are powerless to this illness is the key to recovery. The serenity prayer is a powerful tool and something I say every day.
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”