Gambling Addiction

I’m not a religious person, in fact, I’d hardly consider myself connected to anything other than an energy force but I do believe in evil. I shouldn’t. I’m a therapist and subscribe to neurological theories of the sources of behaviour. But then there is that which I can’t dispute, no matter how the brain is formed. What do I consider as evil? Pedophilia. Child abuse, to name just two.  Let’s name a third.  Establishments who encourage gambling. There are plenty who would disagree with me and I welcome discourse– it’s healthy — but what I really want to do, right now, is tell you a story.

A few years ago, a client walked into my office, let’s call her Mrs. E for anonymity’s sake. Mrs. E was in her early 70s and had retired from a low paid job as an administrative assistant for a small firm.  She relied on a stipend from one of her children to supplement the government pension. She came to me because she had a small problem, she said. “Just a small problem gambling.”  My heart fell. Of all the different issues I see clients for, the least successful path of therapy I have experienced for some of my clients was, at that time, for gambling. Gambling is an addiction and like all addictions, requires daily accountability in order to control urges and activities.  I had always encouraged my clients to join Gamblers’ Anonymous at the same time as seeing me. I believed that they needed a sponsor, a buddy who could be available to them when the urge became too difficult to bear alone.

As I said, I’m not religious so I don’t believe that gambling is a sin. Even I buy the occasional lottery ticket when I’m feeling lucky — which is probably two or three a year. Australians, generally speaking, love to bet. The culture of gambling features large in communities with plenty of access to poker machines as well as different sports upon which to bet.

Averaged out across all 19.75 million Australians aged over 18 (based on Australian Bureau of Statistics data), this is more than $12,000 per person!

  • $25.8 billion was spent on racing ($1,340 per capita)
  • $181.4 billion was spent on gaming, like casinos and the pokies ($9,419 per capita)
  • $11.6 billion on sports betting ($603 per capita)

Now, this may not seem like much to a US audience, but remember that Australia’s TOTAL population of adults over the age of 18 is just 19.7 million. The key figure from the statistics above is that more than $12,000 per person (on average) was spent on gambling last year.

It is accepted that there is a correlation between gambling harm and family violence and mental ill-health.  My client was definitely suffering from mental ill-health.  Shrunken into her body she was a shadow of a person, clutching her handbag onto her lap as she sat in the chair beside my desk. “I was wondering, can you hypnotise me to not play the pokies?” (Australian slang for poker machines).

I reflected upon her nervous disposition, dark skin beneath her eyes from lack of sleep, and her nervous smoker’s cough. I wanted to say – YES! I can wave my magic wand and it will all be okay. But clinical hypnosis cannot change someone if they don’t want to change. If the desire to change is present, then there are many interventions which can be done using Neuro Linguistic Programming, Psychotherapy and Clinical Hypnotherapy which can release a person from the clutches of addiction.  But here was Mrs. E, who on discussion revealed how much she loved to go to the RSL (Retired Servicemen’s League Clubs which house rooms full of poker machines) and put her change through it. In the early days, she would play with the money she had left over from grocery shopping. “When the children were little,” she added.

How many grandchildren do you have now?” I enquired.

“Six,” she replied. “I spend all the money I have for food and my bills.” She whimpered, tears falling into her lap from her bowed head.

“You do know my fee, don’t you?” I suddenly asked, not wanting to put her into a situation she could not afford. She assured me she had the money to pay me. “You have enough money to smoke,” I stated.

Smoking is very expensive in Australia and a packet of 35 cigarettes costs in the region of $41.95 depending on the brand.  She was smoking at least 20 a day. I explained that gambling was as addictive as smoking cigarettes and drinking and that she would have to accept that to stop would mean she could never go back to even one bet to avoid lapsing, just as an ex-smoker needs to commit to being exactly that, an ex-smoker, no longer smoking even one cigarette socially.  if she could keep enough money to one side to support her smoking addiction – there was hope that she could possibly set some money aside for bills and food.

I explained that it wasn’t her fault that she was an addict and that the gambling industry was designed to capture, create, and keep addicts. She wept, embarrassed at her plight and told me tale after tale of losing money and ultimately losing her home, her now living in a ‘share-house’ (with room-mates) as she had accumulated so much debt on credit cards over the years and the bank had finally foreclosed on her home.  She was divorced, lonely, broke, weak through a smoking habit, and mentally ill through gambling. I wanted to rant and rave about gambling culture but I reined it in and began to find out how much she wanted to give up gambling.

This is the kicker. An addict needs to want to be done with the addiction before being able to give up. Of course, the addiction has him or her in its grip but therapy can facilitate change. First and foremost, the desire to give up has to exist.

“My son says I need to give up,” she said.

“What do you want to do?” I asked gently.

I don’t know,” she cried. “He says I’ve got to tell them not to serve me anymore.”

My heart hit the floor…her desire to stop was just not there. We continued chatting, and I endeavoured to find out for what the gambling was a substitute. The list grew.  Nature abhors a vacuum and if we were to remove the gambling activity, we would have to make sure there was something else in her life to replace it. However, if we tried to remove her ability to gamble her desire to continue would take over. I knew that this would be only a first (and probably one to be repeated) step in her recovery.

If you are not aware, gambling establishments use many things to induce the focus to gamble. As a clinical hypnotherapist, I can promise you that trance is induced. From additional oxygen, to keep punters more awake, more alert, psychedelic carpets, strong colours, bright lights, loud noises, no time indicators or windows, looping hypnotic music, labyrinthian floor plans to subliminal messages about winning on poker machines, the gambling atmosphere is set up to catch you and keep you, keep you, keep you, keep you.

I have an enduring memory of Mrs. E, handkerchief twisting in her hands, face wet from tears and her handbag upon her lap. I wanted to say to her, keep your money, you need it, but I knew that it would just end up dollar after dollar in a poker machine. It was the worst fee I ever accepted. I knew that no matter what we did, it would be a long dark journey for her until she’d be able to see daylight.  As I predicted, she slipped again and again, this time getting even deeper into debt with local casinos.

The last time she came to see me, I watched her through the window before she came to her appointment, sucking hard on a cigarette. There was a look on her face I hadn’t seen before. A look of pain, desperation, and utter resignation. It was with great sadness that I heard from her that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She told me that on the same day she received the diagnosis, she organised to be ‘self-banned’ from the local casinos and other establishments where she regularly gambled.  She came to see me that day not to stop gambling but to do two things: 1) let go of the pain inside her and 2) stop smoking.  Instinctively she knew that she had to face the emotional losses inside her before she could deal with the physical and now physiological losses she was facing.

I’d love to say that Mrs. E fully recovered, came out of her addiction, and survived cancer. I received a text about a month later saying that she hadn’t smoked or gambled again and also even hadn’t bought a scratch-card or lottery ticket. I had no reason to disbelieve her as she had always been honest with me, but instinctively I knew that she was facing the end of her life. Although after our therapy, I was confident that she was now free of crippling self-recriminations and scorching regrets, I knew that she didn’t have long to live. I hope that she enjoyed her final month without gambling or smoking. I hope her son forgave her of the debts she had incurred and the lies she had told to hide her addiction.  I‘m sorry it took cancer to make her realise that her life and sanity was precious.

Gambling, like all addictions, cripples the sufferer.  Those who facilitate and encourage gambling are no better than drug dealers and pushers.  Anyone or anything that contributes to the destruction of a person’s life, is in my view, evil. There. That’s my number three.


This article first appeared in

16 November 2020

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