March is Gambling Awareness Month, which aims to educate people about the dangers of addictive play and that there's treatment for those in need.

Nobody starts out thinking they’re going to lose their house, family or commit suicide from an addiction. Yet those are familiar horror stories in the world of problem gambling. 

March is Gambling Awareness Month, which aims to educate people about the dangers of addictive play, ways it can be prevented and that there’s treatment for those in need.

A Wilmington man working as an administrator at the Delaware Council on Problem Gambling decided to share his story about the dark side of gambling addiction and how it nearly cost him everything.

“For whatever reason, I just thought I was a defective human being,” said the former gambler, who requested anonymity. “I grew up in a very loving home. I didn’t have any addicts for parents. I didn’t have anything in my past that would suggest maybe this is why I acted the way I did.”

The Wilmington man began gambling when he was 18 and living in New York, where he’s originally from. It was 1973 and he and his friends bet on horse racing at Belmont Park, home to the third and final leg of the Triple Crown.

At the time, he said, betting was for recreation, and he only did it at Belmont a total of three or four times.

‘Wasn’t really a problem’

In 1982 he was 27 and in his final year of law school at Widener University. His gambling had increased tenfold. He said he’d travel to Atlantic City about six times a year. And he lived close to Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington, so he’d go there about 24 times a year.

“It was a form of entertainment to get away from school,” he said. “It wasn’t really a problem.”

The same year he graduated law school, he also got married and began working at a law firm.

He said sometime around the late ‘80s or early ‘90s he started to lose lots of money gambling. The more his career progressed, the more stressful his job became. So gambling became his coping mechanism.

Adding to the stress: becoming a proud father to two young children.

Although his wife had always known he gambled, the man said he wasn’t telling her how much he was losing. While he didn’t keep track of how frequently he was gambling at this point, he did say he was spending a minimum of $300 per visit at the casino.

“Sometimes if I’d lose that, I’d hit the ATM and get out a few hundred dollars more,” he said. “That’s what led me to not be open and honest.”

It’s easy for gamblers to hide their habit because there aren’t any physical signs or symptoms. Nonetheless, he said, it could still prove devastating.

Despite his frequent loses, he said it wasn’t an issue to him because he was earning six figures from his job.

“I was making good money,” he said. “But I was also spending. Through gambling, I was wasting a lot. I rationalized it saying, ‘hey, we live in a nice home. My wife drives a nice car. We’re used to going on vacation. She’s not really lacking anything. So what’s the harm?’”

The truth, however, is that it was harmful.

“We could’ve had a lot more for our kids’ college educations,” he said. “But I just thought this is the price that we have to pay for me to be able to continue with a high-stress job.”

Money is ‘crack’

He said he was able to keep his wife in the dark about his habit because he handled their bills and finances, which is common among closet gamblers.

His wife first learned of his addiction in 2007. The man’s brother, who was his accountant, told him he owed tens of thousands of dollars. His brother told him to break the news to his wife.

“Obviously, as you could imagine, it caused a lot of turmoil in our relationship,” he said. “I had promised and swore to her I wouldn’t gamble anymore at that point.”

But those were empty words.

“I couldn’t stop. And I continued to gamble and continued to lie more,” he said. “I continued to be deceitful and exploit the trust my wife had in me as a spouse, because I felt I needed to gamble in order to function.”

He said his addiction was so bad that winning didn’t really matter. He instead got his high off of gambling itself.

“When you get to the point when you are a disorder gambler, the money is secondary. The money is basically our crack,” he said. “That’s what we use to get high.”

And that meant more debt.

“Once you are in such a deep hole, you come to the point where you assume you’re never going to get out, so it didn’t matter anymore,” he said.

Escape

He hit rock bottom when he suffered a mental breakdown in the summer of 2015. His debt ballooned to six figures.

“I was contemplating suicide,” he said. “I reached the point where I was either going to kill myself or take a flight to a country where there was no extradition agreement within that state, and I’d never see my family again.”

He said he thoughtfully considered death for months. But on the day of reckoning, he decided to come clean to his family, because he didn’t want to leave them behind.

He checked into the Rockford Center, a psychiatric facility in Newark. He was there for a week. On the same day he was discharged, Aug. 3, 2015, he attended his first Gambler’s Anonymous meeting.

“For the first time, I heard people sharing their experiences and emotions and what they went through. And I totally connected,” the Wilmington resident said. “I found there were people that were from my planet. That gave me hope that maybe I still had value as a human being.”

He said it wasn’t until he quit playing that he learned gambling addiction is a mental disorder. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association classified problem gambling as a non-substance-abuse-related disorder in edition five of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

The APA is the leading psychiatric organization in the world and has members in 100 countries, according to its website.

After the Wilmington man’s first GA meeting, he spent six to nine months working on his recovery. This included going to GA meetings four times a week and meeting with a therapist.

He was prescribed Naltrexone, a medication that substance-abuse addicts use to decrease their urges.

He said he also gave up his legal practice in August 2015, because the high stress on his job is what led him to addiction.

He instead took a job at the Delaware Council on Problem Gambling in late 2016. He’s heard heartbreaking tales about people with gambling addiction.

“I know people who have actually attempted suicide and ended up hospitalized, ended up in comas for weeks and had to relearn how to do their daily activities,” he said. “I know people that had to live in their cars because they’ve had their homes taken away.”

Fellow Delaware Council employee Charles Sygowski echoed those tales.

“I’ve talked to people who’ve definitely had their cars repossessed or had gone to foreclosure on a mortgage or were kicked out of apartments or houses they were renting,” said Sygowski, DCPG director of office administration.

This August the Wilmington man will celebrate two years of abstinence. Although he quit playing, he doesn’t condemn casinos.

“Ask me if I think gambling should be illegal and I think the answer is no,” he said. “Just like I don’t that because there are alcoholics that we should ban alcohol. Most people gamble for recreation.”

Through all of his gambling troubles, the man’s wife and adult children have stuck by his side. He still is six figures in debt, but he said he’s not worried, because he’s happy.

“This is the best time of my life,” he said. “It sounds like a real Hollywood ending, but it’s absolutely the truth. First of all, I became a grandfather six months ago. And I think how close I became to missing that. It’s pretty chilling.”

Prevention

The DCPG relies on educating people about ways they can prevent themselves from becoming problem gamblers.

This includes going into high schools. The council’s director of office administration said students should be aware of the dangers of gambling, similar to the effects of doing drugs or drinking alcohol.

“Research shows that the brain is not fully developed until your early 20s,” Sygowski said. “We advise or try to make kids aware that it is to their advantage to wait until they are of legal age before engaging.”

Dover Downs Hotel & Casino advocates for responsible gambling. Steven Keener, assistant vice president of casino operations, said it’s important for guests to recognize when they’ve reached their limit.

“When the fun stops, when they are at the property too long, they should recognize it is time to call it a night,” Keener said. “Customer’s judgment is used when it is time to leave a ballgame, an evening out at a dinner or any other events. A guest’s judgment will serve them well at these events, including the casino.”