Sunday, 8 March 2015

Gambling Addictions Campaign



Gambling Addictions Campaign

Last month, a year two BA Hons Advertising student at the University of the Arts, London, UK emailed me to ask for my assistance with an advertising brief for gambling addictions.

As of March 2015, the team is currently in the process of gathering research, which will enable them to try and understand more about gambling addictions. This will hopefully lead them to produce a successful and meaningful advertising campaign, which will help gamblers realise they are addicts and push them to seek help.

I want to take this opportunity to thank this student for reaching out and being so committed to such a worthwhile cause. Like writing, art is a strong medium that can help deliver messages that can help others. I sincerely hope they are able to work with charities to get their message out for real.

If you have a gambling problem, you need help. Take a moment to read my poker gambling addiction story. Unfortunately I cannot tell you how to beat your gambling addiction, I can only assure you that there is no quick, magical fix. I hope my poker diary will act a catalyst for you to begin your own discoveries so that in time you too can join me on this journey of recovery and learn to let go.

If you know someone who cannot stop gambling, please forward this gambling blog directly to them, do everything you can to help raise awareness of problem gambling. It is never to late too make a difference, but it will be too late if a gambler can never stop.

"Hello, I'm Phil McQuire and I'm a Gambling Addict"

Most of you know who I am, but for those who don't, please allow me to introduce myself. I am Phil McQuire, a 39 year old, gambling addict with a poker addiction. I have gambled for over five years, both in casinos, live and online. I have also been known to gamble on sports as well as other casino games such as Blackjack and Roulette, although to a far lesser extent.

I am an ex-gambler, however my position of being an ex gambler comes with no guarantees. It is important to acknowledge that as of March 2015, I have abstained from gambling for two months and my longest absence has been three months. While I am addicted to poker, I am trying my hardest to break free. The past two months have been really incredible; each day without a bet is a blessing and brings greater clarity to my mind. Yet equally, every day without a gamble brings pain as I try and cope with the death of a relationship, of an activity I enjoyed with great passion.

If a switch could be flicked to off so my gambling addiction was no more, I would flick it without hesitation as the act of not gambling far outweighs the act of gambling. There is however no such switch, only a will that can be broken at any point and without warning. It is with the strongest of will that I choose not to gamble. Equally, if I could wind back the clock and never lay my first bet, I would. However, rewriting history even if this was an option, would prevent me from being the person I am today. Through the sickness of gambling my self-awareness has grown exponentially and my learnings have revealed a better and stronger version of myself.

Through the acts of both love and suffering we learn aspects of ourselves that aren't available within the teachings of a book, yet lessons learned from these sources supplemented with unique experiences, do indeed accelerate our growth.

Our life path is unique. The question, "Why me?" can easily be lost in the answer "Why not you?" Do not feel sorry for yourself, get on with your life and change the course if you are not happy with it. No matter how deep your trauma; no matter how much pain you feel there are lessons that you must learn and be wholly accountable for. Whether the trauma is direct or indirect e.g. a consequence of your actions or not, your life is entirely your responsibility to come to terms with it and to heal yourself and in doing so, you will be in a position to help others help themselves. This is the greatest gift you can offer the world and through helping others it will help towards the rebuilding of your life and ultimately self-actualisation.

The answers to your suffering lay within, rippling through your soul; eager to be revealed. There is no escape from pain my friend; a life free of pain, is after all a life not lived. It is your responsibility to accept yourself for who you really are. Wounds are exposed not to cause more pain and suffering but to reveal a truth that is unique to each and everyone of us. You are the master of your destiny, be brave, peel back the skins and reveal your true raison d'etre.

1. HOW LONG HAD YOUR ADDICTION BEEN GOING ON?

Gambling attached itself to me five years ago. As a problem gambler, weeks often blur into months and months into years. You lose your sense of time as a gambler, because your life is enveloped by the thoughts and acts of gambling and nothing else matters.

2. THROUGHOUT THIS TIME, WERE YOU AWARE THAT SOMETHING WAS WRONG? DID YOU FEEL HELPLESS TOWARDS THESE URGES?

In the early stages of my poker addiction i.e. within the first year, I was oblivious to the dangers of gambling. As my compulsions were reinforced conscious or otherwise, it became increasingly difficult to separate the act of gambling from fantasy and reality. Gambling became more concrete in my life while reality i.e. my normal life, was a distant memory.

Remember the first time you drank alcohol, it was most likely consumed with innocence. It is only when the act of drinking becomes habitual and a dependency forms does the sickness of addiction reveal itself. For some, addiction will not be a serious issue, instead other traumas will be revealed and the individual will have to address the problem in order to set themselves free.

Addiction reveals a new persona; friends, family and partners notice a significant and overwhelming change in personality. An immature addict lacks self-awareness and ends up driving the problem deeper into a cold heart of denial. Probing questions, are defended and often deflected with a negative emotional response, for example anger which is likely to result in arguments, this provides distance between the addict and the inquisitor. While the old-self cannot be erased, it is stifled by the addictive personality.

Urges are incredibly powerful and more often than not they will make you feel helpless, especially in the early stages of recovery. 

During urges you have to cope with emotions and feelings that you might not be familiar with. Emotions, thoughts and feelings can cause rise to anxiety. It takes time to develop an affinity with your urges. Initially urges can be perceived as dangerous, scary and a sure sign that you are going to act out. However, in time, you realise they can be used to your advantage, they become a direct link to your heart, they help convey something isn't right and that you need to address a problem -- acknowledging the problem is the first step and doing something about it is, well... another chapter!

Like developing a healthy, strong physique, developing a healthy strong mind takes time and requires practice and most importantly commitment. There are no short-cuts to success. My tip is never rush to fix yourself -- you have your entire life to solve your problems. Treat yourself with the utmost of respect and forgive your mistakes, after all you are human and humans by design are fallible.

3. WHEN DID YOU REALISE YOU HAD TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT GAMBLING? WAS THERE A PARTICULAR TURNING POINT THAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO WORK ON YOUR ADDICTION OR WAS IT MORE OF A PROCESS?

Recovery is both a process and a turning point triggered by events and circumstances. Most gamblers, have to hit rock bottom before they address their problem(s). In order to hit rock bottom a lot of gambling needs to take place and so the dance of gambling addiction can last for years, albeit more commonly decades.

As a gambler, no matter how much you win it can never be enough and your losses will always be chased. The act of gambling is ironically not about the money, but rather the act of acting out to escape problems.

Addictions are about changing the way you feel; acting out is a form of self-medication, which in itself is an illusion; you think you are in control, when in fact your foot is on the first step of a descending spiral staircase.

Over the past five years, I have spent three years trying to break the cycle of gambling addiction. I was not born a gambler (albeit, some past life regression theories might dispute this) and I choose not to die a gambler.  I have to reflect on my behaviours to solidify my understanding of myself and work extremely hard each day to change my direction. The most important aspect of my recovery is being able to cope with my emotions and feelings as these alone have the power to make or break me.

As a gambler my anger is prevalent. I am angry for gambling; angry for not gambling; angry for thinking about gambling; angry for not wanting to gamble and angry for gambling. I am unable to cope with some situations that life throws at me and I have no way of coping when such events arise. I hold onto anxiety until it becomes too much for me. I then self-medicate by acting out. Once I have acted out, I feel extremely low; despondent; a failure so I resolve not to gamble again. In time, my feelings change, I forget how I previously felt and when the opportunity to gamble arises I am ready to act out again. If I were to allow it, this cycle of addiction has the power to keep me enslaved to gambling forever.

4. NOW THAT YOU LOOK BACK, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY FIRST ATTRACTED YOU MOST? DO YOU FEEL DIFFERENT TOWARDS THIS FEELING NOW?

I stumbled upon online poker, as opposed to going out of my way to find it. What kept me hooked was the allure of becoming the world's greatest poker player. While there is an element of skill in poker, you cannot predict what happens down by the river, so luck has a major baring on your success, which is wrapped up in the theory of 'variance' which make losses justifiable and players feel better about themselves when their opponents suck out.

My feelings towards gambling are much different today. In relation to online gambling, you cannot beat their system, simply because it is their system. It is a business built to extract as much cash from suckers like you and I, so don't even try. You will never win. It will cost you everything and cause you a great deal of pain to realise this, so save yourself the trouble, stop gambling online and self-exclude yourself today, do it now!

While live environments cannot hustle you with algorithms, there are other advantages to the house, such as games being set up in favour of the house. From the perspective of poker, there are card mechanics and regulars are often very friendly with the dealers. Collusion (players working with one another with a view to exploit others) is rife but also difficult to prove. If you play live poker expect to be hustled in one way or another and expect to walk out a casino with either nothing or far less than you walked in with.

5. DID YOU REACH OUT TO ANY KIND OF ORGANISATION FOR HELP? IF SO, HOW DO YOU FEEL THIS MADE A DIFFERENCE TO YOU?

During my recovery I reached out to several organisations that provide gambling help. My advice is to get as much support from others during your initial phase of recovery as you need help from both specialists and people that can help understand what you are going through.

Priory - Rehabilitation, Treatment, Specialist Education, UK
Having been addicted to gambling for one and a half years, I attended a consultation at The Priory, Rehabilitation, Treatment, Specialist Education Centre in London, UK to help me rid me of my demons. Unfortunately I could not justify the £20,000 fee and over the long term, foolishly ended up donating the cash to the casinos. A decision I sincerely regret. At least some casinos donate some of their takings back to charitable organisations such as GamCare.

Gamblers Anonymous, UK
In the second year of my addiction, I attended a Gamblers Anonymous (GA) session. Admission is via donation and you can just turn up. My experience of GA was met with a major reservation as I felt I could be enslaved to this group for years as there were some veterans that had attended GA for several decades. This made me feel uneasy and that I was at risk of swapping one addiction/dependency with another. On reflection that was somewhat naive and my point of view was selfish. The act of helping ourselves is one thing but sticking around for decades to be of service to others is something else, worthy of a medal or OBE! I had some insecurities in terms of talking in public, this coupled with the shame of gambling and my mixed emotions confused me and prevented me from attending future sessions. I regret this.

GamCare, UK
In the third year, I attended GamCare. Admission was free, but limited to just six sessions. There is a waiting list but it is worth the wait. Being introverted and ashamed of my gambling it was difficult for me to share my problems in a group setting. However it slowly became easier as I was able to understand my own gambling issues through the admission of others. The sessions were short lived though, and at the end of the six weeks I was left to my own devices with no safety net.

21 Steps to Stop Gambling, Online
Approximately six months into my third year of addiction, I invested in a self-help system, that I imported. This system required a great deal of work but really helped me understand myself. I was really committed to doing the exercises and was open to discovering more about myself and my gambling problem.

National Problem Gambling Clinic, UK (CNWL NHS)
In my fourth year of addiction, I attended the National Problem Gambling Clinic (CNWL, NHS, Soho London). Admission was free, but be prepared for a long albeit worthwhile wait e.g. 3 months+. Counselling was private one-on-one and I was fortunate to have an awesome, understanding and an extremely helpful counsellor. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is the practice and there is a lot of homework, so you have to be committed. They also offered follow up support, however I never attended the group sessions, which was a mistake.

6. DID YOU RECEIVE THE SUPPORT OF FRIENDS OR FAMILY? WERE THEY UNDERSTANDING? WAS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?

The act of gambling is riddled with shame. To me, it is a dirty, guilty secret that prevents addicts from reaching out due to the associated stigma. For an addict to get their fix they will lie, cheat and manipulate others. The addiction and desperation can be so strong that addicts cross the line of morality and commit crimes to fund their gambling addiction.

A support network is crucial to recovery, whether it is through friends and family or support group such as Gamblers Anonymous. My family and friends have been extremely supportive and my partner deserves a medal; her patience and tenacity has been nothing short of miraculous.

7. DO YOU STILL FIGHT URGES WHEN IT COMES TO GAMBLING AND WHAT IS IT THAT YOU FEEL WOULD DRAW YOU BACK IN?

Urges are a paradox; they both exist and do not exist. A good day can bring clarity of mind, freedom and hope. A bad day can see your mind trying to trick you, to seduce you back in to the comfortable arms of gambling; triggers can set off a cascade of gambling related thoughts which can weaken your resolve to stop gambling and at some point you could break, which is why it is so important to have a suite of relapse prevention techniques in your recovery kit.

Urges are much like an itch; the more you scratch the more pain is caused, stop the itching and as painful and as uncomfortable as it will be for those few moments the pain will eventually subside. The more you experience urges and let them come and go, the more you will get used to these feelings and the greater the chance that you will recover.

Anything can draw me back in. I do not need a single reason to gamble. However, I do need reasons not to gamble. For success one thought must be more dominant than the other, if you want to understand your current position just answer this question honestly:

Ask yourself, "Is your desire to stop gambling stronger than your desire to continue to gamble?"

8. DID YOUR GAMBLING ADDICTION LEAD TO ANY OTHER ADDICTIONS OR ISSUES

In the past, gambling has made me despondent, it has detached me from the world and left me feeling hopeless. Gambling has been a downward spiral that has almost financially ruined me and almost claimed my life.

As a result of gambling, I am currently unable to get life insurance and getting a remortgage, even with my same provider or any other form of credit is impossible. It is only with the greatest of determination that I try and rise above all of this, so I can walk into the heart of my future, with my head held high and my experiences set forth in front of me, so I am able to make richer, better informed decisions so in time, I am able to help others who find themselves in a similar desperate situation as I once was.

9. DOES YOUR PAST EXPERIENCE WITH A GAMBLING ADDICTION STILL AFFECT YOU TODAY, AND IF SO HOW?

Gambling still affects me, and will do for sometime, if not for the rest of my life. I heard that for every year you spend gambling, you require a year of absence to recover. Having only abstained for a couple of months (as of March 2015), I have a long, long road ahead of me. Once gambling has seeped into your consciousness, you can only distant yourself from it, but it will always remain a part of you.

Right now I am struggling financially when I shouldn't be at all. Financial problems continue to create pressure and I am now walking a fine tight rope. I have very little margin for error, if I slip I lose everything and end up homeless. That is more than anyone should have to cope with, but that is the nature of gambling; it promises everything but delivers nothing. Victims willingly hand over their bank details to the casino time and time again; it's like a mugging but with no crime being committed and with the advent of online gambling just remember,

You don't have to leave your home, to lose your home!

10. WHAT ENVIRONMENT DID YOU GAMBLE IN AND WHICH FORM OF GAMBLING DO YOU PARTICIPATE IN MOST?

The majority of my time was spent playing Texas Hold Em' No Limit Poker. For convenience I would play online. At the height of my addiction online gambling consumed every aspect of my life. In the later stages of my addiction I also got involved with sports betting and other casino games and soon realised that no matter the type of bet, the odds were stacked against me and even when things seemed pretty certain, I often lost.

I explored other types of gambling games to further reinforce how futile gambling was and to heighten my awareness of the variety of games, so my gambling experiences weren't just focused on one form of gambling i.e. Poker. I ended up playing Baccarat, Roulette, Slots, Blackjack, Sports Betting and even bingo and scratch cards! The exploration was limited to online, again primarily for the convenience, but in a sick way I felt I needed this experience to empathise with a wide range of gambling addicts as I want to explore helping others. Having exposure will help me understand others more. I put my self at risk and I can only pray that it was for the greater good.

11. DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUR GAMBLING ADDICTION AFFECTED YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS? DID YOU FEEL YOUR BETTER HABITS HAD TO BE HIDDEN FROM CLOSE FRIENDS AND FAMILY?

Initially my habits were concealed but the more I spent involved with poker the more transparent I became. Admitting my addiction helped me become more self aware and while it didn't extinguish my gambling, as a result, my behaviour was more conscious. Being honest and transparent was only possible through unconditional love and a deep understanding of addiction. Everyone is prone to being addicted to something in life and those that think they aren't need to reflect and be a little more honest with themselves. My addiction protected my partner from becoming addicted to alcohol.

When someone is emotionally close to an addict, it will have a major impact on their life. If co-dependency is a factor, it will have a significant impact. When another human is suffering most want to reach out to help, support and provide comfort. This can result in extreme push and pull dynamics within the relationship causing tensions and disruptive behaviours such as anger and resentment. Those involved with an addict expect drama and a whirlwind of confusion. It is hard for an addict to understand their addiction, equally it is extremely difficult to understand irrational behaviours when a non-gambler observes the illogical actions of a gambler.

12: DID YOUR GAMBLING ADDICTION AFFECT YOUR JOB AT THE TIME AND IF SO HOW?

Yes, gambling affected my work. Gambling mugs you on a daily basis and not just your money but also your energy. It is not just your job that suffers, but your entire life.

In relation to work, imagine for a moment losing a £1,000 in a few minutes and then going to work the next day to earn £50-£100. Despite the damage you have afflicted on yourself, your mind is in another world, your passion, enthusiasm and motivation for life is diminished, you are there, in person, but your mind is not present. I was once referred to as a "broken man" despite that person not knowing about my gambling problem, he had formed his opinion on how I looked and he was spot on.

I frequently called in sick because I just couldn't face life, let alone work. I avoided life. Gambling I thought was my safety net but the whole in the middle of the net left me feeling exposed and vulnerable and ultimately hopeless. Now that I am healthier, I work hard, I am focused on my work and have stepped up my efforts ensure the business, myself and others succeed.

Gambling is filled with dark days; every time you lay down a bet you paint the sky a little darker. If you gamble to win there can be no end to your madness, you can set targets but you won't stick to them. Instead you will be constantly drawn to the flame and while the bright casino lights may temporarily seduce you, ultimately you will end up blind.

Like the wings of a moth touching the embers of a flame, a part of you will be burned and you will never be the same.