Sitting with a client new in recovery from a gambling addiction which is threatening to ruin him he is telling me about a relapse which has, so far, netted him thirty thousand pounds. My cautioning against euphoria falls on deaf ears and, even though it feels to him like everything is finally coming good, his confidence is ill founded.
It’s hard to tell gamblers that winning perpetuates the problem. It’s difficult to suggest that gamblers gamble in order to lose money because they don’t believe they deserve it, or because gambling it away again takes time, and time takes them away from reality, a place they don’t want to be.
In an online gambling community thread I read this line “if we gamble £1 and win £1000 we then have £1000 to get through until we ultimately lose that £1”. This is the essential battle for addicted gamblers. It’s a race to zero.
Gamblers are not really interested in winning money because there are other elements of their habit which are far more powerful than cash.
Addicts have cripplingly low self esteem. If life wasn’t a wreck when you started gambling you’ll probably have done a good job of making it so through your habit. In the long term there is no such thing as a functioning addict.
When my client is telling me about his big win he recognises something else. “It feels uncomfortable” he tells me. I think I understand but I want to check. “What do you mean?” I ask him. He says “It feels like a burden, a pressure”. What he is telling me is that he feels more comfortable when he loses, when he has no money. The objective he believes he has, to win, is actually completely opposite from his real motivation.
Just like other addicts he feels an enormous emotional hole. It’s a hole where healthy intimacy, genuine connection and positive self regard should reside, but don’t. None of us are able to live with such an emotional void and so we find something to put into it. If he can fill the space he doesn’t have to tolerate the terrible feelings. Money can’t ever fill that hole, but gambling it away can distract him from its existence. As soon as he stops gambling he becomes conscious again and he doesn’t want that, so he keeps going until all the money is spent. Every time.
A fortnight later he arrives for our session and flops into the chair. “I’ve had a terrible time”. I know what’s coming. All the money has gone plus more besides. Together with the self loathing and desperation there is something else, and it looks to me like relief. A relief I can recognise, because I’ve felt that hole too. We all have. Whenever I have avoided truth for fear that it would leave me looking less than I needed to be, I have been conscious of the emptiness and my desperation to fill it so that I might feel the calm descend for a while. Only much later did I learn that it is my fear of the hole which leaves it open.