Walt* is a voice on the other end of Gamblers Anonymous hot line. Like many of his fellow volunteers, he answers the phone, he listens and shares to help those still fighting that addiction, that compulsion, that urge. And, he knows, that includes him.
Staffing the hot line, like attending G.A. meetings and "working the program," are how he continues to help himself.
Walt is among the estimated 2 percent to 3 percent of Americans who have a compulsion to gambling that can result in serious debt, job loss and destruction of families.
For those with gambling addictions, avoiding the problem is difficult. The United States, where some form of legalized gambling is available in all but two states, is the world's largest gambling market. The American Gaming Association reports that gross revenues from gambling in 2006 were $90.9 billion.
Eighty-five percent of American adults have gambled at least once in their lives and 60 percent have gambled within the past year, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Walt's story starts with a 13-year-old boy "flipping quarters" with his buddies. It ends with losing a wife, four kids and a house after spending some $400,000 on state Lotto tickets over a decade and a half.
No. That's not right. It ends with him -- then nearing age 50 -- finally going to Gamblers Anonymous. And Alcoholics Anonymous. It ends with Walt -- half joking -- "I'm in a '48-step' program: gambling, drinking, drugs and cigarettes. I do any one of those things and I'll do the other three. I know that now."
Now, working those steps, he takes it one day at a time. Then, in junior high, he was innocently tossing a quarter in the air. "Two guys flip," he explains. "One guy calls it: even or odd. Call 'even' and they match, you just won 25 cents. Call 'odd' and they don't match, you win, too."
Losing wasn't a problem for Walt because he always had a payday coming up. At 13 he was working in a restaurant. His mom's idea. A way to get him out of the house -- and away from his abusive, alcoholic stepfather. Yes, it was a Catholic household ... in name. But, he says, neither parent went to church and neither spoke of religion except "the holy-wrath kind."
The concept that gambling was -- or might be -- a sin never entered the equation. This was years before the Catechism of the Catholic Church would succinctly explain:
"Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant" (No. 2413).
As a teen, Walt certainly wasn't depriving himself or others. "I earned enough, even at that age, to begin making five-dollar bets on a local college basketball team with guys at work. But even then it wasn't about the winning or losing, I liked the feeling. It was the rush. I'm a rush junkie. Making those bets as a kid was like sucking down that first drink."
And, as with an alcoholic, it took more and more betting -- at higher stakes -- to get that feeling. A feeling he came to want, to crave, every day. Or, to use the Catechism's phrases, he quickly developed "the passion for gambling" and, over the years, discovered it truly was "an enslavement."
Through it all, Walt knew how to get and keep a job. It was holding on to and properly managing his money that he couldn't handle. He was never fired and had only three employers over his entire career, including his final job that paid at union scale with full benefits and ended with a nice pension on which he now lives.
Looking back, Walt realizes: "I was like a kid who was never a teenager. I was a kid, and then I was working. I graduated from high school three months before I turned 17. I took courses that were easy for me, but I wasn't interested in school."
That's not to say compulsive gamblers are limited to individuals who come from abusive homes or lack education. In a section on the topic, the Mayo Clinic's website notes that "a number of factors increase your risk of developing compulsive gambling." Its list includes:
- Other behavior or mood disorders. A person who gambles compulsively often has substance-abuse problems as well as mood and personality disorders.
- Age. One may be more likely to develop an addiction to gambling if he or she begins to gamble at a young age.
- Gender. Males are more likely than females to develop this addiction.
- Family influence. If one's mother and father have a gambling problem, the chances are greater that person will, too.
- Certain personality characteristics. Being extremely competitive, a workaholic, restless or easily bored may increase the risk.
Walt knows some of those factors apply to him, but he does not use any as an excuse. He does, however, give credit to God's mercy and grace for his keeping that final job until he was able to retire, and for helping him to continue to refrain from gambling, drinking, smoking and using drugs.
'I had to lose everything'
Still not a practicing Catholic, he no longer has any negative feelings about the Church and how it was presented to him in his home as a child and teen. And he offers high praise for his sister and his G.A. sponsor, who are both active in their parishes, who both are fine examples of Catholicism. "Maybe some day I'll go back," he says. "I have an open mind now."
Walt's also frank about the tremendously negative impact his gambling had on his wife and four children: the lying, the debts, the neglect, the complete disregard for their physical and emotional well-being.
His words echo those of Bishop Luc Bouchard of the Diocese of St. Paul, Alberta, Canada, who wrote in a 2007 pastoral letter "On Gambling": "Children in problem gambling families live in an 'atmosphere of chronic interpersonal conflict, poor parenting and domestic violence.'
"Legalized gambling is not socially harmless but quite destructive to individuals, to families and ultimately to communities. Ignoring those victimized by gambling or even worse profiting from their suffering is foreign to the Gospel."
That's why, when asked, he doesn't hesitate to offer concrete advice for other families who have a member with a gambling problem.
"Grab hold of the family finances," he says. "You have to take care of yourself. Go to Gam-Anon and learn how to defend yourself and the rest of the family from the lies and the cheating. Learn to recognize the signs of what's really happening. And remember, until that person wants to get into recovery, they're not going to.
"Compulsive gambling really kills a family, and I'm a prime example," Walt concludes. "I had to lose everything before I finally went for the help I needed."
Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are the editors of My Daily Visitor magazine and authors of "Encyclopedia of Mary" (Our Sunday Visitor, $24.95).