Falling into gambling addiction has never been easier. Finding your self-esteem is key | Ashwini Padhi and Andrea Szasz

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AAs a father of four and owner of a construction company, Robert* doesn’t have much free time. In his early 40s, Robert is the breadwinner and feels deeply responsible for providing for his family. Yet almost every break he gets, you’ll find Robert frowning studying his cell phone. For his wife, children, and employees, it seems he is hard at work, coordinating one of his many construction projects. But his reality is quite different. Robert is a gambling addict. Within minutes of meeting him, he admits that he spends at least four hours a day betting through different apps on his phone.

Robert hasn’t always spent his days on betting apps. In fact, in recent years, he had never really played. Robert is not an exceptional case. Research shows that online gambling (especially on sports) is growing rapidly and young men are the group most at risk.

We live in a time when it has never been easier to slip into gambling addiction. Compulsive gambling is marked by the rare peaks in winnings, the denial that there is a problem and the tendency to try to recover losses instead of stopping. Like substance addictions, process addictions also attack our neurological functioning. It’s a cycle fueled by the dopamine hit of the occasional win, as well as the anticipation of a future win. And just like with alcohol or drugs, we start to need more and more to feel the same high. This cycle becomes difficult to break, usually leads to painful feelings of remorse and failure, and can lead to depression.

In our first session, we try to understand how Robert’s upbringing may have contributed to why he is sitting here today. Robert grew up in a first generation immigrant family in Melbourne. He lived with his parents and two younger sisters. The family was a fairly typical working class family – her father worked a few jobs and was often away from the family home. On the other hand, his mother worked in the school canteen and took care of the children and the housework. The children were well taken care of in terms of physical needs and education. However, her father was verbally abusive on occasion. Moving forward financially was the top priority. As the first child in the family, Robert was pressured to help and also do well in school. He often experienced demeaning statements and shame offered as encouragement by his father. If he did well in school, his father, instead of congratulating and encouraging him, urged him to help him more at home and in his work.

As a result, Robert developed a lack of self-esteem and a constant feeling of not being good enough. The rare occasions when his father spent time with him were watching sports on television or going to the races. While his father was not a compulsive gambler, he placed bets on a horse a few times a year and shared the excitement of winning with his son.

Robert grew up learning that hard work and financial success are the means to earning the approval and love of his parents and others. He became a plumber and then a mason. Over the years, he built a successful real estate development company. He married his high school girlfriend and they had four children in quick succession. While his marriage was mostly happy, during times of conflict with his wife, Robert found himself playing slot machines in the pub. In his head, he justified this behavior by saying that he needed calm and to be alone in the face of the pressure of work and a noisy household. Looking back, it was a telltale sign that he was at risk of developing a more serious problem.

During the first Covid lockdown, Robert’s business suffered a huge financial loss and as a result his self-esteem plummeted as well. He felt worthless and hopeless as he still had to take care of his family’s needs. It was at this time that he took a liking to online gambling. Although he admits he only bet once a day at first, the easy access to gambling apps and the occasional dopamine hit from the rare wins kept him going, increasing his involvement and becoming addictive in just four months.

He became increasingly withdrawn from his family, irritable and distant. The financial impacts have also been severe. He lost over $50,000 and tried to hide it from his wife by borrowing money from friends and gambling more. He began to lie constantly, which exaggerated his feelings of shame, worthlessness and isolation. He was deep in the vicious cycle of gambling addiction.

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Dealing with Triggers

In treatment, we talk about how his early life experiences affected his self-esteem. Robert realizes how money and success have given him a false sense of self-esteem. As part of therapeutic community and group therapy, he also learns that he is not alone in his online gaming addiction. In fact, Robert now realizes that there are thousands of people like him in the community.

In 2022, the Australian Communications and Media Authority has found that more than one in 10 Australians (11%) said they had taken part in online gambling at some point in the previous six months. This figure is up from 8% in 2020.

After several months of treatment, Robert found empathy for himself and learned healthy ways to regulate himself and his painful emotions. After treatment, Robert committed to couple and family therapy because he was very keen not to perpetuate the cycle of addiction to his school-aged children.

Six months later, he is recovering and optimistic about his future. Robert avoids high-risk environments that encourage play and makes regular time for exercise and self-care to minimize his stress level when he feels overwhelmed with work and family life. We continue to work through his childhood trauma and he is now attending 12-step meetings to avoid a relapse into his gambling addiction.

*Name has been changed for confidentiality reasons and the client’s story is an amalgamation of several cases

Dr Ashwini Padhi is a psychiatrist and Andrea Szasz is a program director at Private South Pacifica trauma, addiction and mental health treatment center

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