If you’re a problem gambler, you could be particularly vulnerable to relapsing during the coronavirus lockdown. You might be bored stuck at home, with emotions running high, or struggling financially after losing work or going on furlough.
For anyone struggling with gambling addiction, Chris, a 38 year-old father of two from Brentwood, Essex, shares how he beat his gambling addiction and started paying off his £100,000 debt, with support from his family, self-exclusion schemes, Gamblers Anonymous, and Monzo's gambling block.
TW: suicide and alcohol abuse
I didn’t start gambling until I was 30. It didn’t interest me whatsoever. I’m also an alcoholic. And when the alcohol wasn’t enough anymore, I found gambling to try and fill the void.
Everybody else said I was very confident, but I always felt a bit scared. I was quite worried about people not liking me or not getting things right.
Chris and his wife have been married for 13 years
Both of my children have autism, and my son has also got tourettes and epilepsy. My wife – we’ve been married for 13 years – also suffers from panic attacks and at times hasn’t been able to leave the house. I’ve been the person who needed to be there for her to feel safe and comfortable.
For a long time, I didn’t realise I had mental health problems. But I guess all that stuff took a toll on me over the years. A doctor once described it like drips going into a glass. One day it just all overflowed.
A quick downwards spiral
I saw some guys at work enjoying gambling apps, and one day I decided to download them too. Just for fun, not because I felt pressured to. I thought I might enjoy it, and I did at first.
I didn't have a gambling problem back then because I hadn't been a gambler before. Gambling addiction is a progressive illness.
My first bet was probably on a football match I’d been enjoying. But I soon found myself taking my son to his swimming lesson on a Saturday morning while gambling on a women’s football game in Australia I didn’t care about.
I’d go from betting a few pounds to £10, £20, then a £30 stake. I’d bet on any sport, at any time, whether I knew or cared about the teams or not. Then it was online casinos, live roulette, blackjack and online slots.
When I first went to a casino, I had no intention of gambling. I went in there to drink and watch the sports team. But they gave me a free £10 voucher for the slot machines, and I made a few hundred pounds. It felt like free money! So I thought I’d try my winnings on one of the roulette tables, and I left with over £1,000. I thought, well that was easy.
I never even enjoyed gambling, which is the weirdest thing. The buzz very quickly became about fulfilling a need. I just needed to keep doing it, or I’d feel empty.
I remember seeing guys at the roulette table that’d been there for days. I thought, “how terrible, those guys can’t control themselves,” thinking that I could. But in reality I was the same, and I couldn’t control it either.
I started missing work or time with family so I could gamble. It was a very quick downwards spiral.
Lying had never come naturally to me before. But because of gambling, I was lying all the time. I’d say I’d been to the pub, when really I’d been at the bookmakers.
"The buzz very quickly became about fulfilling a need. I just needed to keep doing it, or I’d feel empty."
Getting found out
Before I stopped gambling for good, my family found out I’d gambled and lost a lot of money three times.
I was fortunate that my dad bailed me out every time, so I was in debt to him rather than on my credit cards. One time I even went to the National Gambling Clinic in London. But I didn’t even realise I had an addiction. I thought I’d got into a bad habit, but that I had the willpower to stop.
I was so lucky to have the support of my family. But the problem with my dad bailing me out was that to the rest of the world, it didn’t look like I had any debt. So I could easily borrow more money from the bank.
I felt terrible about asking my dad for help. I felt like a let down – useless, scared and pathetic. I didn't understand why I was getting into this situation over and over again when I didn't want to. Every time it happened, I had every intention not to gamble again.
My dad wondered what he and my mum had done wrong when I was growing up. But I had a perfect upbringing and the fact is they did nothing wrong.
"The problem with my dad bailing me out was that, to the rest of the world, it didn’t look like I had any debt. So I could easily borrow more money from the bank. "
Starting to self-exclude
When I eventually realised I had a problem and was powerless over my gambling, my dad and I went to the casino and I self-excluded from all casinos in the country. I also self-excluded from online casinos and bookmakers. But I always found a way around it.
I tried and failed to stop numerous times. A few times I didn’t gamble for up to a year. But it always crept back in when I was stressed or having emotional problems. I didn't realise I was gambling to escape.
"I self-excluded from all casinos in the country, online casinos and bookmakers. But I always found a way around."
The final bet
That last time I gambled was when I was off work with depression for a few months. I was feeling suicidal.
We were having our house refurbished and my credit rating looked fantastic because I had no debt according to the financial institutions. The stress of having the builders in, of work, and of having children with additional needs all got too much for me. I know these stresses are part of normal living, but I wasn’t able to handle them.
At some point, I decided I was going to gamble. And although I’d gambled in the past as an escape, this time it was different. I wanted to win enough money to leave to my children and wife so I could take my own life. It sounds really odd because in a way I was thinking quite logically, even though it was a totally illogical thing.
My last bet was October 29th 2017. I went to my bank, desperate, and took out a £25,000 loan – the largest amount they’d give me.
I lost it all to gambling in one night. I was putting in £100 every few minutes, eventually £2,000 deposits. God knows how people don’t flag that up. The company should have a duty of care.
But thank god I lost it, because if I’d won I think I’d have ended it.
"I took out a £25,000 loan and lost it all to gambling in one night."
Hitting rock bottom
I’d reached a point where I was done. I was 36 years old and my total debt, including the loan and debt to my dad was near £100,000. I knew I was finished and that things had to change in my life. I was a gambling addict and an alcoholic and I realised I couldn’t just stop one or the other, I had to stop them both.
"I was 36 years old and my total debt was near £100,000"
The following day my wife asked me, have you done it again? And that’s when it all came out. She broke down in tears and we went round to my mum and dad’s. It was pretty horrific. I told them the whole story and we went through my bank accounts.
My dad looked devastated. Everybody cried a lot.
That night was the end of it for me. I knew it wasn’t going to happen again because this time I was going to get some help and attend Gamblers Anonymous (GA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
I attended my first GA and AA meetings that same week. It was nothing like how I expected.
I walked in and thought, god these people don’t look like me, they don’t look like a sad mess. They were chatting or laughing. But then they start telling their stories.
We were from different walks of life, but we all had one thing in common – an addiction. Finally, I had people I could relate to.
I might go to a meeting and talk about gambling, or share things that have hurt me in the past. But other times I’ll just talk about my week. It’s just about sharing your emotions.
A lot of us gambled because of stress. For me, I bottled up my emotions and tried to get rid of the horrible feelings by gambling or getting drunk. Now, thanks to AA and GA, I can share my emotions, which means I don’t feel fearful and need to gamble or drink anymore.
I’d lived in fear all my life that I’d make mistakes, let people down or that I wasn’t good enough. Now I don’t have that fear, and I don’t need to be liked by anybody other than myself.
"thanks to AA and GA, I can share my emotions, which means I don’t feel fearful and need to gamble or drink anymore."
Both of Chris' children have autism, and his son also has tourettes and epilepsy
Creating financial barriers
At GA, you learn how to put up financial barriers. We say you shouldn’t have any money, basically, and that all of your bank accounts should be looked after by somebody else. My dad took mine over at first. I’d go out with as little cash as possible.
But as I got a bit further into the programme, I needed to have more independence. That’s when we started using Monzo. The beauty of Monzo is that my wife and I could open a joint account, and she’d get notifications to monitor my spending.
After doing that for a while, I started using my own Monzo account. I’d transfer an agreed amount of money from the joint account into it each week. If I moved around any more money, my wife would know straight away.
I’d never tried talking to my banks before. But when I opened my Monzo account, I used the chat within the app to say they shouldn’t let me borrow any money, that I didn't want to get an overdraft or any loans. It was really straightforward and all agreed through online chat.
"It would take me 48 hours to deactivate [the gambling block on Monzo], so I can’t turn it off in a spur of the moment decision."
Monzo’s gambling block feature is also a fabulous thing. It would take me 48 hours to deactivate it, so I can’t turn it off in a spur of the moment decision. Lots of people use Monzo at GA, and in different ways. It’s great because you can use it in the way you want to use it.
I’m currently paying off the £25,000 bank loan I took out, which will probably take another four years. Then I’ll start paying back my parents. I owe them a total of around £60,000. I think I’ve probably got around another 11 years before I’ll be debt-free.
"I think I’ve probably got around another 11 years before I’ll be debt-free."
I’m still not in charge of anything financial. My wife oversees everything, and that’s the way it should be forever, really.
My parents and wife also go to GamAnon, which helps family members of compulsive gamblers. This has been a great help to them and me.
My wife has been amazing. I'm so lucky to have the support and love of my family.
What I’ve learned
Find out if you need help. If you think you might have a problem with gambling, visit the GA website. There are questions to answer to help you work out if you need help.
Remember that you aren’t alone, even if you feel like it. There are people out there who want to help you. Gambling is a massive problem right now, with all the advertising out there and how it’s been normalised in sport. There are lots of people going through the same thing you are.
Get yourself to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. This is probably the most important step and many groups are holding meetings online during lockdown. You’ll find people there of all ages and genders.
Talk to your banks. Make sure they know your situation, so you can’t get hold of money when you shouldn’t have it.
Talk to your family, don’t bottle things up. It’s really important for anyone who wants to stop gambling to just be totally honest about the situation.