At Gambling Help Online we followed the journey of the participants in the groundbreaking 2020 SBS series Addicted Australia. We have so much gratitude and admiration for the generosity these Australians showed by sharing their story. Lucas, an IT professional who sought treatment to change his gambling, even spent time helping others in the Gambling Help Online forums. We’ve asked Lucas to share his thoughts on treatment and recovery.
My name is Lucas. I have recently overcome a battle with a long gambling addiction.
Through my recovery all I have done is reflect on how I got to the place I am now in. I think for the longest time I can remember, I had this impression of how recovery and seeking help was packaged — I felt like it was sold as the magical cure. Any time you talk to someone about your problem, one of the first questions you get will be, “Have you talked to someone about it? Have you sought help?” — along with a backhander like “Why have you not stopped?”
As anyone living with addiction knows, even the way those questions are packaged can make you feel like they’re supposed to be the magical one-line answers. It’s likely that neither of you know what it means to just stop or to just get help. I quickly learned that one simple question will have a plethora of complicated answers. There are so many thought patterns or behavioural cycles you need to think about, talk about and address to break down that barrier.
So let’s talk about seeking help and talking with a counsellor.
A lot of people, addict or not addict, underestimate what it means to ‘get help’ — they underestimate what it takes for the addicted to not just seek help, but feel engaged in the process. I heard an alarming stat that in some organisations, the average number of counselling or other support service sessions is only one! One!! Just think about that, why is that?
Not going to beat around the bush here, seeking help was the hardest step for me. Not only the initial moment of putting my hands up and saying to myself “You know what, I don’t have this under control. What can I do?” but then that next step of picking up that phone, sending an email, or using an online chat. It’s not easy — a lot of people have anxiety just picking up the phone to make a general inquiry or order food, imagine how hard it is for someone to pick up that phone to say I have a problem and I need help. And after you work up the nerve to make the call, you still need to be open minded and try to listen to the advice you’re given.
You usually try to make the step to seek help just after you’ve done your arse and have nothing left. You’re stuck with that sinking feeling, that void, that disconnection, then you have to try and get control of yourself not only to make the call, but to talk and be present and mindful.
It usually doesn’t work the first time you reach out.
I know with my addiction, I felt like I had no control over anything. I look back at all my gambling experiences now and even during. It feels like one giant experience. It becomes perplexing trying to break it down into separate moments to understand what you were doing and why.
That’s ok, it doesn’t mean seeking help will never work. It doesn’t work right away because it isn’t normalized behaviour for you. You can learn how to examine and assist yourself. It’s a skill you have to work on.
Keeping it simple is impossible for an addict at times. Even that old cliche of a “high functioning addict” — which, by the way, is a real shit way to look at it. Just because you can hold a job or feed yourself does not mean you are not in a world of struggle and that you don’t want help. I always managed to land on my feet, but I also always managed to fuck it up.
I was lucky in the sense that it took me a very long time in a sense to feel like I had no hope. There was something inside of me, no matter how much I buried it, that still believed in myself.
My all-time lows came when I lost total belief in my ability to bounce back. When I did not have an enabler being my guardian — not only feeding my addiction but also keeping me alive. At first I’d only stop believing for a few seconds at a time, but the feeling grew until it lasted weeks. I always found a new low. That boundary always got pushed, just like my gambling. The harder I smashed my boundaries, the harder it was to go back.
I am going to be realistic about this: getting help was the hardest step for me and I dare say it is the hardest for a hell of a lot of others. It’s not just asking for help, it’s making it stick. I reckon I put my hand up for help about 15 times. Of those attempts, I only actually followed through five or six times. I’d reach out for help, but not actually show up to see the counsellor or stick to my appointment. Time is the gambler’s biggest enemy in so many ways.
Of the five or six times I actually showed up, I only went back for a second appointment twice.
Getting help is often a struggle between the life you’re living and the life you want to live. The addict side of me would always win that fight. It would develop the excuses to why I can’t go. The controlled, calm and logical side of me that wanted to stop just wasn’t responding. That’s because I’m naturally quite energetic and frantic, and gambling fed that. Of course chaos was going to be more appealing than just being chill. It was what felt normal to me.
I first sought help 6–8 months into my gambling addiction, when I knew it was something I could not control, when I had taken myself to places I had never been before. Why did it take another 8 or so years to get consistent help?
The simple answer is connection and belief. For years it was missing. The most vital part of my recovery is connection and being engaged. For me, that means constantly talking. Keeping that conversation going even when it seems stupid.
Think how engaged you are in the activity and product of gambling. It takes up all of your attention. Why could I not be that engaged in my own wellbeing? Why did I need to keep letting the addict talk me out of getting consistent help and finding the excuses?
In the early days, I’d keep telling myself that counsellors were hopeless. I would just find excuses to why I did not believe it would work, I would only hear what I wanted to hear. I was in a privileged position, really — someone was taking their time to try help me, yet I was there in body but in no way there in spirit. By the time I was in those appointments, I’d moved on from the anxiety I felt when I first reached out, and that spirit to recover had usually faded. I usually lied to myself, thinking I could handle it the same way I was gambling, by just ignoring everything. Ignoring the damage. Not talking. Keeping it a secret.
Keeping my secret did me no good and almost cost me my life. It changed the lives of people I cared about the most too. My acts were coming across as selfish, but in reality they were a cry for help.
Because gambling is so normalized in Australian culture, I don’t think people who have not lived with a gambling addiction — either their own or a love ones’ — really grasp the deep mechanics and learned behaviours that make gambling an uncontrollable force.
Whilst it is ostensibly the same as all other addictions, what feeds gambling addiction is different from a person dealing with an alcoholic or drug addiction. There are often withdrawal processes they need to go through to support their physical recovery. For a gambling addict the physical recovery can be much quicker — and while there are definitely upsides to that, it can mean that you’re not given the time to create the mental space you need to resist relapse. I found myself being sucked in by that tempting gambler’s voice in my head as soon as I started to feel right physically. It took my attention from doing a deep dive into what was really going wrong.
One of the ways I dealt with that was talking. Verbalising thoughts helped to distract me from the little voice urging me to gamble, and focused my attention on my mental recovery.
What helped me to keep showing up.
I could talk all day about the factors that kept me from following through with seeking help, but here are some tips of what actually did work for me.
- Don’t be disheartened with your efforts. Rarely is it going to work first go. You may not have that instant respect or rapport you need first up with the first professional you speak with. It just simply may not be a time where you can 100% commit to treatment. Don’t let that put you off or stop from trying.
- Take everything you hear from your professional onboard. I was quick to dismiss a lot of things I heard — then kept dismissing because I’d heard them repeated so many times it felt like a script. That doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t or wouldn’t work. Sometimes it just meant I wasn’t in the right headspace to hear it yet. There where other things my brain needed to process first before I could have a clear pathway to take that step on board.
- Keep searching and educating yourself. You’re a unique person and what works for you might not be what works for anybody else.
- If you don’t feel comfortable with the help you have been provided, don’t be afraid to ask for alternative recommendations.
- Try not to think of recovery as an easy fix that is going to come from one phrase of advice. It is going to totally come from yourself, your drive and the way you interpret what you need to do to move forward — no matter what your goal is.
- Be honest. When you speak to a professional, remember that the onus to recovery is on you and be prepared to own your baggage and mistakes. Be accountable and be 100% honest. No-one is going to judge you more than what you judge yourself. No-one is going to punish you as much as you punish yourself. You are only going to get maximum return if you put in maximum effort. The professional can only help you with as much information you give them.
- Be comfortable or be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is never going to feel easy. Every time I would talk to someone who recovered, I just had this romantic notion in my head that what they said was going to work. I just felt like it would come packaged into the one answer, but it doesn’t. In my desperation I was looking for a quick fix. It is a long road and a much longer process than what it took you to become addicted.
- Be realistic. Rose-coloured glasses will cloud your way.
- Find the right community. Whilst professional help is a vital part of recovery, finding a community where you feel comfortable to talk about where you are at is just as important. One person can only do so much work, but never feel ashamed of where you are at. You can find that community of support in the strangest places you did not expect to find it.
The most important step you can take for yourself is to show up — as many times as you need to.