I saved lives for a living. I was an ICU nurse and a nursing supervisor at a hospital where I had been employed for 27 years. I had earned respect, accolades and a good degree of success in my career. There are people alive today because of actions I took and decisions I made, often in a split second, to save their lives. With all of this success, I could not for the life of me stop gambling any more than I could change the tides of the ocean. Believe me, I tried.
In the local bookstore, I found rows and rows of books on alcoholism, drug addiction, overeating, overspending, over-sexing, over this, over that. There were entire sections dedicated to the innocent enablers who unwillingly allowed the “overs” to continue their destructive behavior. There were no manuals for the hapless gambler.
I would sit in my car, slam the steering wheel, lower my head and sob. My gas gauge was on empty, and that familiar nauseating feeling of disgust and terror would return. Then, as always, I would form a momentary sense of resolution and regurgitate the lines of an old sermon filled with rallying cries: “I can’t do this anymore . . . this is not me . . . I’m not a caged animal on a treadmill . . . I am better than this!” Each time I spoke these words, I had the feeling that this time I would stop gambling.
Less than 24 hours later, my car was back in the casino parking lot. It was as if I had no control; I realize now that I didn’t. This continued for close to five years, until my life came crashing down. Due to choices I’d made to feed my addiction, I lost my job of 27 years, damaged relationships with friends and family, forfeited an insane amount of money and nearly lost my life. I also lost perhaps the most precious thing of all: time that I can never get back, wasted in front of a slot machine.
Slot machines were designed with one goal: to make an addict out of everyone. The longer a person plays, the more money they lose, until it is all gone. In the midst of my gambling addiction, my sensible way of thinking about money all but vanished. I would drive an extra four miles to save $2 on paper towels, and yet drop $500 in a slot machine. I kept 50 cents in the console of my car for enough gas to get home. It was often the only money I had left at the end of a day of gambling.
One time when I was so engrossed in my machine, I failed to hear a man’s call for help when his mother passed out. I had performed several Good Samaritan acts in public, but I had a good thing going that particular Sunday afternoon; I was winning. That should have been the time I faced reality, but it wasn’t. I had two more years of self-destruction, convoluted thinking and unhinged behavior ahead of me.
I was just as impaired by gambling as a bar patron who has had too much to drink. After about eight drinks, a bartender would no doubt cut them off; after all, they might hurt themselves, or worse, kill someone. When a patron’s judgment is impaired, the responsible thing would be to cut them off.
No such limits exist at the casino. Every time I went gambling, it was as though I was walking into the Cheers bar. The greeters knew my name, when I usually gambled and the machine I liked; I’m sure they were also aware of how often I lost. No one ever came over and suggested, “Take a break, go home, take care of your kids.” There were no safety nets in place; just a few signs with a number to call if you thought you had a gambling problem.
I hit rock bottom and stopped gambling on April 29, 2012. My hard work was just beginning. My life was in shambles. I had no job, no money and no direction. Nursing was all I had ever known and loved, and I had jeopardized my license.
There is a reason why gambling addiction has the highest rate of suicide of any addiction. One in five addicts attempt suicide, and many succeed. There is only so much cocaine, heroin or alcohol you can put into your body before ending up in a morgue. Gambling has no such constraints; when it gets bad, suicide seems to be the only answer. Fortunately, I knew I had to live. I had to be a mother to my children.
As I slowly emerged from a cloud of profound shame and despair, I began going to Gamblers Anonymous meetings and reached out to organizations I had avoided in the past. One of those organizations was a nonprofit in Washington, DC, called Stop Predatory Gambling. Their mission is to stop the injustice and inequality created by government-sponsored gambling.
I became their official National Victim’s Advocate, a voice for those who remain silent and in the shadows due to social stigma and discrimination. I began speaking all over the country and joined in the fight against gambling expansion. The underlying message was simple: Gambling addiction is a beast that destroys families and individuals; it is fundamentally wrong for our government to prey upon the vulnerable to fill their coffers. My goal was to bring advocacy, awareness and reform for this highly misunderstood addiction.
I once had a one-on-one conversation with a senator from Illinois. “You don’t look like a gambler,” he said. “What do you think one looks like?” I replied. “We look like who we are: your neighbor, sister, father, spiritual leader, co-worker. The slot machine didn’t look back at me and say, ‘Gee, you are a bit too put together, I’m not going to make you an addict.’”
Gambling operates on the Pareto Principle: 90% of profits come from 10% of the gamblers. These are not your casual weekend night-on-the-town gamblers, they are the most vulnerable: the elderly, poor, women and minorities.
“Casino Cafes” located every few miles in strip malls with cutesy names like Stella’s and Dolly’s are blatantly predatory to women. Many states and municipalities view gambling as an economic panacea, yet they miss the hidden costs: child neglect, crime and ultimately the need for state assistance. Gambling addiction tears families apart and ruins lives.
Gambling addiction is now recognized as a disease and may be covered by insurance and have benefits that cover treatment. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the number of gambling addicts is rising at an alarming rate. In Illinois alone, there are nearly 12,000 people on the voluntary self-exclusion list – just an estimated 10% of the state’s problem gamblers.
Gambling nearly killed me, and I never saw it coming. Things need to change. We have far to go before the problem of compulsive gambling is resolved. Change begins when even one addicted gambler finds recovery.
Melynda Litchfield has been a registered nurse for over 30 years, working in ICU, nursing administration and now home care. She is the National Victim’s Advocate for Stop Predatory Gambling, mans the GA hotline twice a week and speaks on the predatory effects of gambling and the nature of the gambling industry. Melynda is the proud mother of three children and is active in community organizations, including her church council.
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