November 29, 2012

Don’t trade in one addiction for another

Advice from someone who’s been to the brink and back

Guest Post by Michael Burke

Michael J. BurkeThis is a letter of warning to all people in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction or to those who know someone in recovery.

Do not gamble. Do not go to casinos.

Do not buy lottery tickets. Stay away from the poker rooms.

Do not gamble on the horses. Stop sports betting.

I travel around the United States warning people in recovery about the dangers of trading one addiction for another. It has been over 34 years since I have consumed any alcohol. I did those things that we are taught to do to protect our sobriety.

In 1978, I attended and completed a 30-day inpatient program to deal with alcoholism. One of the lectures dealt with the dangers of trading addictions. One of the addictions we were warned about was gambling. Back then there was very little gambling to be worried about. I chose to ignore that particular warning. As a result, I spent my 24th, 25th, and 26th years of sobriety in prison. I lost my license to practice law after 25 years as an attorney.

My family was devastated. They had no idea of the depth of my gambling. It all started when I began frequenting a casino that had opened less than 60 miles from where I lived. In the beginning it was just fun. I only gambled during the daytime hours when I was supposed to be at work. Gambling is very easy to hide from those who care about you. It is often referred to as the “hidden addiction.”

Unlike substance abuse, there are no outward manifestations of a problem. No slurred speech, no stumbling, no smell of intoxicants. The first signs a problem exists can be a loss of a job, a bankruptcy, foreclosure notice, a divorce, criminal charges being filed, or suicide. Families are torn apart by the sense of betrayal they suffer at the hands of the gambler. This betrayal can go on for many years before it is discovered. It will make a spouse question all aspects of the relationship. If the gambler has been lying about this behavior for years, what else has he been lying about? It can take years to re-establish the trust that was once taken for granted.

The warnings of gambling addictionGambling did everything for me that my drinking had done. It was the perfect substitute for alcohol. My first three or four years could be described as social gambling. I would take a predetermined amount of money to the casino and would rarely exceed my limit. I excused my behavior by convincing myself that my trips over to the casino were not hurting anyone. This was just how I chose to relax.

But the foundation of every addiction is built upon lies.

Every time I went to the casino I was adding a new brick to the foundation of my compulsive gambling addiction. Finally, the day came when I crossed the line into compulsive gambling. There was no return. The devastation was total.

The numbers of problem gamblers are only going to increase. Today, some form of gambling is available in all but two states. It is legal, socially acceptable, and morally appropriate. Churches, charities, and nonprofit organizations routinely sponsor Bingo, Vegas Nights and Texas Poker Rooms to raise money for the good works that they do. When questioned about the appropriateness of sponsoring events that contribute to addiction, the response I hear is, “Yes, I understand that gambling is considered an addiction, but look at the amount of money we receive.”

Studies show that a majority of people who will develop a gambling problem come from a substance abuse background. They either have a substance abuse problem themselves or it can be discovered somewhere in their family history. Many of them will simply trade one addiction for another. Most never see a problem coming. Many alcoholics have openly discussed their gambling patterns with me. They say that they take a certain amount of money with which to gamble and do not exceed that amount. They tell me they are able to control their gambling. The wonder if they should be concerned. I explain it is just like their drinking.

Abstinence is the only guaranteed answer. If you don’t gamble, you will never develop a gambling problem.

If you have a spouse, a significant other, a loved one, or a friend in recovery who is gambling, you must warn that person not to gamble. Most compulsive gamblers I have met in the last seven years were in recovery for substance abuse and in a good Twelve Step program. If you can convince that person to stop before he/she crosses the line into compulsive gambling, that person has a chance.

Most of the compulsive gamblers I have worked with who have crossed that line have suffered total devastation. Many of the people in recovery I have talked with who have not started to gamble have told me they never will gamble. This is the group we must educate. They are the ones who will never have to endure the pain of compulsive gambling. If you care about them, discuss this issue with them. The chains of addiction are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

Michael Burke lives in Howell, Mich., where he practiced law for 25 years. His book “Never Enough: One Lawyer’s True Story of How He Gambled His Career Away” has been published by the American Bar Association. Proceeds from the book go to his victims. He travels the country speaking to groups on the topic of trading addictions and compulsive gambling.

Michael can be reached at [email protected].

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