By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Sue is among the 10 women and six men who finally assemble for the group session. I sit next to Dr. Hunter at one end. Bo Bernhard sits facing us. In between are 16 very ordinary, and seemingly very shell-shocked and visibly sad, people — mostly middle-aged, but a few elderly and a few who are younger. I don’t know their ages or their real names or their jobs. But by their looks, these are predominantly working-class and middle-class, average-looking Americans. Dr. Hunter kicks off the session, asking all to briefly introduce themselves and say something brief about how they feel, saying, “Gamblers are masterful actors, adept at masking what they are really feeling.”
Those who have been in treatment longer — four, five weeks — sound the steadiest. The newbies seem tortured. “I’m Anthony,” says one shaky, 40-ish man in a white shirt and tie. “I feel kind of worried about my bills coming in, about how I’m going to get through all this. My last bet was 37 days ago.”
Dr. Hunter, like a skilled magician, has a reassuring comeback line ready to pull out for just about every response he hears. “Don’t worry, Alex,” he says. “You got a big raise 37 days ago.”
Another woman, calling herself Catherine, says that after five years of trying, she finally quit four days ago. “You still look haunted, honey,” Hunter says in a blaring understatement. Catherine looks like someone who has just glimpsed some unspeakable horror. “It’ll start getting better next week, trust me,” Hunter reassures her.
Sylvia, a husky working-class woman in her early 30s, her voice cracking, says that after maxing out both her credit cards at the Mandalay Bay, she has no idea where she’ll get the $7,000 she needs to get her broken-down car fixed and brought back from New Mexico. Chris, a middle-aged Asian woman with a designer purse in her lap, says she’s feeling “embarrassed, angry, sad and ashamed.”
“Lancing a boil is painful but necessary,” Hunter responds. “And eventually it heals.”
When it comes to Gerry’s turn, she breaks out crying before any words come out. She’s a rough-hewn woman in her mid-50s, her hair close-cropped, maybe with some Native American or Latina heritage, and wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. It takes her a few moments to regain her composure. “I’m Gerry and I’m a compulsive gambler. And sorry to tell you, but I’m a failure. I was on my way to a [Gamblers Anonymous] meeting this afternoon, and I never made it.” Only on her third day of abstinence, she blew 20 bucks’ worth of quarters when she stopped for a cold drink at a convenience store.
Hunter masterfully takes this painful anecdote and turns it into a moment of mirth and encouragement. “Honey,” he says, “you haven’t been in treatment long enough to relapse. Everyone slips sooner or later. But you’ll be okay. The fact you are even telling us this makes you stronger.”
Only once over the course of the next hour does Hunter ever depart from this embracing tone. Fuji, a soft-spoken woman, about 45, complains that she’s feeling “confused” and mixed-up. “I’ve tried this so many times before and it didn’t work,” she says forlornly. “I mean I really want to quit gambling. But do I? Do I want to stop gambling? Or do I just want to stop losing?”
Hunter shows some visible impatience and decides to switch to a tough-love approach, taking advantage of Fuji’s ambivalence to deliver a minisermon.
“Don’t tell me it’s a pain the ass to get here, goddamnit!” he says with his voice slightly rising. “You had noproblem getting somewhere to gamble! No problem spending your kids’ money! No problem waiting in line to play a machine!
“Addiction is chronic and progressive,” Hunter continues, his tone flattening back out and his eyes scanning the whole group. “But for your purposes right now, you must realize you are addicted to gambling and if you continue, it will kill you. Alcoholics can take 20 years to bottom out. Gambling addicts can do it in two years. There’s no stronger addiction than gambling. It’s not about the substance. It has nothing to do with the money. But it’s about where it takes you. This is more about addiction than compulsion. Compulsion screws up your life. Addiction ends your life. You don’t gamble like Tiger Woods compulsively practices golf. Goddamnit, you gamble like junkies shoot dope. Yet I know people who quit shooting dope because it got in the way of their gambling!”
Bernhard had told me earlier in the day that witnessing these sorts of sessions might change forever the way I see gambling. Maybe. But watching these crushed people tell their wrenching stories certainly marks the way I now understand addicted gamblers. They are neither fools nor suckers, but rather victims. And I feel absolutely swamped by their profound sadness. I have an overwhelming sense of their having been cheated out of a chunk of their lives.
Perhaps it’s too fine a distinction I make and, in the end, one more rationalization for the sort of gambling that I choose. Alone, in the darkness of my car, I ask myself a question that fills me with dread but now becomes unavoidable. What, if anything, do I have in common with them? I reassure myself that, give or take a few hundred dollars, and thankfully only a few hundred, I can stick within determined budgets; that what I spend on gambling — less than on some other costly hobbies I’ve honed — has no significant impact on my financial stability; and that at least I get a kick from the rush. Until tonight, anyway. Maybe that will also change now.