Gambling: Abuse and Addiction – The Face of the Gambler

(published at Helium.com)

It has been in my prayers for a number of years: trying to look into the face of the gambler, trying to explain the phenomenon or invisible line that turns a game into a craving, a craving into a hunger, a hunger into an addiction so pervasive and destructive as to lead all addictions in the national suicide rate. Even counting accidental overdoses of heroin or oxyconton, cocaine addicts and smokers of meth amphetamine and crack cocaine, gambling kills more people each year than alcohol and drugs combined. Spotting the gambling addict, however, is not an easy task. He is illusive: the stealth gambler. The gambler does not stumble upon his words or smear her lipstick across her cheek and chin like the sloppy drunk. She does not splatter bloodstains on her clothing like the anorexic junkie. He may be a teenage boy hoping his fake ID allows him entrance and lets him remain in the casino down the road, or an elderly woman living solely on a too-small social security check and often doing so alone. She can be absent for days before a neighbor or relative decides to check on her well being and reports her inability to focus lately, her absence from community gatherings, her loss of weight and interest in things she always loved, her possible demise or status as a missing person. He may have no proof of citizenship and have only 24 hours to find some in order to claim the $10,000 jackpot only he in the line of slot machines hit that evening, or be forced by the security patrol at the casino to go home and shower if, after five or six shift changes he remains at the same machine or table, wearing the same clothing but sporting several days accumulation of beard. The paramedics may be called to her barstool in front of the five-dollar machines where she has accidentally emptied her bladder or bowels, unable to leave the stool in exchange for the throne. Or, they may have to treat him for facial burns because he is hooked to an oxygen tank but lit a cigarette just beneath it anyway. He may return angry, knowing the moment he left some stranger overtook “his” machine and hit “his” jackpot or simply drive to another tribe’s facility a few miles away, still unwashed but ever hopeful that the change in scenery will accompany a change in luck. She may fall asleep at the wheel due to sheer exhaustion; sleep deprivation coupled with a blood alcohol level to challenge the charts. I read of one car accident wherein the driver had fallen asleep and the car crept ever closer to the cement pillar pilings at the underside of an overpass, literally decapitating the driver. Talk about a gambler losing his head or betting above it. the irony would be humorous were it not so sad and sobering a thought.

The gambler may arrive as a couple, perhaps winter visitors to the Tribal Native American casinos that today dot the prairies and deserts of our land, once removed, distant from the populous, sacred ground solely their own. Now glittering adobe buildings sit and burgeon, arranged inside parking lots so large a shuttle van hauls load after load of people who rub their hands together wearing lucky socks and the jockey shorts in which they once hit three sevens. These are the folks whose knees have been replaced, who need handicapped parking which is always filled to overflowing, but in those anticipatory moments will actually jog to catch the overcrowded vehicle and stand on its bumper, like a strap hanger aboard the subway, rather than wait another two minutes for the next bus. She is just so eager to get to it, the taste of victory sweet upon her tongue like the nicotine gum she will soon exchange for the real deal, casino label bedecked upon the match pack. One match may be left in the “lucky” pack and the gambler will carry it for months in his wallet, knowing the loss of that match could trigger the loss of his home, his automobile, his job, his marriage, the future education of his children, perhaps even his life so at least his family can cash in his life insurance policy. He thinks they’ll all be better off without him. He’s betting there is no suicide clause in the policy. On too many counts, he is wrong.

The law mandates that one be 21 years of age and a citizen of the United States in order to gamble and to collect the proceeds, should there be any, in these federally granted and licensed holy places. The Bible says that where a man’s money is, there shall his heart be also. Man’s heart (the queen or flush of) is lavishly expanded upon in what used to be, just a few years ago, small tent-like facilities that seemed harmless and small compared to the bells, whistles, hookers, and cat calls from the glitz of Las Vegas or the faded glory of Atlantic City. Her boardwalk once hoisted skateboards and lazy drips of ice cream for the scavenging seagulls that would literally pull the corn dog off your wooden stick if you stood still long enough. It was blow up circular floatation rings, salt-water taffy shops, and an arcade filled with shooting galleries and chances to toss coins into the jar and win a huge stuffed teddy bear for your sweetheart. Today, still, the boardwalk hoists hookers and seagulls, but the scavenging is done for jewelry or coins and with battery-operated metal detectors and a wild eyed look of desperation known only to those who have lost something precious too long ago to ever hope to find it now, be it their money, jewelry, or their innocence. They wear the eyes of fear, the lips of cigarettes forgotten, ash grown long and precarious, pinched between wrinkled lips. The shooting galleries no longer move slowly like a line of rubber yellow ducks, but are found in used syringes tossed haphazardly beneath the boardwalk. Paraphernalia litters the beach like horseshoe crabs washed ashore throughout the night. Social pleasantries are uncommon along today’s Vegas Strip or Atlantic City’s cracked wooden boardwalk. The pain is raw, abundant, and even contagious. The fear is gripping in its hopeless pervasiveness. If you wonder how anyone could be so stupid, so lost, so broken, you know not the jaws of addiction. You have not been bitten by the alligator addiction that, like a vampire, forever changes your measure of wealth, your language of prayer (the prayers of the gambler are called fox trench prayers, like those muttered in indescribable volleys of warfare in countries far removed from home: “God, get me out of this and I will.”)

If you paid attention in Sunday school you will in these moments remember lines and parables that appear to fill your immediate need for intervention from above right this minute at this place. You will recall that if, in the name of Christ you ask for something, He promised to go to the Father in your behalf and grant your request. So, “in the name of Christ Jesus, my Lord and Savior, shepherd of the lost, I beseech you Father to grant me three of a kind or a full house. I’ll play the hard eight for 9 to 1 odds because my faith is so large right now as I blow on these dice six quick puffs of air and besides all that, baby needs some new blue suede shoes.” The prayers are tossed off casually, as are the dice, often bouncing off the table, lost momentarily upon the bright carpet, changing the luck of the shooter, causing many of the superstitious to pull down their bets that follow such a prayer. This is crap(s), you think, irate with the swing mood of the table working at cross-purposes when moments ago you were making them profitable and you thought of them as your friends. Of course, a large part of the attraction of the tribal casinos in Arizona, New Mexico, California, and other states I’m sure is that the women who bring the free coffee and cocoa in the mornings, and the cocktail gal of the night before, and the awards club lady all seem gushingly thrilled to see you. Your name is spoken and remembered, you are pointed toward the machines that should be hitting soon, and they revisit you throughout the hours, as they call you “friend” and while you’re there, you actually want to believe it is true. You want to feel not so alone in the world, and in this place, people are claiming you as their friends. For a short while, it feels wonderful to be remembered and missed and actually mentioned between employees who’ve been wondering how and where you are.

It is my fervent hope to bring understanding and hope to those without either; to provide answers to those whose questions alone scare the possible answers right out of them. Addictions of every variety abound and thrive in our society. In fact, gambling triggers the exact rush of dopamine cocaine releases into the body by the brain. They are the most parallel of addictions, and the addict brain having sampled his first taste of the rush of the coke or the rush of adrenaline in the slot machine is feeling the exact same merriment and head rush the gambler can literally FEEL the electrical thrumming in his bones while anticipating the rolling of the reels, each bounce of the dice, each slice of the cards. It is just NOT real money when the addict is gambling; it is Monopoly money but the addicted gambler is having no fun. He inhabits a prison of his own design and construction, the architect of no tomorrows. A life sentence handed down by a deck of cards, a shuffle or cut, just one more pull on the handle of a slot machine. “God, give me just one more trip to the automatic teller or one more check at the joint up the street that charges 25% interest and I will tithe 10% of the gross winnings back to you. I will hand money to the next poor beggar I encounter, inside the casino or on the street corner. I will never return here again if you let me win just this once. Please God, just one more time and I’ll stop.”

In searching the face of the gambler, one need not look far. She sits eating her $1.50 breakfast of pancakes and eggs over-easy, hastily scribbling circles with a stubbed down pencil while watching the keno numbers alight. She simply cannot miss even one spin of the dial, one moment of the action. Having drained the night and the wallet completely, the spouse is at home, watching, waiting, expecting an explanation for the absence of money in the accounts and the missing partner on the other side of the mattress, an accounting, if you will, of their combined lack of sleep. In the casino, both money and time cease to exist. It is always dazzlingly bright and loud. A loud rainstorm with lightning shows and thunder exhibits that rock the hilltops would not be noticed inside the casino. Casinos do not construct windows. Even their entry doors are double thick, smoky charcoal sun screened glass. Like the hotel California, one can check out but he can never leave. This misalignment of nature plays tricks on the mind, much like the factory chickens that are fooled by artificial light and darkness into laying more eggs every 24 hours; the gambler is fooled out of his own body’s hunger, plied with liquor, unaware of the passage of time. On the rare occasion she steps outside, bright sunlight temporarily blinds her as she arrived in the afternoon and so is somewhat baffled to discover the entire night or full moon has passed her by unawares. She is astonished by the passage of time, finding it is tomorrow and the consequences of last night, beyond the second set of doors guarded by the uniformed tribesmen and women challenging her to “have a nice day” or “come back soon,” wait silently beside them. The two are mutually exclusive for the addicted gambler as having a nice day has exactly nothing to do with coming back anytime soon to a casino.

Once more, it is only when he finds his way back to his car which he fears (yet recklessly hopes) has been stolen so he can file an insurance claim to pay back some of the Visa bills – he absolutely cannot remember where he parked this time. Pulling into the multiplex, lighted tangle of cars the night before he was already hearing “I love a parade” as he envisioned himself hitting the jackpot, a crowd of jealous, applauding onlookers press in too close, hoping the winner will show largesse with such a win, ignorant of the thousands he already “invested” in order to align the red cherries in triplicate. Only in the car does the lead weight of despair hit the compulsive gambler and the losses turn to panic about the overdrafts highlighting his checking account. Only then does reality demolish him like a death wish and he knows with absolute candor that he IS worth more dead than alive. He has to force himself to drive home cloaked in an unspeakable pallor of shame, reeking of smoke, reeling with the knowledge that he can not pay the house payment this month or last. She is unable to meet even the minimum payment required of each and every credit card she holds. Writing a check at the telecheck window produces the shame of a “code 4, call us immediately” 24/7 hotline.

Unsure of what to do next, she glances at her watch and knows she must be at work in an hour and three of her nails are torn or shredded, all ten are filthy. Keeping the secret, silencing the exhaustion that roars alongside the incessant dinging of bells and alarms replaying themselves in her inner eardrum all morning, she cannot tell a soul of her evening, of her terror; instead, she must devise a way to acquire more money.

Pulling away from the curb, another small piece of soul departs the gambler’s body. He rolls down the window as the tears roll down his face.

I know the gambler’s song: I’ve written the melody, I’ve harmonized with others who struggle to breathe while pressed up tight against every nerve center in the mind, in the soul, in the damaged body of the addict. I’ve sat long hours in emergency rooms with vomiting, shuddering addicts. Too, too often they once sat with me. Knowing our obsessions, our inability to stop ourselves no matter what the cost of our collective losses, we no longer bother to call for companionship in these vacant, sterile spaces between sanity and not quite, between life and something less. We can’t even stand ourselves and refuse to foist our losing self upon others; we refuse to look into our own reflected eyes as we attempt to clean the filth from our hands in the public restroom, afraid that if we do, we will have found the face of the gambler.