Michele says her story is more dramatic than most, but the essentials are all too familiar to those similarly afflicted in the community of problem gamblers.
In 2006, she underwent surgery for a crushed disk in her back. Eleven days later, she lost her husband to an accidental drowning in Lake Ontario. At age 54, she was bereft, a lonely widow, on leave from her job in an alcohol and drug abuse center in Monroe County.
She felt like a lost, aimless survivor who didn’t deserve happiness. She felt her personality was changing. So she found refuge in an unexpected place.
“A lot of people turn to alcohol or drugs,” Michele said recently by phone. Like other problem gamblers in this story, she asked that her last name be withheld. “I turned to gambling. There were new casinos up and coming in the Rochester area.
“The first couple of times I went, I thought ‘Ugh, why would anyone want to sit here pushing a button and putting pennies in a machine? But for whatever reason, maybe because it was an escape, I liked it more and more until I became enmeshed in it. So much that I couldn’t think of anything else.”
Soon enough, she had become one of an estimated seven million problem gamblers in the United States. Like many women, Michele favored the slot machines, the release that comes from sitting alone and pulling a lever and waiting for the bells to start ringing.
There were no clocks, no one judging her. Eventually, she returned to work; like many, she was a functioning addict. She’d drive to Canada or Niagara Falls to get her fix. But she grew distant from her family and found herself lying on the phone about her whereabouts.
One day, she was standing in the ladies’ room at the casino and saw one of those warnings attached to the wall. If you think you have a gambling problem, it read, call this 800 number to seek help.
“Of course I have a problem!” Michele screamed, cursing at the sign. “I have a problem. I do. What’s wrong with me?”
That was around Christmas, 2010. She was thousands of dollars in debt. She wasn’t much of a Catholic, but one morning she got out of bed and said, ‘Look God, I’m tired. I’m beat up. I’m giving it to you.’
A few days later, she walked into her house and her family was waiting to confront her. A classic intervention. Some addicts would be defiant. Michele felt like a weight had been lifted off her.
On Jan. 31, 2011, she went to her first Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Rochester. She has been attending her weekly Monday meeting ever since.
Jeffrey Wierzbicki hears a lot of these stories. He is the team leader for the Western Problem Gambling Resource Center. It’s part of the New York council, which has been in existence for 26 years and recently established regional gambling resource centers. The western region, which is headquartered in Williamsville, was the last to open.
“Our phone lines went live on August 1,” said Wierzbicki, who grew up in North Tonawanda. “We have a network of private practitioners we’ve recruited and trained. We have a direct line for clients and we link families and individuals with treatment. We’re also doing outreach and training for the Western New York area problem gambling, what it looks like, what the warning signs are and how to get treatment.”
“It’s a huge problem,” he said. “A huge problem.”
Wierzbicki said a recent UB study determined that there are more problem gamblers than alcoholics. He said problem gamblers have the highest suicide rate of any addiction. The New York Times estimates that $150 million is gambled illegally in this country, and legalized gambling has exploded over the years.
A recent study by UB’s Research Institute on Addictions found that living within 10 miles of a casino doubles one’s risk of becoming a problem gambler. The study also found that the problem can increase during teenage years and reach its highest level in the 20s and 30s.
They call gambling the “hidden” addiction. It’s not widely acknowledged, like alcohol and drug problems, though problem gamblers and experts will tell you it plays on the same pleasure receptors in the brain.
“Services are just not available for gambling like they are for other addictions,” Wierzbicki said. “That’s what we’re doing in this area now, trying to expand that network of services.”
Wierzbicki said he’s one of 36 program managers for the council around the state. There are currently two full-timers in the western section. That doesn’t seem like much when you consider the surge in gambling, with the attendant risks for addiction.
“With the increase in accessibility comes an increase in problems,” he said. “So if you make something more available that is potentially addictive, more people will become addicted and more problems will be caused.”
Casinos. State lotteries. Daily fantasy. Gambling has spread like a virus of the years. Two years ago Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law against sports betting. Virginia recently became the 22nd state to legalize sports betting. Several states, like New Jersey, have been up and running for months.
In New York, sports betting is currently allowed at certain casinos. Sports gambling came to Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino last December, and Seneca Gaming had plans to add sports betting at its casinos in Niagara Falls and Salamanca before the pandemic hit.
A bill to allow on-line sports gambling in New York has stalled in the legislature. Still, it seems only a matter of time before gamblers can bet on Bills and Sabres games on their phones, not to mention daily fantasy games that feed the gambling urge.
Arnie Wexler, the former director of the National Council for Compulsive Gambling, said legalized sports gambling would create “an epidemic of addicted gamblers.”
“Sports gambling is inevitable,” Wierzbicki said, “and it’s just going to increase the need.”
John knows all about the dangers of sports gambling. He was hooked for years. John says he started gambling in grammar school, flipping cards, then started betting on sports in high school. If Michele was the typical woman gambler, he was the stereotypical young male addict — an athlete who loved competition and came to live for the rush of the bet.
“Basically, I was betting on sports all day, every day, starting in college,” said John, who is now 46 and works in Rochester. “When on-line poker started, I played 10 hours a day for 10 to 15 years.”
He was decent at poker. The problem was, it wasn’t enough. He had to bet on sports, and he couldn’t stop. John showed his future wife how to gamble, so she would understand. That was fine, until gambling began to dominate his existence. Often, he would come home from his job at 5, then gambled for 10 hours straight.
“That’s all my life was,” he said. “All I cared about was my gambling, and being in action. It was all about the rush for me, the high.”
Carl D., another problem gambler from the Rochester area, confirmed that there’s a high from gambling that’s similar to what you would derive from opioids.
“I was at a conference last year where they looked at the brain’s response,” he said. “The chemical response to gambling is just like cocaine and heroin. It excites the same area.”
John said the high was accentuated when he was losing, because the danger was greater, the need to make up his losses by being smarter than the general sports-betting public more urgent.
“It was more exciting because I had to figure out how I was going to get more money,” he said, “how I was going to move money from this credit card to this card, from this bank to that account, pay one bookie and not pay another. I always had to figure out where I was going to get more money.”
Finally, after losing tens of thousands betting sports, he realized he’d had enough. The trigger was when they shut down online poker, his preferred game, in the U.S. If he could have stuck to poker, he might never have stopped. But he couldn’t resist betting sports, too.
“I’ll never forget the day,” he said. “It was April 15, 2011. It’s called Black Friday for poker. That next day, that Saturday night, I bet my last basketball game.
“That Sunday morning, I called the Gamblers Anonymous hotline and spoke to a gentleman who’s been one of my mentors ever since. I was crying on the phone the entire time, a half hour phone call.”
He went to his first meeting the next day. It was April 18, 2011, a few months after Michele showed up for the first time in Rochester. They all remember the exact date when they came clean, when they accepted they had a problem and began the 12-step recovery program created by Alcoholics Anonymous.
They also share that illuminating sense of recognition that comes from realizing there are others just like you.
“The most powerful thing for me was I heard stories,” said John, who had his only child, a 4-year-old son, since his recovery. “The most powerful thing was my sponsor’s story. When he told his story and how he gambled, I literally thought he was a plant. I thought my mom and wife planted him in the room, because his story was the exact thing I was doing at that time.”
“He was a sports gambler. He played poker. He had been clean a few years. I was like, ‘I’m in the right place. This guy is exactly like me’. I’ve been going to meetings every single Monday for the last nine years.”
Carl D. started gambling in casinos about 20 years ago, to get away from problems at home. His passion was Black Jack Spanish 21, a form of the game that’s supposedly more favorable to the player. He once sat at a card table for 14 hours without getting up.
Like the others from the Rochester group, Carl has a date emblazoned in his memory: Early on the morning of Dec. 28, 2009, after a tough night at the table, he walked out of Turning Stone with $8 to his name.
“I had gambled away the money I had set aside for my son’s first car,” he said. “I had to go home and break his heart. I gambled away the mortgage money. I was two months behind. My credit cards were maxed out. All my other lines of credit were maxed out. I didn’t have any place else to go.”
That same night, he went to his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting. He’s been going faithfully ever since.
“I never would have guessed in a million years how my life would change or how it would be now,” said Carl, now 62. “It was outside my experience to understand the serenity and peace of mind I have today.
“If I was to give any message to people, it would be that there is help and there is hope.”
All three of the Rochester addicts quit at around the same time, and they’re all still attending meetings. They have to go. The urge is always there for any addict, lurking beneath the surface. It pains them to see governments acquiesce to the gambling culture for supposed economic gain.
John wonders what it’s like for other gamblers during the pandemic. Are gamblers struggling with isolation, which is making it easier to bet? Wierzbicki said that with casinos and major sporting events shut down, it’s harder for gamblers to find action, or help if they need it. The GA meetings are currently being held on Zoom.
Of course, gamblers will find a way. There’s been a surge in betting on horse racing, which has remained open in many places. Gamblers are betting on Belarussian soccer, Russian ping pong, the weather, auto racing, even camel racing. As Carl pointed out, Turning Stone has on-line betting.
“If I was betting during this pandemic, I would literally be out of my mind,” John said, “because I would have nothing to bet on. It also might have helped me, because it would have helped me gamble less. But I probably would have found something else to bet on.
“But even if I did stop, as soon as stuff started again, I would have been right back at it, and just as crazy.”
If you have a gambling problem, you can contact: The Western Problem Gambling Resource Center at 716-833-4274 or wwwnyproblemgamblingHELP.org/western.