"I Gambled Away Our Life Savings"

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The Counselor's Turn

Anchoring Oneself

"To answer Rob's question, I explained that the major cause of compulsive gambling is a sense of loss," said the counselor. "In Janet's case, one loss was the exciting lifestyle of a globetrotting Navy spouse. Another was the departure of her kids for college. And a third was the beginning of menopause and thus the end of her reproductive years. Compulsive gambling, also known as pathological gambling, is defined as an impulse control disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And for the first time, women are afflicted as often as men, a trend that began in the '70s, when women joined the workforce and established their own lines of credit and some economic independence. Here in Nebraska we grapple constantly with the problem because of our proximity to legal casinos right across the Missouri River in Iowa.

"A standard evaluation during my first session with Janet revealed that she had most of the symptoms of the disorder, including a preoccupation with ways to get money to gamble; a need for the stakes to rise to ever-greater levels in order to get a high; unsuccessful attempts to control her gambling; restlessness and irritability when she attempted to cut down or stop; temporary relief of guilt, anxiety, and depression while gambling; and lying to conceal the extent of her addiction. What's more, she relied on her husband to pay her debts. And unless a gambler simultaneously gets appropriate help, a well-meaning spouse who bails out a gambler becomes an 'enabler,' allowing the gambler to start again with a clean slate.

"True, Janet did go to Gamblers Anonymous. I recommend such groups as a supplement to counseling, but they don't work for everyone, and they didn't for Janet. My colleagues and I use a different approach. We teach gamblers to recognize their personal triggers and to learn to resist the urge. For Janet the triggers were anger (at her in-laws, for instance), boredom, and a sense of uselessness. With Rob's support, she mastered the techniques I gave her for controlling her triggers.

"Janet's favorite technique is the Niagara Falls metaphor. 'I envision myself being thrown in the water at the top of the Falls and then being able to toss out an anchor so I don't get swept over,' she said. 'My triggers -- being angry or frustrated or bored -- can put me at the top of the Falls. So now I mentally toss out an anchor. Mine is that I don't want to destroy my precious husband and children, or myself, by succumbing to the urge to gamble. I never again want to feel like I should drive my car off a bridge.'

"Not all spouses are as open to counseling as Rob turned out to be and, fortunately, he could absorb their financial loss, albeit at the expense of his dream of spending his golden years in Hawaii. But losing those hard-earned savings left him deeply resentful. To his credit, he was eager to get rid of his negative feelings and move on. To that end, I helped Rob understand that Janet missed the excitement of their travels and that she had felt lonely and bored while he watched TV or visited his family. After hearing this, Rob made every effort to spend time with Janet in pleasurable activities. They took up golf, which they both now enjoy, and joined a square dance club. This new companionship with her husband went a long way toward helping Janet control her urge to gamble.

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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