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Wheel of fortune
     
Each year in Australia millions of dollars are fed into poker machines and spent on lotto entries and scratchies. While this spending spree on gambling helps fill government coffers, it comes as yet another cost to society and the individual gambler.

Nisar Keshvani speaks to one such gambler, Damien M., who has decided enough is enough and shares his on-going battle against the addiction.

Damien's (not his real name) life seems ordinary enough. In his early 40s, he has a comfortable apartment, a well-paying job and close friends.

It is difficult to imagine however that Damien was a compulsive gambler and has struggled with this addiction since he was 13, when he placed his first bet on a horse with his uncle and a cousin. That was 31 years ago.

Since then, his mum passed away, he won and lost thousands including money she had left him and he was married with three children.

Gone are the days when he comes home to his loving wife for a nice warm meal and watch his kids having fun at the playground.



"My wife bailed me out so many times that after 17 years she decided to call it quits. I would always promise that I'd give up, snip my bank cards in front of her. And I really meant it. But somehow the next day I would be at the bank applying for a replacement card and back to the races. I just had this uncontrollable urge."

"Gambling cost me my marriage," Damien said.

"My wife bailed me out so many times that after 17 years she decided to call it quits. I would always promise that I'd give up, snip my bank cards in front of her. And I really meant it. But somehow the next day I would be at the bank applying for a replacement card and back to the races. I just had this uncontrollable urge."

His urge has been so overwhelming he recalls taking a $10,000 loan to purchase a car from Sydney when he first got married. Along the way, he stopped off at a small town and gambled all his money away.

Fortunately he managed to recoup his losses and returned with a car. However lady luck has not always been smiling over the years. "I can be whistling and dreaming of a big win one minute and the next I can be walking out of TAB with empty pockets and kicking the ground with my head between my legs," Damien said.

"I could be down to my last dollar and not even worry about saving some money for the cab fare home. Gambling releases all my pressures and I can't think of anything else when I am betting. I get a rush of adrenaline and it's euphoric."
Over the past 20 years, the amount spent on gambling by an adult Queenslander has almost tripled. In 1995 - 96, each adult spent $630 gambling adding to a total of $8623 million wagered in clubs, pubs, casinos and on lotteries in Queensland alone. Gambling in Australia has grown to an 80 billion dollar industry.

Allan Soares, senior supervisor of Break Even Queensland, a counseling service formed to help people addicted to gambling, says it affects people of all ages and from all walks of life.

"We see people from as young as 15 and up to 80 years old. Some are reasonably well-off while others are below the poverty line," he said.

"Most gamblers are chasing losses and may have work-related or family problems. Instead of feeling down at home, they are charmed by the bright lights and music at clubs and casinos. Gambling becomes a temporary form of escapism and many dream of cutting a huge win or winning the lotto. It's a loop of emotions, dreams and feelings that is very difficult to get out of."

Remorse, guilt, shame and even suicide were everyday thoughts for Damien.

"It's been an emotional struggle for me. I was always dreaming of a big win then buying a huge house for my wife and think I would give up for good after that," he said.

"It was like a merry-go-round. Sure I made some money but I lost it and was back to thinking how I could get more money to gamble. I could lose everything, live on vegemite sandwiches, make a big win and it'll be steaks for the next few days and back again to vegemite. Money lost its value and I started thinking of it in unit terms and how many bets I could place with it."

Money has changed its form since then and Damien has realised gambling is a progressive illness that began with his first bet. He feels that he has grown up since giving up gambling.



"It was like a merry-go-round ... I could lose everything, live on vegemite sandwiches, make a big win and it'll be steaks for the next few days and back again to vegemite. Money lost its value and I started thinking of it in unit terms and how many bets I could place with it."


"I stopped growing emotionally since I was 13. Gambling took my mind off problems and I always fled from them. Today I feel better and can finally lead an honest life," he said.

"No more lies, stealing from my wife and kids. The turning point came when my mum passed away and I gambled all the money she left me. I felt suicidal and guilty."

That was a year ago. Since then Damien signed up with the Salvation Army's bridging programme and went through a 30-week rehabilitation course to overcome his addiction.




Money has changed its form since then and Damien has realised gambling is a progressive illness that began with his first bet. He feels that he has grown up since giving up gambling.


According to Soares, support is important for an addict to recover. It could be help from his or her family, close friends, professional counseling or support groups like Gamblers Anonymous (GA).

Recovering addict Graham (not his real name) who is seeing a counselor at Break Even feels he has been fortunate.

"I lost my family but I am thankful that my employers have been very understanding. Gambling was just part of the problem," he said.

"I lost a huge chunk of my money and my family. It got so bad that I suffered from depression and had to spend a bit of time in hospital. My employers understood and I am thankful I still have my job".

Recovery for Damien also came in another form - GA, he attended support group meetings regularly to stay away from the vice. They are not new to him though. He has been in and out of them since he first came to Brisbane in 1977.

"That was my first taste of the meeting. I recognize that one has to put in a hundred per cent to truly benefit from GA," Damien said.

"I wasn't serious back then. I would quit gambling for a couple of months and once I stopped going, it was back to the horses. I picked up skills courses at TAFE and today I am active with GA and try to help others. We call, support and motivate each other. I live each day as it comes and it's one more day away from another first bet."

For Damien's life to return to the ordinary, he feels there is one missing gap that needs to be filled - his family. He hopes one day that his wife forgives him, and he can sit down with her and his three children to discuss his addiction openly.
     

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