In our new Tell Your Story series, we’ll be featuring stories of those who have experienced or have been impacted by problem gambling.
Discovering the invisible. Read Renée’s story.
One of the first red flags arrived in a giant box. I remember coming home from work, walking up to the entrance of our home, and finding the surprise.
Standing on the threshold, I called out to my husband. “Joe, what’s this? We don’t need a new refrigerator!”
Except it wasn’t a refrigerator or a piece of furniture or bikes for the kids. It was a full-length fox fur coat for me, worth around $10,000 today.
Back then, the coat was mind-boggling. In retrospect, I realize what the coat was: another be-quiet gift. A gift to keep me quiet and gloss over Joe’s problem gambling.
Joe was a brilliant, successful criminal trial attorney. He would watch a game of Jeopardy and never miss a question. He graduated from a prestigious law school with many honors and distinctions. He was charming.
Sadly, some of these qualities transferred over to Joe’s problem gambling. Despite working as a family and marriage counselor and guiding countless individuals facing addictions, the invisibleness of problem gambling masked my knowledge of Joe’s troubles for years.
I knew that Joe gambled, but I didn’t realize the extent of its destruction. After a few years of marriage and a couple of kids, things were not adding up. We made a comfortable living between my work as a clinician and his law practice. Yet money seemed to disappear, and I sometimes worried about paying for groceries. Our family would go on an extravagant vacation one week, and the next, we would get a shut-off notice from the utility company. Joe wouldn’t come home for hours and wouldn’t answer his phone. However, all of his explanations seemed reasonable and rational.
That’s the challenge of problem gambling. There’s no smell, no stagger. Like Joe, many people who struggle setting limits gambling are bright, put-together, and articulate. At the time, my professional frame of reference focused on substance abuse. My colleagues and I likely saw symptoms of problem gambling, but we were not trained to treat them, let alone probe further.
While I couldn’t figure out what was going on, I knew that my life had turned into a series of mountains and valleys. My emotions went along with those vicissitudes as I saw the impact on my children. They loved spending time with their fun-loving, generous father. I was the dependable, boring parent they didn’t want to be around. Little did we know that his lavish gifts, like the fur coat, were often the result of stealing, embezzlement, or borrowing when his chips were down.
In unpacking our finances, I initially discovered $20,000 worth of debt. When I finished digging, our debts totaled over $750,000. That’s how well Joe had hidden everything.
I felt all kinds of anger when I found out Joe was a problem gambler: annoyed, irritable, livid, pissed off. Anger was not an emotion I was used to experiencing, but as the story unraveled, I felt angry all the time.
Joe did a lot of blaming when I confronted him. He wouldn’t have gambled if I were a better wife and mother. He wouldn’t have spent so much time at the casino if I had spent more time with him.
I tried to spend time gambling with him, which wasn’t the best plan. For Joe, an hour or two of gambling was just an appetizer. He could stay fixated for days sports betting, playing poker, following horse racing, and gambling on high-stakes stocks. When I suggested we leave, he only grew more resentful.
Our marriage crumbled. As a means of punishment for outing him, Joe cut me off from his bank accounts and started restricting my spending. He would leave me $20 to feed and entertain our six children by myself for a weekend. Joe and I divorced, and unfortunately, he passed away before he got the treatment he needed.
These days, I have a unique relationship with gambling: I am both a clinician and in recovery. For over 20 years, I have worked as a counselor with problem gamblers. I’m also married to Michael, who has been in recovery for 25 years. Michael has shown me the power of recovery. Having a committed partner who leans on the same strategies and tools to work through this process has been an absolute gift.
There are still times when I feel a tremendous amount of shame and embarrassment about Joe. I wish I would have seen the signs earlier and better protected my children from the consequences of his gambling problems. But I know I cannot dwell on these thoughts. I’ve gotten to know more problem gamblers in my practice and recovery journey. This disease remains invisible.
Continuing to raise awareness on how people, especially women, are impacted by problem gambling gives me peace. I encourage anyone with a family member or loved one struggling with problem gambling to trust your head, heart, and gut. Silence is not a good thing. Isolation is not a good thing. Reach out to someone at the Mass Council via secure LiveChat or by calling the GamLine at 1-800-GAM-1234, 24/7.