How does it feel to have a gambling problem?

How do I know if I have a gambling problem?

If you’ve got to the point where you’re asking this question, it’s likely you or others around you have become aware that gambling has started to affect your life in a negative way. And as someone who has been there puts it in the interview below, “if you would be embarrassed or ashamed to tell someone about your gambling habits, then that might be a fair indication that it is not at a positive level for you”.

That said, even those who aren’t spending a lot of time and money on gambling can experience problematic issues with it, or aspects of it, which still deserve serious consideration before they become serious, as we discuss here

To stay aware of your gambling, and to help curb it if you decide you need support, bookmakers, gambling support bodies and banks have introduced a number of tools. However, if you decide you would like to stop completely and need further help – or would simply like to talk to someone in an environment where you know you can be honest without fear of being judged – there are many services you can reach out to. They include GamCareBeGambleAware and Gamblers Anonymous among many others. The number for the National Gambling Helpline is 0808 8020 133.

Life with a gambling problem

What does it feel like, and why should you speak up? To answers those questions and lots more, we spoke to someone who struggled with a gambling problem for several years, hiding it from employers and friends, before deciding to get out of the gambling culture.

Q&A on gambling addiction

What got you into betting?

I used to go into the bookies, initially for really small stakes football coupon bets, when I started university. I played a lot of poker at the same time, but only really started betting on sports online when I started writing and broadcasting about horseracing.

How did you actually feel when you were gambling?

That depends on how it was going! Most of the time I enjoyed the challenge of trying to get one over on the bookies and the arrogant triumphant feeling when you did. But I was never any good at stopping, so even when I would be up, I’d usually keep on betting until I’d lost any profit or worse.

What did you tell yourself was your motivation to bet? And what do you believe was your actual motivation?

I liked betting, so that was why I did it. It would happen more frequently when I was either bored, busy or frustrated/upset by totally unrelated events elsewhere, which obviously covers quite a lot of scenarios. I’d just think f*** it, I’ve earned this right to waste my money if I want to.

What was the point at which you realised it was getting out of hand?

There were several times over the years when it came to a head, usually when I’d suffered heavier losses than usual, or when I’d realise I needed to stop before it went too far. But some of my problem was that I’d usually realise in time, limiting damage as a result, and making it easy enough to cover with the next few wage packets etc. But the final time, when I decided I had to get help, was when I lost a load on Royal Ascot – and I don’t even like flat racing really. It was less than three months after my son was born and I thought that maybe my problem was more serious than I had given it credit for, and I was very upset and frustrated at myself for not being able to control it.

How long did you carry on, knowing it was an issue?

Probably at least five years. I’d managed to have long periods (six months plus) without betting before, which probably helped me believe that I could control it, but deep down I knew that I didn’t have enough willpower. I didn’t properly address it for several reasons, the most notable being that I generally only wasted my own money which I thought of as spare. I didn’t buy clothes, didn’t waste money elsewhere and so I felt that I had a right to do as I wanted with it. I also enjoyed working in a sporting environment where betting is prevalent, and it was all part of the appeal of the job.

Were there any times where you knew you were sacrificing real-life occasions because of your gambling?

Not really, because I would nearly always set money aside, or borrow off accommodating friends if I needed to. But I did feel like I was sacrificing my family life, mainly because I was spending too much time watching sport (mainly racing) or studying the form when I was supposed to be being a good dad. Fatherhood was something that I’d wanted for a long time, but I felt I was making a real pig’s ear of it.

What sparked you to walk away? Were you successful the first time?

Nope, there were probably three earlier occasions where I told my girlfriend and dad about my issues, with promises to stop, but each time I’d find an excuse to start betting again somewhere down the line. The key factor to my (so far) successful beating of gambling, which is what it feels like really, was stopping working in the industry. I really believe that I could not do what I’ve done if I wasn’t lucky enough to be able to quit and do something very different. Being surrounded by sport, and the strong commercial betting atmosphere that surrounds a lot of sport, was just too tempting for me. It’s nearly a year since I had a bet, and I know that if I keep going like this then I won’t have many problems, but the test will come if I decide that I am ‘cured' enough to manage betting at live sporting events in the future. I still love the Cheltenham Festival, and want to go again in the future, but I need to know that I’m not going to jeopardise all the hard work that my family and I have put in.

Did you need any help from anyone else?

Yep a lot, but the desire to quit has to come from the person with the problem. After sending my resignation letter, I did some research online and rang a helpline* and they arranged a set of 10 free sessions with a local counsellor. Those were a great help to me, just talking through how I got to where I was and the steps to take to ensure that I would be less likely to fall back into old destructive habits. Another key aspect for me was telling everyone. When I’d quit before, I’d kept it a secret, of course my mates knew I liked a bet but I don’t think many realised the extent of the problem or how much it affected my mood. When I told everyone, even though conversations with work colleagues, family and in-laws, and friends were often very difficult and emotional, each and every one of them helped. And each one got easier. No one judged me, at least not to my face, and I felt very lucky to have that support. And once you’ve told one person, it’s surprisingly easy to tell more!

*You can call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or get help online from the likes of  GamCareBeGambleAware and Gamblers Anonymous.

Were any of the measures put in place by bookmakers helpful to you?

Not especially. I think the banks getting involved with bans on deposits to bookmakers is great, and would have saved me both money and mental anguish over the years if it had come in earlier/I had found out about it earlier. But deposit limits are only of limited use, as some people with gambling problems have enough active accounts to be able to cope with spreading liability around and also using one account whilst they wait for another 24-hour period on deposit increases to expire. I don’t think self-exclusion and account breaks have the intended impact. In my experience it just forces people to look elsewhere for marginal bookmakers that have worse prices and poor standards of customer/technical service. I’ve also been able to open duplicate accounts in the past, as well as reopen old accounts on which my betting patterns should clearly have shown that I had a problem.

Do you ever miss it? What do you do to remind yourself not to go back to it?

I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would, and I certainly don’t miss watching all-weather racing on an evening trying to claw back losses. I miss the buzz of an office full of (generally) like-minded people, and the feeling of having a big winner when people are around, but I’m really aware that I got out of that way of life at a crucial time for me. Apart from screaming kids, my life has improved and I feel a lot prouder of both the work that I’m doing now and the person that my family get to see every day. I don’t really need to remind myself not to go back to it, as it seems a distant life to what I have now, but the whole process made me more aware of what I can and can’t do, and the years have shown me that I can’t have my cake and eat it. My family is much more important than trying to beat a bookmaker.

What would you say to someone who’s questioning their gambling habits?

That’s hard really, as my only real success at quitting gambling has come after several failed attempts. I would probably say that if you would be embarrassed or ashamed to tell someone about your gambling habits, then that might be a fair indication that it is not at a positive level for you.

Finally, what advice would you give to those who haven’t questioned their gambling habits?

Again that’s hard for me to answer. I was both fortunate and unfortunate in a way, because I had a financially secure background, but that also led me to the feeling that what I was doing wasn’t really doing much harm. But in reality it was bringing me down, and along with a job role that wasn’t as fulfilling as it should have been (a lot of my time at work involved a moral struggle as I was being asked to promote betting), I just wasn’t being as good a human as I wanted to be. Now I don't bet anymore and am working for myself doing a much more satisfying job, so life seems more enjoyable. If you bet often and are comfortable doing that, and it doesn’t negatively impact on you or those around you, then it isn’t a problem. But I feel like bookmakers could do more to treat customers as humans with frailties rather than this unicorn betting creature. Historically, as they make money from people betting, you’re effectively asking them to choose a less profitable option, and history has shown that safer gambling and bookmakers have not always been comfortable bedfellows.