It’s another loud, racy night at the casino. The moment Jack walks in he feels on top of the world, and his heart begins to beat as fast as the slot machine lights flickering in the background. This is where he belongs, and tonight is the night. Tonight he is going to win enough to pay all his other gambling debts. He’ll win enough to solve his problems, and take his wife out for a night on the town. He doesn’t have to think twice about it. He just knows.

Hours later it’s all over. He walks out the doors into the warm night, feeling numb. He’d just lost over $30,000, the last bit he and his wife had in savings. As he stumbles to his car he decides to stop thinking about it. He’ll figure out later how he is going to explain the loss to his wife. His mind is already clicking ahead to next time, figuring out how he is going to get enough money to come back and win.

Jack’s story is typical of a pathological gambler. While years ago problem gambling used to be a relatively isolated phenomenon, today it’s rapidly growing. Some form of legalized gambling is available in 48 states, and with the advent of online gambling sites the addiction can manifest itself anywhere.

The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) estimates that 85% of Americans have gambled at least once in their life, and they stress that most people control their tendency to gamble very well. The ones that don’t, however, comprise roughly 4% of the population. Those are the ones whose gambling causes problems. The average gambler in Gambler’s Anonymous will accumulate debts between $35,000 to $92,000 before they seek help, and the disease is costing the national economy almost $54 billion each year in lost work time, family hardship, and increased crime.

There are two types of gambling addiction: problem and pathological. Problem gambling is the milder, although still serious, of the two. Many consider it the first step towards the more dangerous pathological gambler. A problem gambler will feel less interest in things he or she used to find enjoyment in, will think about gambling more than normal, and fail to stop even when significant amounts start getting lost. The NCPG estimates that between 4 and 8 million people are problem gamblers.

If left unchecked, problem gambling can turn into pathological gambling, the often debilitating stage often marked by very serious consequences. Pathological gambling is diagnosed by distortions in thinking such as over-confidence, denial, or a sense of power, increased tendencies towards competitiveness and restlessness, and overly generous behavior to the point of mania or extravagance. This type of gambler often “chases” their losses, coming back with increased frequency to gamble and win.

Pathological gambling can lead to financial ruin, job loss, divorce, and even suicide. The NCPG estimates that roughly 2 million Americans meet the criteria for pathological gambling.

Most experts agree that gambling addiction is a progressive disease, much like drug and alcohol abuse. There are 4 distinct stages: Winning, Losing, Desperation, and Helplessness.

The first stage of Winning is the “fun” stage. The gambler focuses on the high of winning, while completely minimizing or ignoring the losses. Over-confidence and optimism starts to manifest itself in this stage, and monetary bets are increased. The gambler may frequently brag of their wins, and soon finds that it takes a bigger “win” to keep their high each time. This stage can last for months or years.

The second stage of Losing is marked by an unpredictable losing streak. The gambler can’t stop gambling, and “chases” their losses in order to win it all back. They start to borrow money from friends and family to bail them out of their debts. Their home and family life will start to be effected as their thoughts turn more and more to gambling. Their behavior will become more irritable and restless.

When the gambler starts using their “bailout loan” in order to gamble even more this will usually indicate the Desperation phase. Their options are getting very limited, their family and friends are alienated and distant, and the gambler might resort to illegal behavior such as fraud, theft, or embezzlement to get money in order to feed the addiction.

Finally, the Helplessness phase is marked by divorce, arrest, major depression and substance abuse. Estimates indicate that roughly 15-25% of gamblers commit suicide when they reach this stage.

If you suspect that you or someone you know has a gambling problem, you can use the following questions to determine an addiction.

  • Is there a high or sense of euphoria when gambling?
  • Is the gambler forgoing family or work time in order to gamble?
  • Is the gambler bragging about wins but ignoring losses?
  • Is the gambler continuing to gamble in spite of problems with family or work over the behavior?
  • Have you detected mood swings, such as an extreme “high” when winning and a “low” when losing?
  • Is the gambler spending more and more time gambling, and spending more money than originally planned?

A “yes” to any of these questions may indicate a gambling addiction, and it’s important to seek help as soon as possible. It’s much easer to treat while in the earlier stages of the disease.

Just like in any addiction, the chances of success are much higher if you join a support group and communicate with others who are going through the same recovery process. Joining Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org) is a great way to get support through others online. Many states also have local treatment centers you can turn to for help as well. These are often listed in the phone book or can be found online.

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