Guest Column: Dealing with compulsive gambling

Guest Column: Dealing with compulsive gambling

By Paul Gutowski

Problem and compulsive gambling is an issue that, based on research conducted over the last 30 years, directly affects at least 1.5 percent of the general population, or at least 4,500 people in the immediate Rockford area. The State of Illinois Web site related to compulsive gambling estimates 170,000 people in the state have a gambling problem. These numbers do not include family members, friends or employers that are affected.

These numbers may seem high, but this is a problem that is pretty easy to hide initially. There is no smell on their clothes or their breath and no staggering walk in public. Much of the behavior can take place when no one the person knows is around.

There appear to be two basic types, the “escape” gambler and the “action” gambler. The action gambler is the gambler who gets a “rush” very like the kind of “high” some people get from alcohol or drug use, and this feeling action gamblers report is verified by brain chemical and neurological tests that have been done over the years. Action gamblers enjoy that rush or high to the point that it affects the choices they make in their lives, and those choices become increasingly risky to themselves and others.

For the escape gambler, gambling keeps everyone and all the problems that may be out there on the job, at home or someplace else far away.

Some of this would fit to some degree lots of people who gamble who aren’t doing it compulsively. Lots of people like the action and excitement of a big win. Lots of other people like to “tune out” a little bit by dropping coins in a slot machine rather than watching TV or reading some book. So how do we distinguish between the two? When are these actions a problem?

It is easy to define the problem in specific if not exactly clinical terms; “Is the person gambling more than they can afford to lose?” Is the gambling causing any kind of noticeable problem with anyone involved? (This is not necessarily about money; some families feel the loss of the gambler when he/she’s not home, for example, even if the gambler’s not losing very much yet.) Does the gambler seem to be having fun anymore?

For the compulsive gambler, quitting while they’re ahead makes no sense whatsoever. It’s like expecting the alcoholic to stop drinking when there’s a perfectly good 12-pack of beer, nice and cold and sitting in the fridge; to the compulsive gambler, there is no reason to stop until the gambler absolutely can’t play anymore.

It’s important to keep in mind that there are early and middle stages in problem and compulsive behavior, stages that are not as extreme (yet), but the stage is set nonetheless. The key is to deal with a problem in its early stages before the damage is too great.

Help is available in several ways. Gamblers can learn how to stop and stay stopped. Family members and friends can learn what to do to help without helping too much and making things worse. Employers, EAP professionals, credit counselors and bankruptcy attorneys, among others, can learn what concerns and warning signs to look for in an individual. Since the average amount of money compulsive gamblers lose in the U.S. is easily more than $5,000, getting help sooner rather than later is a good, safe investment in a healthier future for all involved.

Paul Gutowski is the director of the Kishwaukee Valley Center in Rockford. He has worked with clients and their compulsive behaviors for more than 11 years and is internationally certified to work with problem and compulsive gamblers.

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