Ex-gambler: The need to win fuels addiction

Robert P. is banned from entering Paradise Casinos. If he is caught, he will be kicked out. But he doesn't plan to return because he was the one who banned himself from the casino in the first place.

Robert P. a compulsive gambler in recovery from Yuma who insisted on anonymity, said he thought enough was enough and walked into the casino, asked to be escorted to the security guard's office and filled out the self-ban paperwork. The last time he gambled was in 2004.

"At one time I was $50,000 in credit card debt, making minimum payments and barely keeping my head above water," Robert P. said. "My head was so screwed up I thought I had it under control."

Now, he helps run Gamblers Anonymous in Yuma. The group usually has about 10 members. When winter rolls around, the group has up to 20 members.

"We like to joke that we are the only people that have a gambling addiction, but there are a lot of people that have gambling addictions in this town and they're like the functioning alcoholics. The guy that goes to work everyday and holds a steady job and takes care of his family and everything but he's an alcoholic," Robert P. said.

Gamblers Anonymous is based on the attraction rather than promotion, he said. They provide a place where somebody who wants to quit gambling can come to find help. "The biggest problem is that you really, really, really, want to," Robert P. said.

In Arizona, a total of 690 specific calls were made to the Arizona Department of Gaming Office of Problem Gambling during the fiscal year from July 2007 through June 2008. Thirty-eight of them were callers from Yuma County, according to Arizona Helpline Statistics.

Peter Mangan, senior lecturer in psychology that specializes in neuro-cognitive development at Northern Arizona University-Yuma, said that there is strong evidence that indicates that gambling addiction should be treated just as if it were a drug addiction.

"The drug user uses it to relieve tension or to increase emotions and what gamblers do is they expect the potential reward that keeps them gambling," Mangan said. "One of the things that is found is when they win, the levels of a neuro-transmitter called dopamine, increases dramatically and dopamine is the principal transmitter that activates these pleasure centers of the brain.

"Anytime you go way above what is the norm, the opponent process goes through and then you go into depression. So now people have to gamble in order to escape depression," he said. "So it's not just that they want to win, they need to win to overcome the depression that falls after the euphoria wears off. But there are numerous different kinds of factors and reinforcement such as simple classical Pavlovian conditioning that adds to the gambling addiction."

Robert P. said it's getting easier for people to gamble but it's not the prevalence of gambling establishments but the person. "When I first started the GA program, I said to myself if the casinos weren't there I wouldn't have a problem...well if they weren't there I'd still have a problem and just find a way to do it any other way," he said.

Between the Arizona Tribal/State compacts, the Arizona Department of Gaming established a self-exclusion (self ban) procedure. It allows an individual to ban himself/herself from all casinos in Arizona for a specified period of time.

Liz Pratt, communications director for the Cocopah Indian Tribe, said the Cocopah Casino offers the self-exclusion program and a helpline is posted at every entrance in the casino.

"If a person volunteers to be admitted to the self-exclusion program, the casino will abide by the person's wishes and will do everything that they can to make sure that they keep to their promise of their self-exclusion," Pratt said.

Barrett DeFay, marketing director for Paradise Casino, said the casinos also have self-ban documentation available at Paradise Casino for those who believe they need to seek help.

"The casino and tribe are happy to contribute money through the state of Arizona gaming compact every year and we proudly support Arizona Next Step (helpline) ," DeFay said. " We believe all people should gamble responsibly and practice responsible gaming."

Usually seeking help is the most difficult step a person can do, says Robert P., but over time every person has a potential to build a tough exterior from relapsing.

"It's a way of life and the most successful people in the program have discussed that the only way to stay in the program is if they treat gambling like any other addiction," he said.

For more information on how to seek help if you are a gambling addict or know someone who has a gambling addiction please call the Arizona helpline at 1-800 NEXT STEP or visit www.problemgambling.az.gov.

Stephanie Sanchez can be reached at ssanchez@yumasun.com or 539-6847.

Intro phase characteristics:
• Several small or even large monetary winning episodes. Although money is usually secondary for escape gamblers, they may see gambling as a way to solve financial difficulties, become financially independent or make extra money.
• Emotional escape from life's problems may be experienced while in the act of gambling.
• Excitement and living on the edge is another feeling that may be present.
Losing /chasing characteristics:
• Losses are rationalized as bad luck with the "big win" right around the corner
• The cycle of wining, losing and breaking even begins
• No win is "enough"
• Wagers increase
• Hides gambling activities
• Lies to cover money spent
• Unsuccessfully attempts to limit or stop gambling
• Gambles until last dollar is gone
• Sells items to finance gambling
• Feels remorse after gambling
• Angry when confronted about gambling
• Receives bailout
Desperation Phase:
• Obsessed with gambling
• Neglects physical well-being
• Loses reputation
• Loses Friends and/or family
• Commits illegal acts related to gambling including embezzlement, theft, bad checks, insurance or credit card fraud
• Relapses into previous addiction(s)
• Loses car
• Has frequent thoughts of suicide
Hopeless Phase:
• Risks possible incarceration
• Approaches emotional breakdown
• Faces financial ruin
• Attempts suicide
Source: Adapted from "Four Phases of Escape Gambling," Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling