September 22, 2019

What if you hold a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and no one comes?

A small group of people suffering from gambling disorder in Traverse City are grappling with that question.
By Patrick Sullivan | Feb. 2, 2019

For the handful of people who regularly attend Traverse City’s twice-weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings, something is amiss: New people rarely show up, and when they do, they almost always drop out after just a meeting or two.

“So many people come for a week or month and then they disappear,” said one GA member who has been a part of the group and resisted gambling for 15 years. (He asked to remain completely anonymous for fear that revealing even his first name might put his anonymity at risk.) “You know, we have casinos all around us. And I know ’em all, because I’ve been there. And yet we only have from three to five or six people, maybe, on a regular basis.”

George, let’s call him, said he’s baffled why more people aren’t seeking help, because he suspects that given all of the opportunities to gamble in northern Michigan, it’s causing trouble in a lot of people’s lives.

“We’ve had people come in here and express themselves, they read the 20 questions [to identify problem gambling], they might answer yes to 17 out of 20, and they’re here for a few weeks. Maybe they think they’re cured, I don’t know,” he said. “And you never see them again.”
George first sought help for gambling addiction at the insistence of his brother in October 2002. In the first months, he would attend GA meetings, but he still gambled. That’s not uncommon for people who are first trying to quit.

But George said he resolved to actually stop gambling in March 2004, and since then he’s stuck with GA, going to meetings every week, even after he moved to the United Kingdom to take a teaching job. George has since moved back to Traverse City, and he said he’s living a happy life. Nevertheless, after all these years, he said ge needs to keep going to meetings in order to control his addiction. Nowadays, he finds satisfaction in helping others who are new to GA.

Trouble is, new faces are rare.

At a recent Monday meeting at the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, there were just two in-person attendees: George and a reporter. One more person joined through a video call.
Even the numbers of regular attendees cited by George overstates the number of people who actually go to GA in Traverse City. Of the handful of people at the meetings, typically two or three of them video call from elsewhere. Two of them call from the U.K., where they met George at meetings over there. Another one calls from a remote town in northern Canada that doesn’t have its own GA meetings. Out of desperation, a woman there learned about the Traverse City meeting on a gambling-addiction message board and contacted George.

Locally, that just leaves two or three people who regularly attend meetings.

“We’ve had at least hundreds of people go through this program, but they never stick around. Why is that?” George asked. “Things aren’t bad enough? They have enough money?”
That George has been in the program and successful for 15 years is a great asset for the Traverse City group. It means he can shepherd newcomers and help them watch out for hidden dangers.

Some of those might seem obvious only once you’ve learned them. For instance, people who are addicted to gambling and trying to stop should not have access to money.
“You can’t have money,” George said. “You just can’t. I had somebody manage my money for the first couple of years.”

George recalls that in his early years attending GA, there were no seasoned old timers with years of non-gambling under their belt to lead the group. It was a group of people who were more or less new, and they helped each other along.

“There wasn’t really any experience around the table; people were in and out in and out in and out,” he said.

If there were few people around the table then, it seems to George, there are even fewer today.

It’s a mystery why more people are not seeking treatment for gambling addiction, said Christopher Hindbaugh, executive director of Addiction Treatment Services in Traverse City.

“Gambling addiction is a bit of a mystery for us as well,” Hindbaugh said in an email. “A couple of years ago the state made a big push to get more therapists certified, set up a hotline and referral process, etc., but alas, the phone never rang. We rarely get a call/email about gambling.”

Nonetheless, Hindbaugh said, he knows there are people who struggle with gambling, because it often comes up during therapy with substance abuse counsellors.
“In other words, it is often a co-occurring concern, but people rarely seek treatment just for gambling issues here,” he said.

Susan Kramer, behavioral health manager at Munson Medical Center, said people rarely seek gambling addiction treatment at the hospital, but when they do, Munson has two specialists who can offer outpatient therapy.

“It kind of ebbs and flows,” Kramer said. “I would not say that it’s a common request, and it probably is very underreported and underserved.”

It’s not just Traverse City that seems to underachieve when it comes to GA attendance. George said he remembers that a decade ago, there used to be weekly GA meetings in Gaylord and Petoskey. Those meetings are no more.
Some people use GA to get through rough patches. They attend when they’ve run out of money, and they bide their time until they can gamble again, George said. He recalls one woman who openly discussed how she planned to leave the program and gamble again once she was back on her feet.

“I know of one person who said, ‘I just want to gamble. I love it so much, but I just can’t right now. So I’ll come to GA,” he said.

Although it might seem counterproductive, that attitude is OK and within the rules of GA. People who attend meetings, then falter and gamble are welcomed back. That’s where George was in his first 18 months in GA, though for him it wasn’t a premeditated plan to use the program as a break.

“People helped me out. I mean, the first year and a half, I was really just floating around,” George said.

George can also recall the faces of two people who he’s gotten to know through GA who left the program, returned to gambling, spun out of control, and took their own lives.

Despite all of this, George isn’t opposed to gambling, per se. He understands that for some people, it’s an entertaining activity that does not become all-consuming, that doesn’t undermine the fabric of their being.

“I’m not a person waving banners about it, but I know the destruction,” he said. “Look. it’s a pleasurable thing to do, and I know there are a lot of people out there who enjoy going to the casino, and they go there with maybe their 30 bucks, and that’s all they spend.”
At a more well-attended Traverse City GA meeting, on a Thursday in December, the group consisted of three in-person attendees including George (and a reporter) and three more who attended remotely via video.

Gamblers Anonymous began decades ago in California when two gambling addicts met by chance, found solace in discussing their problems with one another, and realized that a program based on the 12 steps from Alcoholics Anonymous could help them.

Their idea was featured in a newspaper and on television news, and the first GA meeting took place in September 1957 in Los Angeles.

At that December meeting in Traverse City, the group was discussing “step nine,” which is the step that calls for making amends to those people who have been wronged.
That led to some heavy discussion.

George led the discussion. When he tells his story, you can tell that it’s beaten a well-worn trail through its repeated telling over the years. He recalled confessing to his mother that he had stolen from her. He recounted how he apologized to his brother. He lamented how, at his worst, his gambling had taken away his ability to be a good teacher, but that tracking down and making amends to old students had never seemed appropriate.

“When I was teaching school, I’d get out of school about four o’clock or so, and obviously head to the casino,” George said. “I might be there all night. I might sleep in my car because it was too stormy. I always had an extra set of clothing so that I could get up, you know, wherever I was at, and go back to teaching at 6:30 or 7 in the morning. That’s the kind of life I had those last few years of my teaching career. And it wasn’t pretty.”
In some circumstances, amends may be inappropriate. In others, they are impossible.

Barbara, not her real name, who calls in from Canada, said she cannot apologize to the people she wants to apologize to most — her son and daughter-in-law.

Because Barbara lives hours from the nearest casino, she turned to online gambling in 2005. By 2007, she had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from her employer.
She decided to confess and was charged with a crime and sent to jail.

While Barbara’s case was pending, she started a GA group in her small town, and numerous people came, looking for help. Once her case hit the local newspaper, however, people stopped coming to her GA meetings. They didn’t want to be associated with GA for practical reasons, she said.

“Some of the members that were coming to those meetings were doing the same things I had done, but they hadn’t come forward,” she said.
Amid criminal charges, jail, and publicity, a decade ago Barbara was forced to get clean without the help of GA, through therapy and commitment to staying away from betting.
And that worked.

Until it didn’t.

When Barbara recently relapsed, the episode almost ended in suicide.

She survived, but felt she couldn’t continue resisting the urge to gamble; she felt she needed the community of a GA group. That’s when she found the Traverse City GA group.
At the meeting in December, over an iPhone, Barbara cried as she described how gambling had ruined her relationship with her son, under whose name she’d taken out a credit card.

“You know, I know I have to make further amends to my son and his wife, but at this point, with the criminal charges and such, I just don’t think it’s the right time to try to approach them,” she said. “And as far as the other family members on my husband’s side, none of them want to have anything to do with me, see me or talk to me. … The ones that hurt the most and the ones that I know I really need to talk to are my son and his wife, and I just don’t think that’s ever going to be a possibility. So, step nine, I struggle with.”
George advised her that it’s possible that if enough time passes, one day she might be able to repair some of her relationships.

The other in-person member of the group, whomwe’ll call Frank, said he was able to repair his relationship with his wife, but not with some of the rest of his family.

“I am blessed enough to have wife that is very forgiving and still with me,” Frank said. “I’ve got two boys who are actually proud of me for taking full ownership and continuing to move forward and not gambling since 2012.”

Frank noted, though, that for a gambling addict, sometimes amends doesn’t mean saying sorry. Sometimes it means paying back large sums of money, and that can be a struggle.
“The financial to me isn’t near as obtainable as the trust and stuff that I broke with my wife and my friends and family and employer,” Frank said.

He said some people in his wife’s family have come to believe that he is a bad person, and they told him they would never forgive him. He doesn’t see himself that way, as a bad person. Rather, he sees himself as a good person who did some bad things.

“You can’t force people to forgive you,” Frank said. “You can obviously show them that you are a changed person. You can apologize until you’re blue in the face. But you can’t control what they do. We can only control what we do.”

Today, Frank said he is completely committed to remaining gambling free, to the point that he’ll remove his names from door prizes at events.
One advantage a gambling addict has over an alcoholic or drug abuser is that while the condition can take a horrible financial, emotional, and psychological toll, it doesn’t directly affect the body.

“It’s that hidden or unseen addiction,” Frank said. “Looking at somebody, you can see if they’re drunk. A lot of times you can tell if they’re on drugs. But a gambling addict, you can’t tell.”

That makes it easier to hide.

Some casinos — including in northern Michigan — allow problem players to ban themselves from their gambling floors. Those bans used to be for life, said Frank, who used to work at a casino. Now they’re for six months.

The bans typically don’t prevent you from going to the casino to gamble, however. What it means, in general, is that you will not be able to win.

“If you go up, you put a [player’s club] card in, you won’t get points. If you win, they will basically say, ‘You’re not going to get paid that jackpot,’” Frank said. “They can threaten you with trespass. But do they sit there and watch every person coming and going? No.”
Another factor that makes banning yourself from a casino ineffective is that there’s always another casino a little further down the road.

“During my gambling days, I would travel the countryside,” George said. “Some people ban themselves from casinos, and I never did. Because if I was going to the U.P., I knew all the casinos there. I knew all the casinos south of here. I knew the Mt. Pleasant casino and Detroit. I’m a compulsive gambler, so I’d travel 50 or 100 miles to gamble. There was nothing that was going to stop me from gambling. Snowstorms. Nothing.”

Frank said he believes that easy access to gambling also makes it harder for some people who have joined GA to keep going to meetings.

“Personally, I think one of the other issues that prevents people from sticking with it is they may come and attended a meeting or two, and then they end up going back to the casino, and they are too proud to come back in here and say, “Hey, I stumbled,” and I think part of that’s pride,” he said. “And we’re not here to judge anybody. We’re here to support one another.”
Messages seeking comment about policies or training to help identify problem gamblers went unreturned from the three casinos in the region, Odawa Casino, Turtle Creek Casino & Hotel, and Little River Casino Resort.

All three casinos have a “Responsible Gaming” link at the bottom of their home pages.  That link leads to information about signs of gambling addiction, and it offers a number to call to seek help.

That phone number rings into an office in Detroit managed by Lori Mello, program manager for the Michigan Gambling Treatment and Prevention Program.

The hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by counsellors who are at least masters-level clinicians trained specifically in treating gambling disorder.

The first thing a counselor might do for someone who is struggling with a gambling disorder — a term Mello said has taken over for addiction in the psychiatric field — is not to send the person to a GA meeting, but rather, to connect them with a counsellor in their area for professional one-on-one treatment.

The hotline does maintain a list of GA meetings across the state, but Mello said often, there isn’t one near a caller’s location.

“There are lots of pockets in the state where there are no meetings at all,” Mello said. “There’s a real dearth [in GA programs in Michigan]. It’s not like with AA or NA.”
Gambling disorder is so difficult to treat, Mello said, in part because it is so misunderstood. A gambling problem comes with a stigma that drug and alcohol addictions no longer carry. Mello said people in the gambling treatment world see the field as about three decades behind substance abuse treatment.

“When you’re addicted to gambling, there’s a sense that somethings wrong with you,” Mello said. “Or people say, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. Just stop going to the casino then.’”
To reach Michigan Problem Gambling Helpline, call (800) 270-7117.


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