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Bad bets: Compulsive gambling can snare people, devastate lives

Each year, when March Madness rolls around, many people plunk money down in hopes of winning office pools that infuse a bit of fun and build collegiality in the workplace.

For most people, gambling is a pleasurable pastime that adds excitement to life. But for others, it can become a serious, uncontrollable addiction with devastating consequences.

Compulsive gambling launches its victims on a downward spiral that can ruin financial stability, destroy self-esteem and damage personal relationships.

"It's riskier than a lot of people think," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. "The guy sitting down the hall could have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling. For him, this could be devastating."

The FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion is wagered illegally each year on March Madness, a time when calls to the council's helpline spike.

Among many -- primarily novice -- gamblers entering the action, the first bets may trigger dangerous biological and psychological responses.

"No one starts out to be a problem gambler. All gambling starts out recreationally," Whyte said.

"Gambling was intended to bring pleasure, a positive activity with friends, and most who participate with gambling do it responsibly," said Lisa Vig, program director of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota's Gamblers Choice, a treatment program for problem gamblers and their family members.

Compulsive gambling is a "significant problem" in this region, said Vig, a licensed addiction counselor and one of five nationally certified gambling counselors in North Dakota.

About three percent of North Dakotans struggle with compulsive gambling and are unable to stop, she said.

The cause may be partly genetic or it may be due to "what has been modeled to us growing up.

"Sometimes it's a matter of being in the wrong place at the right time," Vig said. "They win $1,000 or $1,500 and they think, 'Oh my gosh, that was so wonderful -- I took it home and paid bills.' They felt so empowered. They think if they could do that every month, that would be super."

Most often, those who become addicted to gambling "are looking for a way to manage a difficulty in life -- they're trying to avoid stress or a problem with another person. It becomes a way of coping, a way of handling life's problems ...

"Gambling is easy to turn to to fix things," she said, "but it doesn't change anything about your problems, and it creates other problems."

People who have a history of other addictive behaviors -- such as smoking or drinking -- are at risk.

Among those who have gambling problems,75 percent have had problems with alcohol, 38 percent have had problems with other drugs and 20 percent have attempted or committed suicide, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

For some people Vig has counseled, particularly recovering alcoholics, "gambling is an alcohol-free activity to participate in," she said.

Effect on brain

Problem gambling "is a hidden, unknown thing," she said. "There's a lot of shame and embarrassment that comes with it."

That sense of shame keeps people from talking about their problem and seeking help.

Only about 15 percent of disordered gamblers in the U.S. seek treatment or attend self-help groups, the National Center for Responsible Gambling has reported.

Compulsive gamblers berate themselves, Vig said. "They think, 'I'm so stupid ... If I had better values or morals, if I was smarter, I wouldn't do these kinds of things.' ...

"They question why they couldn't walk away."

But the inability to stop gambling may have more to do with nature than choice.

The addiction "may have a genetic basis," she said. "(It relates to) how they are wired. The brain responds differently to gambling."

Research has shown that gambling behaviors cause "tremendous chemical changes in the brain" that are similar to those activated by drugs of abuse, Vig said.

Studies also confirm that gambling produces "some behaviors that appear comparable to those produced by substance use disorders," according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Dopamine and endorphins, chemicals which are linked to feelings of happiness, are released in the brain, she said. "The pleasure centers in the brain are stimulated (by gambling)."

Big jackpot winners experience this natural high but are usually able to walk away with their winnings.

"The problem gambler will say, 'What do you mean? You're just getting started,' " she said. "The problem gambler can't walk away with the winnings."

They continue to gamble, ultimately lose everything, the cycle of guilt and shame repeats itself, and the problems are perpetuated. Very often, financial troubles multiply.

"It's painful if they have to take out a second mortgage on their home," Vig said. "They may have to take out loans, apply for one more credit card ...

"They are left with the pressure of 'How am I going to fix this?' " she said. "They think, 'If I could hit the jackpot, I could take care of it.' "

Americans spend about $119 billion a year on legalized gambling, the National Council on Problem Gambling reported, and more than five million Americans meet the criteria for gambling addiction.

Gender differences

Many of the men she counsels say they've been gambling since their teenage years, Vig said, and "now it's causing relationship problems."

In contrast, many women report they've been gambling for about five years, she said.

Their desire to gamble is related to major life changes, such as "the 'empty nest' -- the kids have left home or gotten married, or they've gone through a divorce, or they are caregivers and they're dealing with parents who are ill or aging.

"A night out with girlfriends can be a kind of reward. It's a way to give myself something pleasurable to do," Vig said.

When gambling addicts do admit the problem, the effect on their spouses can be irreparable, "especially is the it's something that's been hidden from them," she said. "The spouse may feel very betrayed, very deceived and very angry. They're so hurt, they just leave.

"Others will say, 'It's your problem, you fix it.' "

Vig and her fellow counselors prefer, if possible, to include the spouse in the addict's recovery.

"Ideally, we love family members to be part of the process, to talk about how they feel," she said, although most don't, either because they are too angry or the addict is so embarrassed he or she doesn't want family members to be involved.

Vig likens it to receiving a cancer treatment, she said. "If you got that diagnosis, wouldn't you want your family to be involved? This isn't any different. It's not a physical issue, it's a mental health issue. Why wouldn't you want your family in on the diagnosis and (discussion of) what you need to get better?

"But it's a tough sell."

In her 25 years in the field, Vig has found that even though the path to compulsive gambling "is different for everybody, each gambler would be able to tell you when gambling crossed the line from 'social' to 'problem.' They talk about the 'big win' and all the attention they received, or a major life change -- such as death, a divorce."

Many say they've known for three or four years that it was a problem, but they kept doing it, hoping it would change, Vig said. "They've tried all kinds of things to deal with it -- like limiting the amount of money they take or how often they go to the casino -- to try to take control, to manage it better.

"But addiction can't be managed like that."

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