Content note: this article contains references to suicide that readers may find upsetting.
I’d been working at the bookmakers for a few months when I decided to finally try popping a £1 coin in a betting machine for the first time. I won. I still remember the incredible buzz as I paid for my entire night out with the winnings – a huge deal at the age of 18.
After that win, I couldn’t stop thinking about doing it again. I imagined another night out with all the drinks paid for, and dreamed of having the cash to buy whatever I fancied. So I played again. And again. My £2 bets turned into multiple £20 bets that slid into the machines, and I was no longer playing for nights out, but to chase my growing losses. Soon enough, I wasn’t gambling to win money at all. I just gambled because I didn’t feel ‘normal’ until I did.
For the next eight years, every penny of my wages went on betting – along with all the money I could nab from taking out loans and credit cards. I was completely addicted, spending whatever money I could get on slots and scratch cards. Online gambling became another obsession, as I discovered it was a way I could gamble at home, where no one could tell me to stop or slow down.
It’s difficult to express just how intense the urge to gamble was. The best way I can describe it is to imagine you have an awful itch somewhere on your body, but you’re not allowed to scratch it. The itch starts to take up 100% of your attention. You can’t think of anything else, and you know you won’t feel better until you’ve scratched it. It torments you, no matter how much you remind yourself of how bad the consequences of scratching that itch could be.
While that first win was pure ecstasy, eventually even large amounts of money failed to deliver a rush. Winning became a burden. It meant I had to spin again, just so I could lose all my money faster – because the urge to gamble wouldn’t stop until I had nothing left. I didn’t gamble for fun. I was gambling just to feel OK. When I wasn’t making bets, I was depressed and isolated; I hid away from the world, emerging only to either lie about my gambling or look for money to pay my bills (or gamble more).
Once, I won the jackpot – around £50,000. At the time, I was moving into a council flat because I couldn’t pay the rent on my house anymore. I had finally won enough to sort out most of my debt and start my life over, but I just felt empty. What was I supposed to do with my life if I wasn’t gambling? I was miserable and aimless, so I gambled all the cash away and took out another loan to try to win it back.
To this day, I still don’t have a clear idea of just how much I spent and lost throughout my addiction but I can confidently say it was within the hundreds of thousands of pounds. I remember losing £50,000 on one spin, which was loaned out to me to begin with, so you can imagine just how much of my own money – eight full years’ worth of wages – I lost and gambled away.
My addiction and depression had become so severe that I tried to take my own life. I had lost all hope that I could get better.
But even when I was that low, it wasn’t enough to make me stop. All my thoughts were taken up by gambling: when could I next gamble? How could I gamble without being found out? How could I get hold of more money to bet? Sometimes the thought that ‘this isn’t OK’ floated through my mind, but my depression and loneliness shouted it away.
It was only when I gambled my partner’s mortgage payment away that it truly hit home that I had a problem. At that moment I realised it didn’t matter how much I won or even how much I truly loved someone, it wasn’t going to stop me from gambling.
I applied to go into a women’s retreat and counselling programme with the charity Gordon Moody, and thankfully, I was accepted. It was a tough process, and I had to get past the shame to share every detail of my story with the team. But it changed my life. I met other women in the same boat as me and found the support of therapists, my friends and my mum, who were all amazing.
I learned through this that while gambling addiction is often thought of as a ‘male’ thing, women suffer massively from it too. I’ve spoken to thousands of women who, like me, fell into the spiral due to loneliness. That’s what motivated me to start working as a coach and mentor for the EPIC Restart Foundation, which supports people to rebuild their lives from the wreckage left by gambling.
It’s so vital that people, male and female, know there is support out there. Whether that’s self-exclusion software like GAMSTOP or charities and support communities like Gordon Moody and GambleAware, there is help out there and taking that first step towards recovery really can be as simple as picking up the phone and giving one of those helplines a ring.
Sadly, I had a relapse when my dad had a stroke. But I learned from this the importance of blockers and started to really understand the ‘why’ of my gambling. Today, I’m extremely proud to say I am three years gamble-free.
I’m doing so much better now. I have a new flat and a puppy and I’m finally able to take care of myself properly – things I never thought would be possible without gambling. I want to show other women that they can recover and that there is always hope.
Frame Of Mind is Stylist’s home for all things mental health and the mind. From expert advice on the small changes you can make to improve your wellbeing to first-person essays and features on topics ranging from autism to antidepressants, we’ll be exploring mental health in all its forms. You can check out the series home page to get started.
If you’re worried about gambling, you can access support by calling Gamcare on 0808 8020 133 or through their website.
You can also reach out to TalkBanStop, a partnership that combines practical tools and support to help you to stop gambling and maintain a successful recovery journey, if you think you or someone you know might be suffering from problem gambling.
It offers a combination of personal support via GamCare’s trained advisers, free access to Gamban blocking software which can be installed on multiple devices, and signposting to register for the free self-exclusion scheme, GAMSTOP.
Alternatively you can sign up for free to self-exclude yourself from online gambling at Gamstop’s website.
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and services.
Yu can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.
For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In a crisis, call 999.
Images: Courtesy of Stacey Goodwin