We all like to believe that when you reach a certain age, you’ve mastered a sufficient number of life lessons. We lull ourselves into complacency, thinking: “Doesn’t older and wiser means more thoughtful and virtuous, and don’t we reach an age where we are truly old enough to know better?”
I have news for all AARP-eligible souls out there. Brain disorders can happen regardless of your maturity or level of awareness. You can get addicted for the first time during your “golden years.”
I doubt I fit many of the stereotypes of problem gamblers. Intellectual gifts and a penchant for hard work helped me raise two wonderful children and thrive as a very successful lawyer. I was happily married for 25 years, until I lost my husband to cancer. My social worker father and schoolteacher mother imparted to me a strong sense of ethics and a compassion for those struggling with trauma and poverty. I have always considered myself a person of faith and I volunteer regularly at our church’s food pantry.
I entered retirement with a beautiful home and a financial nest egg that should have kept me in relative comfort for the rest of my life. In some ways, this blessing worked against me when gambling devolved into a necessity rather than a novelty. I worked hard all those years and carefully saved. Why shouldn’t I truly enjoy my retirement?
Using the clear-eyed, dispassionate analysis available in hindsight, I attribute my addiction to three factors:
- It was fun. I loved counting cards and assessing odds at the poker tables. Who needs crosswords to stimulate your brain when you can duel it out in five card stud? I thought my game of choice depended far more on skill than luck. That counts as one of the first lies I told myself. It certainly wasn’t the last.
- I was isolated and lonely. My children and grandchildren live out-of-state. Many of my friendships disappeared after I retired (they were still working) and when my husband died (they’re still married and tend to socialize as couples). Why stay home alone every night?
- I fell into depression. Like most people, I shied away from confessing to a mental illness. I feared the stigma more than I worried about not seeking treatment. However, whether you name it or not, a time comes when you can’t get out of bed and have no interest in activities that used to make your toes tap. Life just seems more painful than joyful.
My depression probably started as grief. It is hard to lose your spouse, exit your career and wave goodbye to your kids at the close of every Holiday. My “best time” happened when the dopamine ran hot during a run at the tables. So, I kept going with the conviction that I would snap out of it. Admitting defeat seemed worse than feeling the hollowness in my heart.
Of course, fun didn’t stay fun. I kept gambling compulsively. I neglected everything else in my life. While I eventually forfeited my home and savings to bankruptcy, I relinquished my self-respect and stability to addiction. The latter hurt worse.
I likely could have avoided such dire outcomes if I had called Maryhaven sooner. But, as the saying goes, I had to hit rock bottom before my pride would let me seek help.
I know many people cannot understand why someone won’t stop gambling. Please hear me. Our disease causes us to deny the truth, insist on “fixing” our problem, and punish ourselves for our bad choices – and then repeat it all over again. We truly do not want to hurt anyone. The tyranny of our brain disorder overpowers our love for other people. Your blame and shame, while completely understandable and warranted, only add to our own.
I’m grateful for Maryhaven. My counselor, Bruce, pairs up with other experts so they can simultaneously treat my addiction and my depression. Both must be addressed if I want to live a healthy, sober life. I’m grateful for a friend who took me in temporarily. I’m grateful I found a job where I can serve other people, stay busy, and pay down my debts. And I’m grateful for the support of others in Gamblers Anonymous. Appreciation helps shift your perspective on life.
It doesn’t matter how old or wise you are. You can’t always out-think addiction.