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Recovering Addict Considers Social Impact Of Gambling Expansion

AP Photo/Mike Groll
A patron plays a video lottery terminal at Saratoga Casino and Raceway on Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part GLT series on how video gambling has played out in Central Illinois. Coming Tuesday: A deeper look at the effects of video gambling on local government budgets.

As the state considers a gambling expansion Gov. J.B. Pritzker hopes will bring in $200 million in revenue next fiscal year, one Bloomington-Normal woman said the social costs far outweigh any financial benefit.

We’ll call her Susan. GLT is granting her this protection because she worries about her job. Susan is a problem gambler. She calls it the silent killer.

“People will talk about meth, heroin, and opioids, and I am not minimizing any of that. Any addiction is horrible no matter what,” she said. “But you can see somebody high, drunk, and you can see that. It’s visible. But the chemical compound in the brain is the same, the pleasure center, it all goes haywire when the addiction is in full.”

You wouldn’t see it from looking at her, but just 10 years ago Susan was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars gambling at slot machines.

You're never gaining anything. It's just like a hamster on a wheel. And the cycle continues.

She’s clean now. But, as an addict, Susan said the thought of any gambling expansion scares her not just for personal reasons, but for the whole community.

“You’re asking for more problems. You’re not helping the community, you’re hurting the community. Because now you’ve got people like me, and there’s so many gamblers out there, who will think that they can take that last bit of money they have and blow it on the gambling, and then the state will pick up the tab for their housing, food, clothing, their children, their medical,” she said. “You’re never gaining anything. It’s just like a hamster on a wheel. And the cycle continues.”

Combined, Bloomington and Normal have more than 300 video gambling terminals. Normal licenses about 20% of the total.

The town sets limits on the location of the terminals like the allowed distance from schools, churches, and residential areas. In fact, that makes it very tough to add any more.

Bloomington is in limbo on its terminal regulations. Last month the city council voted to extend a moratorium on video gambling, freezing the number of terminals until Sept. 1. The council hopes Illinois legislators will decide on the statewide expansion by then.

Gambling addiction researcher and Illinois State University Professor Cindy Kerber was a strong voice in favor of curbing the number of video terminals in the city. She said the social costs of gambling include increased crime, need for government-funded services, and business-related costs like loss of job productivity, poor attendance, and increased unemployment.

Kerber said not all gambling is inherently bad.

“People might just gamble recreationally and not really have any problems associated with it. A way that people might gamble recreationally without having problems would be to determine a set amount of money that they're willing to spend on gambling, and then to stick to that," Kerber said.

But she said there are always risks of turning a fun pastime into addiction.

“However, sometimes the spirit of the venue and the excitement of participating in the activity, people will make exceptions to those rules,” Kerber said. “So some of the examples of problems would be spending more than they intended to, lying to family members and friends about the behaviors that occurred when gambling, borrowing money to pay off gambling debts, and more serious concerns would be committing a crime.”

The Path To Addiction

In the height of her addiction, Susan said she checked off all those boxes.

“I was too far gone. I was lying, stealing, and manipulating anyone that came across my path,” Susan said. “I had a ring going around at work to get me money. ‘I’ll pay you back in two weeks when we get paid.’ I would pay them back, and then two days later tell them that we were out of toilet paper and bread and milk, my husband wasn’t working, we needed money.”

Then, Susan said, she would take the money straight to the casino. She said her addiction didn’t start off that way. It began with a form of gambling most consider innocent: scratchoff tickets.

Seventy-five percent of people that gamble in any one year suffer from major depressive disorder.

She won $100 on her first ticket, and two days later said she “splurged” on a $1 ticket. Three weeks later, Susan admitted she was up to a $200-a-day scratch off ticket spending habit and winning nothing.

Shortly after, Susan said, she went to her local casino for the first time where she spent an evening playing bingo and the slots with a friend “and lost about $300. And thought oh my God, I’m never doing this again. Two days later, I went back—now that I knew where it was—and thought I would only gamble for a couple of hours after work before my kids got home from school. It progressed rapidly. I only gambled for 18 months. And it went from—it just went full speed ahead. I was going every day.”

She said she faced major depression from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars over the 18-month span. She said she kept going back for more, only hoping to feel the high of another win. But, every time she did, she spent it all on more gambling.

Researcher Kerber said depression goes hand in hand with gambling addiction.

“Seventy-five percent of people that gamble in any one year suffer from major depressive disorder,” she said.

Kerber said one in five gamblers who suffer from depression attempt suicide. It’s the highest suicide rate among any kind of addict.

And with the hidden nature of the addiction, Kerber said depression is often one of the few ways to recognize there is a problem.

“Gambling addiction is perhaps more easily identified by your banker or your credit card company,” she said. “But oftentimes, people that have problems related to gambling suffer from poor self-esteem, embarrassment, shame, and tend to avoid seeking treatment sometimes until it's too late.”

And Kerber said the addiction frequently leads to financial hardship which can make seeking treatment more difficult.

Susan agrees. She said a gambling addiction is too easy to hide.

“Because the mind is so powerful we walk around smiling, doing things for the most part on a normal basis until you can’t take it anymore. You have exhausted all efforts. You’ve gotten yourself into such a bind that you can’t figure out how to get out of it,” she said.

Susan's Story

Susan said when she maxed out her credit cards, she took others out in her husband and ex-husband’s names. And, at her most desperate time, she said she forged paperwork for hardship withdrawals from her 401(k).

“I didn’t know how to get more gambling time in. So I went to go see a therapist. And I manipulated her, told her I was very depressed (and) needed FMLA time, and she gave it to me,” Susan said. “I used the FMLA time to call in and not go to work. I had a very good job with the phone company at the time, and I would just call it an FMLA and I would go to the casino all day instead of going to work.”

I slipped $100 bills in two machines, tripled my paycheck within 45 minutes, and never left.

Susan went through five weeks of vacation, 60 days of FMLA, seven personal days, and called out of work 22 days in one year before being fired for attendance.

“I packed up my stuff, I went straight to the pawn shop and I pawned my wedding ring and went straight to the casino,” Susan said. “Lost the money immediately.”

She said her husband threatened to leave her if she didn’t start attending Gamblers Anonymous, or GA, meetings. That night, Susan cashed what was left of her vacation check.

“It was the last amount of money I had to me name, and instead of going to the meeting that night, I went to the casino,” she said. “And that was on Dec. 27, 2010. I slipped $100 bills in two machines, tripled my paycheck within 45 minutes, and never left.”

By the next morning, Susan said she lost it all.

“I was scrounging all over the casino looking for money that was on the floor, tickets, I didn’t know what to do. At that point, I just wanted my $1,200 check back so that I could leave,” she said. “I knew from months now of going that slot players never had money, but men at the poker tables do. I knew I wasn’t the prettiest girl around, but I started to solicit men for sex at the casino.”

Susan said she stopped herself, ran to the casino bathroom, and didn’t recognize the person in the mirror.

“That morning I drove home, I was trying to think of every possible way to kill myself but somehow be able to keep my children and my life,” Susan said. “But at that point, I really didn’t care about them either. I mean, I just wanted the high. I needed the fix. I needed to keep going.”

Video Gambling Trends

Kerber said there are two major motivators for gambling.

“It's a way of escaping, and video lottery gambling can be a way of escaping. Just not thinking about troubles, not experiencing life in general, but just taking a break from life and plugging into a machine,” she said.

The less common motivator, Kerber said, is gambling for excitement—like at a casino.

“If you think about gambling on sports, or oftentimes the casino gambling, not so much the slot machine part of the casino but other aspects of the casino, can be pretty exciting,” Kerber said.

But casinos are becoming less popular. The state Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability studies the gaming industry. It reports casino revenue reached a plateau several years ago. Kerber said video gambling revenue continues to rise.

“It seems that there's a trend toward the escape gambling,” Kerber said. “Which might be more consistent with people that are experiencing depression.”

Some lawmakers worry about these issues. State Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington sits on the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Barickman said seeing so many video gambling terminal parlors gives him heartburn.

“You know, you see them in every strip mall around our community, and that’s the same around the state. And the states and locals are generating a significant amount of revenue from these but certainly they come at a cost,” he said.

The cost Barickman refers to is exactly what Susan lived.

“The people who are, you know, spending their entire paycheck at these little terminals, as well as just the, you know, the visual—it seems like the culture of that doesn’t necessarily mesh with our Central Illinois culture,” Barickman said.

The Economics

As a policymaker, how does Barickman balance social costs of video gambling terminals with economic benefit?

“There’s a limit. I don’t know where that exact line is, but it’s something that I continue to monitor and will continue to watch," he said.

Bloomington reports nearly $800,000 in tax revenue last year from video gambling terminals. Normal reports just over $200,000. That money feeds into the local economy.

Susan said she’s still not budging in her opposition to gambling expansion, no matter the revenue amount. Nearing 10 years clean, she said it took hitting rock bottom to bounce back.

“It was the worst day of my life, the morning of Dec. 28, and it was the thing that saved my life at the same time,” Susan said. “It’s been a long struggle as a middle aged woman. I have no pension, I have no 401(k). I’m making half of the money I was making. It destroyed my life. But it also gave me my life back in the end.”

She checked herself into treatment after that moment staring in the casino bathroom mirror. She has attended weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings ever since.

Still, every time she walks into a bar or restaurant with video gambling terminals, Susan said it’s a personal struggle. And with the state and the City of Bloomington weighing the financial benefits of the terminals, Susan said she also worries about other addicts who wage their lonely struggles.

Those struggling with gambling addiction in Bloomington-Normal can find a Gamblers Anonymous meeting schedule at gamblersanonymous.org.

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