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Gambling addiction group blows up stereotype of degenerate

One runs cocktails at a local casino. The other is finishing her education and searching for a teaching job.

On the day I met them, they appeared to have little in common. But they were among friends, and under a cloak of anonymity they admitted being compulsive gamblers and started talking about their lives. Taking that courageous step to get help is what brought them to the Problem Gambling Center for Rob Hunter’s Tuesday group session.

You’d think, in 2016, it would go without saying that compulsive gambling behavior doesn’t discriminate. But ask a stranger to paint a quick profile of the “degenerate gambler,” and the picture of a man with a growth of beard and eyes blurry from the manic action will probably emerge. It’s just not so.

It’s a medical disorder like alcoholism and drug addiction. Carol O’Hare, executive director of the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, said a survey of her group’s busy help line reveals a cross section of humanity that mirrors our state’s diverse demographics.

But she also said the stereotypes persist, in part, because of the ability of compulsive gamblers to disguise their addiction. Unlike the alcoholic, she said, “You can’t smell a roll of quarters on my breath.”

Gambling addiction directly touches a little more than 2 percent of the population, according to some surveys, but O’Hare said the figure is up to three times that high in Nevada. Beyond the lives damaged and destroyed, the annual cost to American society of gambling addiction exceeds $7 billion, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Those two women with seemingly little in common were, in fact, in excellent company with casino executives and corporate bosses, housekeepers and bartenders, priests and retired ballplayers. It’s not a matter of money, morals or discipline.

And viewing the disease as a character weakness or a question of willpower obscures the medical science. But unlike the drug addict and alcoholic, whose plights have gained a level of societal understanding, the compulsive gambler finds few allies — a fact reflected in the generally poor funding for support programs.

Listen to their stories, and you’ll be reminded that the cost of compulsive gambling is measured in more than missed mortgage payments and bankruptcy. It also makes liars of good people.

Take that cocktail waitress, for instance.

She’s young, married, and said she’s hidden her addiction from her husband for several years. He doesn’t know she’s poured a bundle into video poker machines while sitting with friends after work. Now the losses are so great, she’s afraid to come clean.

And that schoolteacher’s gambling routine sent her to the ATM until her savings was exhausted. For a time she thought moving away would be the best thing, but when she went back to the Midwest for a visit she saw a billboard for a problem gambling help line that advised, “Don’t Fall For Your Own Bluff.” Over the next few days, the message began to sink in.

“I didn’t think I was falling for my own bluff, but I was,” she said, the emotion rising in her voice. “That was really deep. Every time I said, I’m only going to take 20 bucks, or I’m only going to take 100 bucks, or I’m going to leave my ATM card at home, or only go (gamble) for three hours. I fell for those things. I fell for my own bluff every single time.”

She returned to Las Vegas and decided to stay. One of the ironies of this gambling-saturated subculture is that it also offers a constant lineup of 12-step Gamblers Anonymous meetings in addition to Hunter’s group session and other therapies.

The teacher realized that she could run, but she couldn’t hide from the disease. She also knows she’s not alone.

“From what we’ve seen working with people in the community, this is like any other addiction,” said O’Hare, who describes herself as a “woman in recovery” for the past 25 years. “We’ve come a long way in this country.”

You can’t sit in that group of fragile, courageous people and not come away rooting and praying for their recovery.

A teacher, a waitress, and the rest of us, too.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Contact him at 702-383-0295 or jsmith@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.

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