Part 1 I don’t have a problem!
I have never thought I had a gambling problem; I have always considered casino gambling a form of entertainment, something I manage along with my other entertainment; it was never seemed to have much compulsion attached. I used to visit Reno and Las Vegas occasionally. That is until they built a casino close enough to my home that I could walk or cycle to, then things began to change.
The Edgewater casino is located in a stunningly beautiful part of Vancouver. It is on False Creek, an inlet that circles the southern aspect of the city. With views of oceans and the mountains, the new Olympic Village development, the Science Centre, Granville Market and David Lam Park it is a hub of activity surrounded by a wonderful wide waterfront pathway that is shared by cyclists, roller skaters and pedestrians. It has always been one of my favourite afternoon strolls, then akin to the serpent appearing in the Garden of Eden, they converted the previous BC pavilion from Expo ’86 to a Vegas style casino. (Note: Governments in BC at both provincial and city levels have a voracious appetite for gambling dollars; something that resembles the addictions of the poor patrons they feed on.)
From this time on, my life began to change. From an infrequent foray, (normally with a friend), to a casino in a distant suburb, gambling became a much more frequent secret, solitary shame. I chose not to share my behaviour with my friends particularly the spiritual community of which I was part. In this way a dissonance was set up between my outward persona and my secret self. I saw gambling both as undesirable yet at the same time harmless. I was single; it did not impact others; it brought some added excitement to my life; I never lost more than I could afford and for the most part I was in control.
Then as a result of some personal growth work I undertook, I was able to move gambling out of the shadow and own it. During an amazing two-year program called the Art of Spiritual Guidance, we did a weekend on the shadow. Briefly the shadow often represents part disowned in our life and one of the goals of the weekend was to “find the gold”. It involved a dress-up portion where we assumed a shadow persona. I wore a tuxedo and went as the playboy lover, gambler, I think I expected once I had brought it into the light that it would lose its power over me. I even spent a week using my DecisionClarity process to determine if it was time to stop but the answer suggested there was something to learn from this experience so I soldiered on. I learned to manage my addiction and only take the amount of money that I was prepared to lose. I became more observant of myself. I noticed if I won a large jackpot there was an immoderate desire not to leave until it was all gone. There was an energy that took hold that I did not particularly like, yet at some level seemed to feed me. Friends would notice a frenetic focus that could engage when I was in the grip of the mania. I still had moments when I did not like who I became when I gambled; it seemed so inconsistent with my role as a spiritual coach yet I continued. Sometimes I would take occasional breaks but always going back. Each month there would be the insidious monthly mailer from the casino, and often the Lotteries Corporation as well, enticing me to return. It was as though the beady eyes of a snake were fixed on its prey waiting to devour me. And so it continued until one day everything shifted.
Part 2 – Stuck in Resistance
I have never thought of myself as an addict. Surely addicts have a big problem; they have dysfunctional lives; they have no self-control; their addictive behaviours create social and economic problems and upset lives. Fortunately I have never lost more than I could afford; in fact I have always been able to choose to stay away when I chose; I once took a six-month sabbatical and did not find it difficult but I have finally realized I have a well-disguised gambling addiction. This insight did not come easily and started with my niece Amy was coming for a visit from the UK; she had a song featured in a surf film and was going to the premier in Salt Lake City. Amy and I had always enjoyed trips to the casino together, one time in Vegas we had won a $1000 jackpot. However the day Amy was due home from Salt Lake City I had developed an urge to go on my own. It was not planned but precipitated by a coupon from the casino that was about to expire and combined with a walk, which is one of the ways I rationalize my visits. When I got there I rapidly lost my money and noticed a familiar sense of frustration that impacts me when it hits my “fairness” button. A completely illogical need to keep playing until I win takes hold; normally this is managed by running out of money but this time I had my bankcard with me (normally I leave it at home). Somewhat surprisingly this totally insane strategy began to work and I started to win. As my winnings mounted I would glance at my watch, knowing that Amy should be home by 7.00 pm, yet as time passed I made know move to leave, I was having too much fun. I rationalized that we had not made any agreement for me to be there, she was thirty-years old and quite capable of taking care of herself.
Consequentially Amy arrived home to an empty, dark house and was quite miffed with me. I had no idea she would be this upset and funnily enough I didn’t feel that guilty. I wrote in my journal the next day “yes it was inconsiderate but I did end up having a good time.” (I find myself shuddering at this shallow, self-serving justification.) During the discussion the following day we reached an impasse. She asked me how I would have felt had the roles been reversed and I could honestly say that I would not have been bothered (which is true.) She was not willing to explore any of her own feelings around abandonment and feeling hurt. Although I could admit that I could have phoned her, I just did not think of it, I tried to make up by taking her to Avatar and out for dinner which seemed (at least temporarily) to have eased the pain.
A couple of days later I was feeling really good. I had all the preparations for a dinner party well in hand and asked Amy of she wanted to go for coffee. As we walked to the coffee shop I observed that she seemed a little down and she responded “Just contemplative” I asked if she wanted to share and she said, ”No”. I wondered if it was about the casino and after suggesting she may feel better if she talked about it, so I asked, “Is this to do with the casino?” After hesitating somewhat she advised me that she thought I had a serious problem to do what I did.” I did not react to this assumption as I thought this was to do with her hurt feelings. I asked if she thought it was terrible that I could place my gambling ahead of her interests. Her response was to suggest that I should look at myself not her. At this point I was not interested in doing that. (Interesting reading this and observing my resistance after the fact!)
In response I told her the Zen proverb about the two monks, going to a neighbouring monastery, walking side by side in silence. They arrived at a river they had to cross. That season, waters were higher than usual. On the bank, a young woman was hesitating and asked the younger monk for help. The embarrassed young man, fearing for his reputation would not help her while the elder monk willingly carried her his back.
Having reached the other bank, the old monk put down the young woman who, in return, thanked him with a broad smile. She left and both monks continued their route in silence. As they approached their destination the young monk could control himself no longer. “How could you carry that woman?” he cried out. “What woman?” the tired monk inquired. “Don’t you even remember? That woman you carried across the stream,” his colleague snapped. “Oh, her,” laughed the sleepy monk. “I only carried her across the stream. You carried her all the way back to the monastery.”
We made some peace over this by both drawing runes. Mine suggested that this whole experience was part of my soul’s journey. It did remind me that there came a time when it was necessary to cut away the extraneous but I was not ready to follow that advice. Amy’s rune reminded her that she can’t change me, I had to change myself and it seems I am not ready to do that.
The next installment of the addiction saga happened after Amy had returned home and I returned to the scene of the crime. This time I really got stuck in a pattern of pouring more and more money into the machine. I visited the ATM twice as once again I had my bankcard with me. (So much for my limiting the losses strategy) I became obsessed by the sense of unfairness and envy. Everyone around me was winning and I was pouring money into the machine having no fun, no features and no winnings. Yet I could not leave; it was as though I was punishing myself; the more money I lost the worse I felt but I could not stop. Then the machine gave in and I won back most of my losses. The compulsion seems so powerful but totally illogical. There is a mystifying excitement combining frustration at losing and excitement at winning yet I can never get enough.
I wrote in my journal the next morning, “Maybe Amy is right and I have a gambling problem.” I drew a rune. I got Reverse Growth – aspects of character can interfere with growth of a new life. You may feel dismayed at failing to take right action. You may be required to fertilize new ground. Correct preparation ensures growth. Examine what has occurred and my role in it. I realize there is work to be done. My commitment is to be curious about my life. There is no point in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Part 3 Sorting Things Out
I shared my disastrous experience with my meditation partner Trish, who told me about a book on addiction that I might be interested in reading called In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate who is a physician in the dodgy part of Vancouver treating serious addicts. I felt unsure about its relevance to me, I decided to order it from the library and check it out. I found the book profoundly valuable, not only because it helped me see my addictive tendencies quite clearly but it also helped explain the nature of addiction and just what occurs in the brain to make addictions so difficult to break. First the characteristics of addiction are as follows: it feels compulsive and can preoccupy the mind, it impairs your control over behaviour, there is persistence or relapse despite evidence of harm and dissatisfaction, together with irritability or craving when the activity, drug or goal is not immediately available. Well I could check compulsion, impaired control, persistence and relapse as well as craving. The brain impact is fascinating. Addiction is a different state of the brain and simply stated addictive behaviour feeds the feel good chemicals – endorphins and dopamine into the brain and the more you have the more you want which why enough is never enough. I have always been curious about why the more I gamble the more I want to gamble. A planned two hours at the casino turns into six or seven hours. Now I can see why. In his book Dr. Mate also suggested some tools to deal with the addictive compulsion. They are adapted from a program designed by Dr. Jerry Schwartz to address brain lock, related to obsessive-compulsive disorders that present some similarity to addiction. They are 1) Re-label the urge as a thought that does not have to be followed 2) Re-attribute, that is blame your brain, it is not a real need 3) Re-focus by finding something else to do that distracts the desire. 4) Re-value by reminding yourself how negative this behaviour is for you. Then Dr. Mate adds a fifth step, Re-create by substituting an activity that positively feeds you.
I found this very helpful and a combination of following these five steps together with a variety of other options, (the excitement of the Olympics, skiing in March, and my previous negative experience) combined to keep me away from the casino so it was the April before I considered another trip. I was trying to devise a safe way of being entertained without falling into old patterns. The casino had sent me some coupons valued at $40, which combined with a potential $22.50 bonus from my Gold card could result in a guaranteed profit of $62.50 as long as I managed my expenditure. It seemed worth a try! However then I threw my I Ching and despite trying hard to ignore the reading, the change line said it all “You are returning to an old delusion blinded by self deception and infatuation. The way is closed. Think about where this desire comes from. Whatever you do, don’t act it out!” Well it doesn’t get much clearer than that; and as I reflected on the words I realized that I had developed precisely the same plan in December and failed dismally. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – that’s the definition of insanity isn’t it? I realized that despite my work the desire to go to the casino was still strong and sometimes I could not be bothered with the five steps.
Somewhat disappointed that my excuse for going to the casino was extinguished, I picked up the book I was reading titled You Are Here by Thic Nhat Hanh and encountered yet another amazing synchronicity. The passage I read was about eliminating desire for behaviours that we wished to change by using mindfulness. He used the example of drinking whisky. “Drinking whisky mindfully you will recognize what is taking place in you – your body, your liver, your relationships in the world.’ he advises, “don’t tell yourself to stop but when your mindfulness becomes strong you will just stop. It is not about judgment or joining battle with your addiction.” So what would it be like to gamble mindfully? To observe the impact on my body, my energy, my sense of self, my relationship with others and noticing my experience? I was already familiar with my pattern of breaking agreements with myself on how much money to spend and how long to stay. Was it possible to stay mindful in a casino and change the relentless desire to spend more money and more time regardless of whether I am winning or losing? Could mindfulness overcome the desire to carry on?
Interestingly enough during the next few weeks, mindfulness did reduce desire. Each time I reflected on taking a trip to the casino, the mindfulness seemed to mitigate the desire to go. Once by changing my mind, I encountered two nesting bald eagles; it seemed an amazing affirmation of my decision. However, on May 9th while on a walk around beautiful False Creek I found myself outside the Edgewater Casino. I sat outside for a moment and reflected on whether to go in. It seemed absolutely safe as I had only $20 in my pocket. However no risk also led to no fun. In less than fifteen minutes my money was exhausted; I observed a sense of resignation as the dollars slipped away; it was obvious that I would have spent more if I had it. I reflected later on what I had learned. Whatever money I take I am likely to lose as the addiction energy to keep going takes over. An interesting paradox is created by the newer machines; because the feature is hard to get, you have to invest for a while to get it, when your perseverance pays off you often don’t get a pay out sufficient to cover your losses. As I reflected on how I was feeling I realized that being mindful really helped me manage my desire perhaps over time it would eliminate it completely. Everything says it’s a mug’s game so why go back? Perhaps this was the last time.
Part 4 The Crash
I am sitting on my front deck feeling disconsolate. Once more I have fallen into the hole of my gambling addiction and this time worse than ever. I feel like a complete failure, disappointed in myself and frustrated that all the diligent work I had undertaken had been for naught; I feel lost and abandoned with a sense that all my personal growth work has been a big waste of time, and all the work I had done on my gambling addiction seemed for naught.
I had not even entertained a visit to the casino; I had cycled down for a haircut; Val my hairdresser had done a great job; it was a beautiful day, I was on my bike; I decided to cycle to MEC where I would return the odometer on my bike that just wouldn’t work consistently. My route took me down to the seawall for a spectacular ride beside the water. It also took me past the casino and I found myself making an impulse decision to drop in for half an hour and spend $20.00. This would give me lots of time to continue on to MEC then get home in time for Kirtan, which I had decided to attend. Unfortunately this spontaneous decision proved far from mindful and I sank into a depressingly familiar pattern. The control of taking limited money was not in place as I had my wallet and my bank card; in hindsight I can see I was doomed from the moment I walked in and soon I was breaking agreements with myself, staying five hours instead of half an hour, wasting $300.00, missing Kirtan and feeling really dumb. At least I resisted drawing more money out of the bank machine; I came as close as standing in front of it with my card in my hand before resisting the folly and leaving.
My experience left me in a philosophical downward spiral. I notice the disappointment I am feeling wants to go beyond my gambling. My life seems to have lost some of its magic. Despite making a commitment to living a soul directed life guided by synchronicity and serendipity, I find myself engaging in untypical, inconsistent, unsoulful behaviour. I find myself wallowing in a slough of despond; my foundations rocking; I am questioning my worldview, my life meaning and the use of oracles to guide me. I am struggling to see opportunity arising out of this chaos. Then something magical happens, I notice a Tarot deck sitting on my book case; it was left from a meditation evening earlier in the week; I pick it up, it is the Osho Zen deck; the one I find the most critical and pointed and tend only to use in a crisis. Well this seemed the appropriate moment; it could be my last reading ever. I draw three cards and gaze down noticing I am feeling annoyed at the outcome. The first card or the overview is Healing, the second or the current state is Nothingness and the third or the outcome is Rebirth. It didn’t feel much like healing to me. Then I begin to read the response. Healing: “Deeply buried wounds from the past are coming to the surface available to be healed, naked and vulnerable, open to the loving touch of existence, under the influence of the king of healing we are no longer hiding from ourselves.” Although I had no idea what this had to do with my gambling, I was sufficiently interested to keep reading. No-thingness: “Being ‘in the gap’ can be disorientating, even scary, nothing to hold on to, no sense of direction, and not even a hint of what choices and possibilities might lie ahead” This really resonated with how I was feeling and I sensed a glimmer of hope that perhaps I may find something to help me in the is reading. The passage concludes; “Something sacred is about to be born.” The third card, which represents the outcome or future in the spread was Rebirth: “whatever state you are in right now, be it sleepy and depressed, or roaring and rebellious – be aware it will evolve into something new if you let it. It is a time of growth and change.”
I felt an immediate shift; it was as though my faith had been rekindled; there was meaning in this experience; what I had to do was treat this whole incident with curiosity and discover just what it was trying to teach me. I reflected back on my gambling experience the previous day. It had occurred so unconsciously; what on earth could have caused me to visit the casino so impulsively? Some words of James Hollis flashed through my mind, “these energy charged clusters of our history…. (that) write our biographies, frame our futures and circumscribe our freedoms.” He was referring the fact that sometimes our behaviour does not appear related to the present moment but rather is a reaction to a past wound. What unconscious energy from my past had circumvented my conscious control and caused me to visit the casino. I decided to spend some time reflecting on the moment when I first began to gamble. It had occurred when I was in my late teens in England. It started with frequenting penny arcades, then progressed to frequenting dog tracks and horse racing venues. I realized that I was always on my own; I had been a very lonely teenager, a result of going to a boarding school and not making friends in my own town; my one close friend had got his girlfriend pregnant at the age of sixteen so I was left on my own.
And then in a flash of insight, it all came together. Gambling had become a way of dealing with loneliness; the venues provided a community of sorts and the excitement of the wagering – win or lose – would circumvent the pain of loneliness. I had created a complex that could be triggered by an unconscious sense of loneliness. I did not necessarily have to feel lonely; unrelated events that caused me to be alone could trigger the response; I never wanted to gamble when I was socially engaged. On this particular Friday two events had created the “perfect storm”, first a planned visit to some friends on Vancouver Island was cancelled due to a conflict, secondly, my regular Friday night sushi companion was not available. The complex did the rest.
So another piece of the puzzle falls into place; I now have an awareness that when the desire to gamble erupts, it has an origin in loneliness. I sense this may help me substitute pursuits about which I feel more comfortable. I have no problem with gambling as entertainment; I just don’t like what it does to me; I don’t like the way I can convince myself to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. Perhaps one day I will visit the casino for entertainment but I know that moment is not now.
Postscript: About a month after my last visit to the casino I decided to borrow a step from the “Twelve Steps” and admit my powerlessness to control my addiction on my own. I wrote these words: “I recognize that I have no lasting power over my gambling addiction; the desire returns; it subtly persuades me to fulfill its need; I continue to do the same thing over and ever expecting a different result; I desire to stop and I surrender this to my higher self.”
Note: It is now almost four months since I frequented the casino. This weekend I went for a walk around False Creek and past the casino, something I have been avoiding. I went in to go to the washroom, I walked around looking at the players and sensing what a solitary, lonely activity it is for most people there. I walk out feeling a sense of freedom.