Letting go of gambling ….why is it so hard -even when holding on hurts more?

This topic really felt relevant for me to write about, as I have been up against this topic myself last week. A few weeks back I was told on short notice that I would no longer be able to run my gambling support group for the homeless- a group that I have invested heavily in during the last 8 years.   When I say invested heavily- I am not necessarily talking about time spent running the group. It was just one hour per week, albeit over 8 years that add up. But I referring more to the about emotion. This group has been an eye opener, a learning curve, a remarkable community and an extremely worthwhile venture. I have reflected on the learning and on the sad stories presented to me far and beyond the hour spent with the group. Their often cruel but honest humour, and ability to laugh at tragedy may seem ‘twisted’ but is an often necessary response to the deep end of human suffering. Needless to say I have derived great joy from helping these men and women, achieve change. For some that change has been at the level of seeing a smile on their face. For some it has been a new suitcase to replace an old bin-liner. And for others it has been the mere commitment of showing up for this one hour per week when everything else has felt chaotic and out of sync. Many have even made real progress in reducing or quitting their gambling, and have made it into accommodation. There was little doubt that we all struggled with this final goodbye after so many years but we were at least all in agreement;  when good things come to an end they don’t need to go on forever in a practical sense. They will live forever in our hearts as fond memories.  We all agreed that it has been a lot of difficult but good times in the group – and we all accepted that it was ending and that a goodbye was necessary.   This is what I would call a ‘clean’ letting go.  Not sure there is anything called a ‘dirty’ let go – but I will spend the rest of this article looking at what it looks like when letting go is necessary; but the circumstances are less straightforward.  This is often the case when you have invested yourself wholeheartedly, but the sense of reward and reciprocity has not been present, not consistent or in some cases not there at all. Somehow things are not adding up, it feels unfair and/or unresolved.  Gambling tends to be an activity that produces all of the above, but there are of course other life circumstances too, not least the area of relationships. In both gambling and less healthy relationships, the common denominator is often the case of one person’s one-sided ‘chasing’ and clinging . You have invested (be it time, money, energy, emotion or all them ) but unlike in my personal example about ending the group, here we are talking about those times when there has not been returns on that investment. It leaves you feeling bereft and desperate, obsessed and confused. Like you have been ‘cheated’ or are at a loss. Often even though you have yourself watched the process unfold. This is the daily experience of a gambler. You are trying harder and harder, in spite of accumulated losses. In these situations- letting go is the most logically obvious- but the absolute hardest thing to to do!

Let’s explore some of the reasons why this happens…..

# you feel that you have invested a lot….and that consequently you are owed returns on your investment. Read the below…does it sound familiar?  

‘ but if I walk away now- what did I get for all of that money, time and ‘effort’ that I put in. And what about all the losses – how would I recover them if I don’t even give myself a shot at winning…? Better give it another go in case this is the time that I will strike lucky’

Our human nature often contributes to a couple of inaccurate assumptions. We often assume we should have control over situations and our life (which taking a step back we can immediately conclude we don’t have). We also often assume that there should be a sense of justice to situations. If I do X then he/she/it should do Y’.  If I am kind to someone, they should be kind to me or I had so much bad luck yesterday - today I will be lucky. We might feel that things we do for others should be reciprocated. In gambling this translates to an expectation of a particular outcome that is being ‘earned’ as you are putting money and time towards the activity.  ‘this machine is definitely due now’ ‘it has to pay out soon, I’ve stood here pumping in money for hours….  

It is no news that there is a HUGE illusion of control at play in gambling disorders. In fact this constitutes one of the biggest drivers of the addiction both early days in the addiction and often throughout recovery as well.   ‘If only I pursue my gambling like this – then I will be the winner…’ 

One of the underlying processes that make gambling highly addictive is the concept of intermittent reinforcement schedules. This forms part of the underlying gambling psychology and is why gambling is addictive to human beings.  If you are curious you can look it up, and if not we will come back to that topic another time in this blog. Briefly; intermittent reinforcement schedules refers rewards for a behaviour that is delivered on unpredictable and often random intervals, and sometimes in varying strength. This is known to foster great compliance and high motivation to continue engaging in a behaviour.

# many gamblers are competitive, hence the feeling of loosing or feeling ‘defeated’ leads to wanting to gamble even more to get a chance to ‘get back’ at the industry for taking your money, time and energy.

# the illusion of control, (referred to above) one of the well known cognitive distortions that problem gamblers present with. Essentially this is when you fool yourself to believe that if only you applied different formulas/strategies to your gambling, you will probably strike lucky… This type of thinking fuels further chasing and on a purely psychological level it can lead to intense obsessing and ‘clinging’ to the idea of winning.

# if you stop there is often an immediate and overwhelming sense of loss since there is no longer a hope of recover any of your losses  - this feeling will pass however can understandably be very strong right at the beginning when you try to quit. It may become easy to misinterpret this negative mood state as a signal that stopping is not the right thing to do, and before you live to experience the sweet relief that comes with properly letting go – you go back to cause more damage to yourself

# The gambling may have acted as a surrogate (although a bad one) for emotional coping skills, lift from boredom and escape from difficult problems and feelings.

No matter what role the gambling has played for you or how attached you feel please DO KNOW that whatever excuse your mind is giving you - the fact is that you would not be in the position that you are with gambling if it was a working formula. Put mind over matter quickly before this addiction drags you further down a hole- and ACT quickly even if a large part of you is struggling against. 

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The most necessary (but most resisted) step all addicted gamblers must take...

One of the issues about behavioural addictions is that they are often taken less seriously than drug and alcohol addictions. Not least from a position of stigma – where behavioural addictions sometimes get equated to ‘a lack of willpower’ and ‘weak character’ etc, but I find that even the client him/herself is not always showing adequate respect for their addiction. This shows up as reluctance or in some cases flat out unwillingness to do the important work on blocking the access to the gambling.  As long as you are keen to put a definite end to the gambling, but find yourself still not focusing on creating these barriers – then you are operating as if the gambling is still under voluntary control at all times.

Remember- At this point it should begin to get obvious for you that this is not the case. You would not be visiting this blog otherwise.

For a more in-depth discussion around breaking out of denial and living in reality you can read my previous blog post on this topic here.  This present article is merely going to focus on the FIRST & ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY STEP that any gambler should take ASAP if they are serious about quitting:

Block/reduce your access to money.  Yes, this is correct. No ifs, no buts. This NEEDS to happen. 

Having worked with countless gamblers in treatment over the last 15 years, I am aware of what thoughts and resistances comes up when this suggestion is made. For many this is an already obvious step, but still one that has not been taken.  In fact, there is no one strategy that I suggest as a clinician that is met with more resistance than this one.

Some of the common resistances are..

I should be able to recovery anyway  (without blocking access to anything) – what’s the point if I have to live like a kid again anyway…’

‘if I am not gambling simply because I cannot get to my money it is not really recovery – then I am just forced to avoid it…so then there is no point’

‘no way can I live like this long term anyway’

‘but what if I had an emergency’

‘what kind of a man/woman would I be if I don’t have access to my own money…’

 

 

In my previous posts I have gone into depth in analysing these distortions. This can be worthwhile doing as time goes by. But for now, let’s just use a few simple facts as evidence for why this step needs to happen irrespective of how reluctant you currently feel: 

a)      Check your own track record with money – i.e,, the facts of your gambling history. When did you ever NOT gamble when you had open access to money. Even if you were able to hang on to it for a day or so, if you still ended up gambling with it sooner or later, that is sufficient evidence to suggest that you will feel that way inclined again, given the same cirucumstances presenting.  That’s why we don’t want to take that risk again.

b)      If this was any other addiction – let’s say to a drug- would you think it was possible to walk around with the drug in your pocket and yet be expected not slip up?   Money and a venue are the means required for you to fulfil your addiction. You need to at least disrupt your access to one of them!   Remember your addiction as such does not care whether it is addicted to drugs or gambling; what I mean by that is that just because money is something that we also need in our daily life in a different way than we need say drugs- the addiction itself does not take this into consideration. Addiction is addiction in this respect.  Please mind that it does not mean you have to live as a limited adult- there are loads of clever ways of not having direct access to your money but still be able to enjoy a rich lifestyle. You just need to problem solve this very well depending on your individual situation.

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Giving up gambling? How to deal with the ‘pain-hangover’

‘ Since I stopped gambling my emotional pain is at an all-time high. Am I meant to feel worse when I finally stopped?’

Not that I think I need to tell you this – but just in case you don’t feel it:  putting an end to your gambling is a major achievement. Those of you who have done it would know how much effort, failed attempts and agony it took you to get there.  Unlike the treatment for substance misuse, people addicted to gambling typically are treated on an out-patient basis. That’s if you access treatment. For this reason you will probably not be reaping the benefits of being ‘locked away’ from the gambling (unless you are one of the few who has been to a residential rehab to help you deal with your disordered gambling). Constantly needing to keep yourself away from the gambling, even in the early days when the feelings tend to run particularly strong, is a challenging task that requires tremendous work and energy.  One of the most difficult challenges during this time tends to be the emergence of unpleasant feelings that have typically been suppressed and avoided for some time. Coming from the perspective of a person who has gotten their brains used to instant relief and gratification through the use of gambling, this is not the best of news. Whilst the negative feelings push through, so does the realisation that you might now be finding yourself feeling very vulnerable and bit ‘bare’ without the option for some ‘pain medication’ in the form of more gambling.

Let’s expand on this for a minute; Having realised that your addiction did not lead you to a good place is a valuable realisation, and certainly a piece of knowledge you want to keep close to you at all times. And stopping will absolutely lead to an improvement in your life longer term. But that time may just not be here yet.    Having been hooked on gambling means the brain has by now become dependent on frequent and powerful ‘rewards’ (not that rewards here is referring to the brain’s perception of reward; which at times could be a feeling of buzz but other times might be just feeling less miserable or low) and as such when you stop; for a period of time things might on many levels feel worse than when you were still gambling. 

In summary; you feel great about giving up the gambling. But…. You are now dealing with:

  • Day to day problems in life; with the added impact  of dealing with everyone’s disappointment and distrust towards you

  • The ‘trail of crap’ your gambling has created for you yourself and people around you- these may include loss of relationships, house, jobs and lifestyle that you once enjoyed    

  • The emotional pain that might have been there even before the gambling started; essentially the difficult feelings that made it easier for the gambling to get a foothold in your life to begin with 

 …and likely many other unpleasant feelings such as anxiety, shame, regret, guilt etc.  

 

Rather than panicking, please accept that overcoming the difficulty in managing feelings is what long term recovery really is all about; so that you will be able to live fully and without constant fear of lapsing. There are no short-cuts, recovery will inevitably need to involve the learning of new emotional coping strategies. These aren’t acquired overnight and will require both practice and patience- two qualities that are rare for addicted people to exhibit.

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Annika LindbergComment