Is my helping really helping? Supporting a family member with gambling addiction….
Having posted a couple of blog posts by now for people who struggle with gambling addiction; I thought it was high time to also do one for those trying to support the addicted person. As much as the problem gambler will struggle within, both from their inability to stop and from the damaging effects their gambling is having on loved ones – there is little doubt that the family/spouses/parents struggle also.
If you are a loved one reading this chances are that you will have suffered with some of the following symptoms….
· Anxiety & stress
· Fear and panic about their safety
· Low mood & tearfulness
· Feeling totally out of control
· Anger and disappointment
· Swinging between feelings of anger and disappointment to hopefulness
· Desperation to help; only to later feel angry that you did help
· Paranoia and obsession about their gambling
….and many more
Chances are that you are on an emotional rollercoaster that in many ways mimics the one that your gambling addicted family member is sitting on. The ups and downs of witnessing the addition, with a good dose of disbelief, shock and horror about their continued activities; even at times when they looked you in the eye and swore they would stop. Some days you see a flash of the loving and happy partner/child/sibling you know; only to later find out that was following a win. Suddenly it all feels like a betrayal rather than a great moment shared.
You wonder if they meant what they said about quitting, about not wanting to hurt you, not wanting to ever lie again; or if they have become so cold-blooded that they actually don’t care how you feel anymore?
Is this the person I gave birth to/married ? …you might wonder. How could they be so caring and sensible in some ways and suddenly so callous and calculating? Maybe I misjudged them? Perhaps I am a bit stupid after all having believed what they said to me?
Although many people have come around to the understanding that some of the deceitful behaviours are part of the addiction, who’s to say that it does not hurt to be exposed to inconsistent behaviours, lies, defensiveness and in some cases outright disrespect in the relationship. Not that living with a drug- or alcohol addicted partner is a walk in the park – but one of the things that really put gamblers in a different position is the seemingly high level of consciousness and functionality. There is no physical hangover, no smell, no rugged look, and yes- although there are serious signs of unhealthy mental states such as anger, preoccupation, restlessness and boredom or sometimes low mood and even suicidality; it is extremely difficult to understand how a behaviour alone could produce such symptoms. It may feel even more deliberate and deceitful thinking that your partner was ‘in their right frame of mind’ when they decided to go gambling. Although of course in reality; they really aren’t at the time of a gambling session. Their brain is every bit as ‘hi-jacked’ as it would be for someone who is hooked on substance. This can be painful but also comforting to know. Comforting because it might lessen the pain of thinking they went out of their way to hurt you. Gambling addiction is a very serious addiction and carries all the hallmarks of other addictions. This is very important to remember!
So how can you as a loved one help? Many a times family members I’ve seen in sessions have asked me:
‘Is my helping really helping?’ Having bailed someone out numerous times, chipped in money where money was missing for necessities, gone out to get loans to finance situations that would never have occurred had it not been for the gambling. And still the gambling appears to be getting just worse.
How can you ascertain that the things you do to help will actually help, rather than enable, the addicted gambler?
How would you know the difference? Please find below some useful questions that you should ask yourself before delivering any kind of service, financial aid to the addicted gambler. These can help guide your own thinking around the issues and hopefully help clarify the fine lines between helping and enabling…
# Is this help that I am offering now likely to lead the person to take more or less responsibility over their situation long-term? In brief, if I give him/her a bailout for money they gambled because I don’t want them to have to go to prison/take a loan/get hunted by loan sharks etc will this teach by consequence of their behaviours, that the behaviour has caused harm and cannot be repeated? If you know that helping is going to remove responsibility and consequence from your loved one…at least consider the next point before you help..
# Are there any conditions that I can place on the gambler for the help that I am offering up at this point? If so; will I be able to uphold these conditions long-term? As most of us know, saying we have boundaries (limits) is one thing. Actually having them and standing by them is quite another. In order for your boundaries to be worth anything, you absolutely have to be prepared to follow through. So even if I would advocate anytime to keep good boundaries with your addicted family member, do make sure that whatever boundaries you share with them- you are prepared to uphold even when faced with desperation, manipulation and at times even emotional blackmail. Remember that if you consistently threaten to apply certain actions, but never actually do, your words will soon lose their meaning.
# If the gambler is low in accountability for their behaviour- will my actions at this point prevent them from becoming more accountable? It is not unusual for the loved ones to carry more accountability than the actual gambler him/herself. In these circumstances you will soon find that you are ‘rowing upstream’ in trying to help, nag, check or manage things for the gambler. Harsh as it sounds, some addicted gamblers do need to face a couple of consequences all by themselves for which they pick up the pieces. Your job cannot be to rescue them, however it is important that you do what you can do to protect the entire family from going down with the impact of gambling. Do make sure you take control over things like your own finances, any credit cards or other assets and credit lines that may be shared with the addicted person.
# If I am deciding to offer help – how do I ensure that I don’t put myself in a desperate position or take any risks of other people ending up being further damaged by the gambling behaviour? (this often comes down to practical strategies such as blocking software, removing access to money, ensuring there is no direct supply of money to the gambler etc)
It goes against many peoples’ nature to say NO to helping someone they love who is desperate. This is very understandable and of course in most ways functional. The trouble when trying to help someone with an addiction is that the best HELP and LOVE here can be dressed up as firm boundary setting and the implementation of consequence for behaviours. Think about when you love your young kids – just because we love them we choose to not allow them to do certain things or to get away with certain behaviours. Sometimes operating with good boundaries to your adult child or partner is the most loving thing that you can do for them- and the only way that they will get themselves together to look for help. Please note this does not mean that you don’t give them all the love, affection and compassion that you feel you got left. You can do both however this takes both a lot of fine-tuning and practice. We will discuss this in the next blog post for loved ones. Until then please look after yourselves!
If you want to share with my blog readers a short story about a time when you tried to help your gambling addicted family member – successfully or unsuccessfully – please feel free to send it to email@example.com
I will of course not share any names or identifiable information ever.