One spring, Mark Alonzo was sitting in his Las Vegas hotel room counting his winnings. He was there for his brother-in-law’s bachelor party — at least, that’s what he told himself when he first decided to attend. But as the night passed, he lost touch with the group. They had gone off to the clubs and shows while he stayed behind playing poker at a $50 table.

Six hours later, he had managed to win more than $8,000. But by the next day, he had lost more than $11,000.

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When an Addiction Takes Hold

“I remember coming back to the hotel room and seeing the rest of the guys lying around the suite,” Alonzo recalls. “They looked like they had an awesome time, but I was miserable. I had lost a huge amount of my savings, and I hadn’t slept in a day or showered in two. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or who to call.”

“Who do you call when you have no idea how you’re going to pay your rent when you get back from vacation?”

It was at the airport that he saw a poster for Gamblers Anonymous, which asked a few of its 20 questions including:

  • Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
  • Did you ever gamble longer than you planned?
  • Have you ever considered self-destruction or suicide as a result of your gambling?

The last one struck Alonzo hard. “The entire flight home,” he says, “I had this feeling that the only thing I could do was to kill myself… I know that it sounds silly or overdramatic, but I kept thinking about my life insurance.”

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Getting Help to Beat a Gambling Addiction

Once home, Alonzo made the choice to call the Gamblers Anonymous (GA) hotline. The experts directed him to local meetings and support groups. He followed GA’s 12-step program and decided to get professional, therapeutic help to cope with the stress of his Vegas losses and beat his gambling addiction. His wife joined Gam-Anon, a program for family members of compulsive gamblers.

An Appearance of Normalcy

Alonzo has not stepped foot into a casino in five years. And yet, five years ago, it had all seemed so normal.

“My parents did it. My friends did it. There was really nothing in my life to tell me it was wrong,” Alonzo says.

Kayte Conroy, Ph.D., of the Rehabilitation Counseling Program at the State University of New York at Buffalo, explains that gambling is both a financial issue and an addiction issue that simply doesn’t get the attention it needs.

“Gambling is generally more accepted in our society than any other addiction for many reasons. For example, many forms of gambling are sponsored and promoted by both church and state, and gambling behavior itself is not physically harmful the way that alcohol and other drugs can be,” Conroy says.

The Statistics

Gambling is also a hidden addiction. It manifests no physical symptoms, plus it can be done in private. Internet gambling generates roughly $30 billion in revenue each year, according to the National Center for Responsible Gambling (NCRG).

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On top of that, nearly 25 percent of college students gamble on a weekly basis, according to research published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, and 64 percent of all adults have gambled in the last 12 months according to a Gallup poll.

That same poll confirmed that gambling is a source of problems in roughly 10 percent of low income families — and it’s typically not until the financial repercussions catch up with the gambler that the problems are identified.

“Some have lost what is a fortune to them, so it’s not necessarily a specific dollar amount,” Conroy says.

To pay for it, “they may cash in life insurance policies, retirement accounts, close bank accounts, or take payday or other loans.”

My own mother’s gambling habit lasted 15 years before she sought help, and the addiction cost her upward of $50,000. She failed to recognize that she needed help until she lost her home and declared bankruptcy. Ten years later, she’s still recovering.

Final Thoughts on Beating a Gambling Addiction

As her child, I am always conscious of how easy it is to fall into the same traps. I avoid casinos, lottery tickets, and sports betting. I also stay away from heavy drinking, smoking, and other potential addictions with the thought that I could develop problems similar to my mother’s.

Most people gamble in some form or another. But the truth is that there is a world out there where money is placed on a table, never to be seen again — and a room where fortunes are lost at an alarming rate. And men and women stagger out, not knowing what hit them.

Additional reporting by Connor Beckett McInerney.