In the spring of 2010, 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 his group. They had gone off to the clubs and shows while he had stayed behind playing poker at a $50 table.

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

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:

  • 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 over-dramatic, but I kept thinking about my life insurance.”

Making the Decision to Get Help

Once alone at home, Alonzo made the choice to call the Gamblers Anonymous hotline. The experts directed him to local meetings and support groups. He followed their 12-step program and decided to get professional, therapeutic help to cope with the stress of the $11,000 loss. His wife joined Gam-Anon, a program for family members of compulsive gamblers.

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,” he says.

Kayte Conroy, PhD, LMHC, CRC 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.”

‘I Beat My Gambling Addiction Before It Destroyed My Life’Gambling is also a hidden addiction. Even aside from having no physical symptoms, almost anyone can gamble large sums of money online anonymously.

A 2011 study by the National Center for Responsible Gambling states that 75 percent of college students gambled at some point during that year, and the University of Buffalo’s research shows that 80 percent of adults gamble throughout the year.

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, take payday or other loans.”

My mother’s gambling habit lasted 15 years before she sought help, and the addiction cost her upwards 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.

As her child, I am always conscious of how easy it is to fall in 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 my mother’s problems could become my own.

Most people gamble in some form or other. 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 to the sound of a bell. And men and women stagger out, not knowing what hit them.