It’s never been easier to slip into gambling addiction. Finding your self-worth is key | Ashwini Padhi and Andrea Szasz

Home » It’s never been easier to slip into gambling addiction. Finding your self-worth is key | Ashwini Padhi and Andrea Szasz

As a father of four and construction business owner, Robert* doesn’t have a lot of spare time. In his early 40s, Robert is the breadwinner and feels a deep responsibility to provide for his family. Yet, almost every break he gets, you’ll find Robert, brow furrowed, studying his mobile phone. To his wife, children and employees, it appears that he is hard at work, coordinating one of his many building projects. But his reality is very different. Robert is a gambling addict. Within just a few minutes of meeting him, he admits that he spends at least four hours a day betting through different apps on his phone.

Robert didn’t always spend his days on betting apps. In fact, in recent years, he’d never really even gambled. Robert is not an unusual case. Research shows that online gambling (particularly on sports) is rapidly rising and young men are the most at risk group.

We live in an age where it’s never been easier to slip into gambling addiction. Compulsive gambling is marked by the rare highs from wins, denial that there’s a problem and tendency to attempt to recoup losses instead of calling it quits. Like substance addictions, process addictions also prey on our neurological functioning. It’s a cycle fuelled by the hit of dopamine during the occasional win, as well as the anticipation of a future win. And just as with alcohol or drugs, we begin to need more and more to experience the same high. This cycle becomes difficult to break, usually leads to painful feelings of remorse and failure, and can result in depression.

At our first session, we try to gain some understanding of how Robert’s upbringing may have contributed to why he is sitting here today. Robert grew up in a first-generation immigrant family in Melbourne. He lived with his parents and two younger sisters. The family was a somewhat typical working-class family – his father worked a couple of jobs and was often away from the family home. In contrast, his mother worked in the school canteen and looked after the children and the household. The children were well looked after in terms of physical needs and education. However, his father was verbally abusive on occasions. Getting ahead financially was the main priority. As the family’s first child, Robert was pressured to help out and also do well in school. He often experienced devaluing statements and shaming offered as encouragement by his father. If he did well in school, his father, instead of praising and encouraging him, would pressure him to help out around the house and with his work more.

As a result, Robert developed a lack of self-worth and the constant feeling of not being good enough. The rare occasions his father would spend time with him would be watching sports on TV or going to the races. While his father was not a compulsive gambler, he would place bets on a horse a couple of times a year and shared the excitement of winning with his son.

Robert grew up learning that hard work and financial success are the ways to gain approval and love from his parents and other people. He became a plumber and later a builder. Throughout the years, he built a successful property development company. He married his high school sweetheart and they had four children in quick succession. While his marriage was mostly happy, during times of conflict with his wife, Robert found himself playing on the pokies in the pub. In his mind, he justified this behaviour by saying that he needed peace and quiet and to be alone from the pressure of work and a noisy household. Looking back, this was a tell-tale sign that he was in danger of developing a bigger problem.

During the first Covid lockdown, Robert’s business suffered a huge financial loss and consequently his self-esteem equally plummeted. He felt worthless and hopeless while he still had to attend to his family’s needs. It was at this time he developed a taste for online gambling. While he confesses that he only bet once a day at the start, the easy access to gambling apps and occasional dopamine hits of the sparse wins kept him going, increasing his involvement and developing into an addiction within just four months.

He became more and more withdrawn from his family, irritable and distant. The financial impacts were also severe. He lost more than $50,000 and tried to hide this from his wife by borrowing money from friends and gambling more. He started to lie constantly, which exaggerated his feelings of shame, worthlessness and isolation. He was in the depths of the vicious cycle of gambling addiction.

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Dealing with the triggers

In treatment, we talk about how his early life experiences affected his self-esteem. Robert realises how money and success gave him a false sense of self-worth. In the therapeutic community setting and group therapy, he also learns that he is not alone in his online gambling addiction. In fact, Robert now understands there are thousands in the community just like him.

In 2022, the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that more than one in 10 Australians (11%) reported participating in online gambling at some stage in the previous six months. This figure is up from 8% in 2020.

After several months of treatment, Robert has found empathy for himself and learned healthy ways of regulating himself and his painful emotions. After treatment, Robert committed to couples and family therapy as he was very keen to not perpetuate the cycle of addiction to his school-age children.

Six months on, he is in recovery and optimistic about his future. Robert avoids high-risk settings that encourage gambling and takes regular time to exercise and practise self-care to minimise his stress levels when he feels overwhelmed by work and home life. We continue to work through his childhood trauma and he is now attending 12-step meetings to prevent a relapse into his gambling addiction.

* Name has been changed for privacy and the client’s story is an amalgam of several cases

Dr Ashwini Padhi is a psychiatrist and Andrea Szasz is the program director at South Pacific Private, a treatment centre for trauma, addiction and mental health


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