Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Men tell of life-threatening habit

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Two residents describe their old compulsions, aiming to encourage people to find help

ROB HEDELT• Rob Hedelt's archiveE-mail Rob Hedelt
Date published: 1/18/2005
FRANKLIN, a Fredericksburg-area resident, was a professional whose business took him all over the country, sometimes to Reno.
The first few outings to a casino there were fun, a lark. But on a later trip, Franklin couldn't ignore the casino's call, spending every free hour and all his money on the slots and gambling tables.
Leaving the casino city solved the problem, or so Franklin thought, until, in the privacy of his own home, he discovered online casinos.
Before long, he was dropping hundreds of dollars a night, eventually losing more than $10,000 at Internet casinos.
He was lying to his wife, betting away the family budget, borrowing money from friends to pay the growing gambling debts.
Things didn't reach a head until he was caught stealing something from a store, an act he still doesn't fully understand because he had the money to pay for the item.
"The only thing I can point to is the risk involved," he said. "I think it was a gamble that I wouldn't get caught."
George, also a Fredericksburg-area resident, had a longer history of compulsive gambling, and of alcoholism.
For years, he simply saw the two as recreation.
If it wasn't weekend trips to Atlantic City, where he could drop $15,000 in just three days at the tables, it was visits to an off-track betting parlor, where he'd go through pitchers of beer and hundred-dollar bills in no time.
At other times, he satisfied the habit with pull tabs or other gambling at a neighborhood lodge or with scratch lottery tickets from a corner store.
In the course of several years, George lost several jobs and houses, as well as his marriage and family, and was forced to declare bankruptcy.
He'd stolen at work, lied to his family and friends and done anything it took to come up with money to plunk down on a bet.
One night, when at the lowest ebb of his life, "at the bottom of a pit I couldn't get out of on my own," George searched to find a phone number that, for some deep-seated reason, he'd held onto.
He, like Franklin, now credits that call to Gamblers Anonymous as the thing that turned his life around.
I met the two area men--Franklin and George are not their real names--recently through Ray Hoskins, who once tackled the same compulsive gambling and helped start a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous.
Hoskins is now vigilant in helping others with that problem, and is a regular at the GA meeting held Sundays at 7 p.m. at Snowden of Fredericksburg.
Both Franklin and George say that GA's 12-step program--modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous--is what keeps them from slipping back into the abyss.
"Once you realize you're a compulsive gambler, you realize you can never be around gambling or that lifestyle anymore," said George, who also attends AA meetings to combat alcoholism.
The local resident, grateful at getting his life back, along with a connection to his family, said the path to recovery for him included a higher power.
"I needed help getting out of that pit," he said, giving credit also to the sponsor who shared the GA process, which involves admitting a problem, making amends to those harmed and seeking to help other compulsive gamblers.
These days, George is a sponsor to two other compulsive gamblers, and feels compelled to spread the word about the local effort to help.
He says that although he's stayed away from gambling, every day is a struggle, and that he would simply turn down any business trip that would take him near a gambling town like Atlantic City or Las Vegas.
Franklin credits GA, his sponsors and his wife with helping him stay away from the gambling that nearly cost him the life he'd worked hard for.
He noted that although local people think that there isn't much organized gambling locally, the habit is no farther away than a convenience store selling scratch tickets or a home computer connected to an Internet casino.
"At our meetings, we see folks from all walks of life: law enforcement, investment companies, you name it," he said. "No one is immune."
For more information on Gamblers Anonymous, call 540/371-8385 locally. For a help line in Richmond, call 804/422-6246. Help is available on the Internet at gamblersanonymous.org.
To reach ROB HEDELT: 540/374-5415 rhedelt@freelancestar.com
Date published: 1/18/2005
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