Dear Dr. Garner,
I have a real problem. My husband is a compulsive gambler. He’s been this way ever since I met him 35 years ago. He can’t control his behavior. Over the years, he’s lost a lot of money. We never have the means to get the things that our family needs.
With all the excitement of the Belmont Stakes this year, his problem seems to have gotten worse. He bet large amounts of money in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. I believe we stand to lose a lot – and not just in the race.
Is there any way to stop this behavior? It’s tearing our family apart.
Gambler’s Wife in Greenwood
Dear Gambler’s Wife,
It sounds like your husband has a very serious problem. He exhibits the actions of a compulsive gambler. This is a person who has an uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the misery it is bringing to the family. He is willing to risk something very valuable in the hope of getting something of even greater value.
Gambling problems produce changes in the brain similar to other addictions like drugs. People who are prone to gambling often have addictions to other substances and tend to hide their behaviors. They accumulate a lot of debt, possibly turning to illegal activities and as a result, destroy their lives.
How can you tell if someone is a compulsive gambler? If any of the items listed below sound familiar, then attention is required:
- Get a big thrill from taking a large risk
- Make increasingly large bets
- Have a preoccupation with gambling
- Take time from work or the family to gamble
- Borrow or steal to pay off debts
- Feel guilty after gambling
- Use gambling as a way to escape depression
Rarely the condition will manifest itself after the first bet. More likely, gambling increases over time. Many people spend years enjoying social gambling without any problems, and then something kicks off and they enter a much more serious situation.
The urge to gamble can be very powerful. For most compulsive gamblers, the betting is not about making money but more about the excitement. While most gamblers will be able to stop after losing, the compulsive gambler feels compelled to keep playing to recover his money.
The gambler should ask himself the following:
- Does gambling affect your relationships and finances?
- Are you devoting more time and energy to gambling?
- Have you tried to stop gambling but cannot?
- Do you ask others to lend you money?
- Do you hide your gambling from the family?
- Are you a workaholic?
No one knows exactly what causes compulsive gambling. It may be a result of brain changes which affect how much pleasure a person gets from an addiction.
Compulsive gambling is more common in younger and middle-aged people. It is much more common in men than women. If a parent had a gambling problem, the chances are greater that you will also.
Finally, if you are competitive, a workaholic or easily bored, this may increase your risk for gambling. Being a compulsive gambler hurts your relationships. It also can increase the likelihood of job loss, suicide and mental health disorders, especially depression. As with other addictions, the first step is admitting you have a problem. The key is to see a doctor as soon as possible. Treatment methods include psychotherapy, antidepressants and support groups.
There is no proven way to prevent a gambling problem from developing, but those people who do have risk factors should avoid gambling in any form.
It is important your husband gets help. Untreated, his addiction may lead to job loss, depression, theft or even suicide.
Please keep me informed of your husband’s progress.
Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97, Cablevision Channel 30 and Verizon FiOS on Demand.