A Life Pervaded by Addiction: an interview with Joe

The common phrase ‘problem gambler’ is thrown about very casually as if the compulsive gambling behaviour that so many experience (about 5% of the UK polulation including the 0.7% of life threatening cases). Too often a person is defined as an ‘addict’ or a ‘problem’. People do have problems and addictions but to identify them buy labellig them only in these terms is dehumanising and wrong.

The way we all too often label people needs challenging. Hence we have anti-stigma campaigns. There are many such campaigns around mental health. People should not be labelled for many reasons: one is that it lessens or belittles them; another is that it isolates people by their being seen as ‘different’; a third is that negative labelling deters people from seeking help and support.

This interview with Joe reveals a life of suffering from compulsive gambling. Rather than facts and statistics, academic studies, medical discourses, we think it is essential and in many ways more powerful and relevant to listen to the unique, individual voices of people who face the danger of being boxed into a dehumanising label and stereotype.

What’s also brought out in this interview is that problem gambling involves far more than individuals who gamble. It includes the environment and culture. It also includes the design of gambling machines in our digital age – specifically, in Joe’s case, fixed odds betting terminals and online gambling.

Addiction Musings (1) Introduction

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We’re beginning a series of posts ‘musing’ about addiction. Musing rather than thinking too hard, as the subject is so vast and split into thousands of specialist research specialities. Not to metioned the all too often ignored experiences and ideas of people who have personal acquaintance with addictions.

Words – any words – can be highly misleading. The word ‘addiction’ does not refer to a thing that can be seen or otherwise sensed, weighed, measured. It is helpful to think of it as just a signpost to hundreds of different states which are often barely understood by addicts themselves or expert specialists. No one has, and no one ever will, come up with a unified ‘theory of addiction’ because unlike, for instance, things that can be weighed or measured or seen in a microscope, there are no tight borders around the term. Everything is blurred. In everyday life people talk about being ‘addicted’ to such-and-such a television series or type of biscuit. Such usage of the word belittles the suffering of  severe addiction states.

On the other hand, it is accepted as a fact that not only substance dependence but behaviours can be characterised medically as addictions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition which is one of the main diagnostic manuals used by psychiatrists identifies ‘gambling disorder’ as a clear-cut case of addiction.

Increasingly mentioned in the media are things like ‘internet addiction’, ‘smartphone addiction’ and ‘social media addiction’. Serious research has yet to suggest whether these are ‘true’ addictions – but they certainly have many of the characteristics of addictions.

An interesting case of possible addiction relates to climbers for whom climbing is one of the most, if not the most, important part of their lives. They have reported ‘withdrawl symptoms’ of depression and anxiety if injury prevents their activity. It’s well known too, that many love exercise and the gym so much that they would feel bereft without them. Activities such as exercise and climbing are known to relese chemicals i the brain which produce a ‘feel good’ factor and in some cases, especially when combined with risk, a definite high or ‘buzz’.

On this site we mean by addiction a condition which involves compulsive activity over which an indidual feels they have little or no control, and which produces extremely negative consequences. Negative consequences involve physical and mental health, financial problems, relationship breakdowns and other serious problems – including, of course, death. In some cases, people suffering with addiction will be ‘in denial’ and not realise or admit the devestating consequences of their behaviour; equally, many are only too aware yet feel they cannot stop the compulsion. Invariably, the lives of those close to somebody suffering from addiction are seriously affected too.

More people than today used to talk of a ‘demon’ within, such as ‘the demon drink’. Interestingly, the word addiction in mediaeval times was used to describle priests’ giving themselves up to God. Addiction was a contract, and in Roman times a slave would be ‘addicted’ to a master. We still talk about being enslaved by addiction.

There is still a great deal of stigma around those suffering with addiction (and other mental health ailments too). It is seen by some uninformed people as a character weakness or a moral flaw. In reality addiction is a mental health condition that requires every bit as much understanding, research and treatment as, for instance, depression or anxiety.

In fact, depression and anxiety are often the primary disorders which lead people to ‘self medicate’ or take part in risky behaviours in an attempt to alleviate suffering: addiction may follow (and when it does it usually makes the original conditions worse).

Addiction can strike anybody irrespective of age, gender or social class. While it is true that some addictions correlate with factors such as deprivation, poverty and social exclusion, many addictions do not. There are plenty of teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, politicians, judges who succumb to alcohol. Online gambling prevalence is highly correlated with middle class professionals. Away from ‘skid row’ stereotypes, thousands of ‘respectable’ people are becoming addicted to over the counter painkillers and prescription only drugs obtained illegally (mainly online).

Current research shows that 9% of men and 4% of women are physically dependent upon alcohol. That is a staggeringly high figure and it may well increase.

Addiction is not, then, something which happens to a few unfortunates or degenerates. It is almost certain that somebody reading this now is on the road to addiction if not already there. And it is completely certain that everybody knows someone suffering from addiction be it at home, at work, among friends. And for each of these people, many more will be suffering too – from their addiction.

 

Children Learning to Gamble

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In the digital environment – where some toddlers learn to use a digital device before they can talk – bright and cheerful interactive apps and games are the norm for children.

Go to an online gambling site for adults and you see the same sort of bright and cheerful apps and ‘games’. Roulette? You can play for free using virtual credits. Just a click of a button and you can play for real money. Children are no different from adults in enjoying risk, winning and losing chances, and are likely to be drawn to these games of chance.

In addition, the format of children’s games and gambling screens is blurred. A child who learns to love screen games is already primed to love online adult ‘games’.

The Australian Gambling Research Centre has published a worrying report:

According to the report, the fact that gambling and gaming have been mixed together means that gambling has been normalised for children. 

Young people are effectively being taught the basics of gambling at a younger age than ever before. 

But from making one click on your Facebook page, to one simple swipe on your smartphone, simulated gambling games are everywhere and they can be difficult to avoid.

Since television and online advertising for gambling is on the increase, and children today grow up in a world where televised football, for example, equals televised gambling, there is cause for concern.

Image Lee Davy

Fixed odds betting online and on the high street

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An article in The Guardian argues that the age old distinction between gaming and betting has been eroded by the advent of digital gambling machines in high street bookmakers and online. Many people who enjoy or provide betting are upset that an element of skill and genuine odds based on probabilities of outcome are taken away by fixed odds machines.

 

If Lionel Messi gets injured in the warm-up, for instance, the odds about a Barcelona win will immediately start to drift. And because the odds fluctuate and come down to a matter of judgment, shrewd gamblers – and there are plenty – can make a longterm profit from their betting.

In gaming, the odds are fixed, because the chance of every possible outcome is known, and also fixed. The maths which governs the payouts and probabilities is as immutable and well-understood as the laws of planetary motion. For as long as we live in a universe where an apple falls down and not up, no gambler can win at gaming in the long run.

For 200 years in Britain, from the birth of both bookmaking and roulette in the last decade of the 18th century until the arrival of internet gambling, betting and gaming knew their place. Betting took place on racecourses and, since the early 1960s, in high-street betting shops. Gaming was restricted to casinos. Its availability, in other words, was more tightly regulated.

The internet has changed all that, and it is betting firms, both online and on the high street, that have been doing their utmost to blur the centuries-old dividing line. The “B” in FOBT stands for “betting”, for instance, but these are gaming machines, pure and simple. The FOBTs produce guaranteed profits – an average of more than £50,000 per machine per year – and never ask for a pay rise or phone in sick.