Problem Gambling: Separating Fact From Fallacy

Addictions of all types have a secret aspect about them that can make it hard to separate the myth from the reality. Gambling addiction is no different; people have ideas about problem gambling that do not coincide with the facts, and as long as these misconceptions are floating around out there, the people who are closest to problem gamblers may not know how best to help their loved ones conquer their compulsions. And of course problem gamblers themselves are also exposed to these false beliefs, and as a result they may fail to realize just how much trouble they are actually in. Gambling addiction is a monster that, if left unchecked, will devour everything in its path. The existence of a mythology that distracts its victims and prevents them from accurately comprehending the depth of their plight helps to give that monster free reign to do whatever it pleases. For the sake of every problem gambler, it is important to separate the facts about gambling addiction from the fallacies.  All who are affected by compulsive gambling need to become enlightened enough about the topic to understand what is real and what is only rationalization, mistaken perception, or wishful thinking. To help counteract the mythology, here are ten of the most common fallacies surrounding problem gambling, along with the facts they have helped to obscure:

Fallacy #1:  Gambling addiction is easy to recognize.

Fact:  Addiction specialists often refer to problem gambling as the “hidden addiction” because most problem gamblers are experts at keeping their behavior secret. Compulsive gamblers become masters of concealment, and since their problem usually doesn’t cause outward changes in their appearance or obvious deviations in their mental states, even those closest to them may be absolutely clueless about what has been going on.

Fallacy #2:  A gambling addict will gamble every day.

Fact: There is no clear pattern in the frequency of problem gambling. Every compulsive gambler develops his own unique style; many will gamble irregularly or only on occasion. Gamblers will always come back for more at some point, however, and it is this irresistible need to gamble again that is the true hallmark of the gambling addict.

Fallacy #3:  A compulsive gambler will take every opportunity to make a bet or play games of chance.

Fact: Most problem gamblers have one or two specific areas of interest, and rather than gamble on anything and everything, they will only make wagers on the contests that they find particularly exciting. Compulsive behaviors tend to be quite specialized in most instances, and compulsive gambling is no exception.

Fallacy #4:  Only irresponsible people develop gambling problems.

Fact: The vast majority of Americans – more than 80 percent, according to most surveys – will gamble at some point in their lives, and the more a person participates in games of chance the greater the likelihood that he will eventually become addicted, no matter his occupation, personal history, or pattern of achievement. Problem gamblers come from all walks of life, and many are highly successful professionals who are widely respected and admired in their communities.

Fallacy #5:  Gambling is not really a problem if a person can afford it.

Fact: It depends on how you define the word “afford.” If we are only talking about money, then perhaps a wealthy gambler who only bets a little at a time may not end up losing his house, his car, or the rest of his most vital possessions. But his compulsive gambling could certainly damage his relationships with his spouse, children, parents, friends, and anyone else who cares about him. So while financial devastation is not 100 percent guaranteed for every problem gambler, personal devastation is, if he does not learn to control his problem. Is ruining all of our important relationships really something that any of us can afford to do?

Fallacy #6:  If problem gamblers were better at gambling, they wouldn’t have a problem.

Fact: Problem gamblers do tend to rack up the losses. The average debt for a hard-core male gambling addict is estimated to be $55,000 to $90,000, which makes it easy to argue that gambling addicts are not particularly good at what they do. But people do not get into trouble with gambling simply because they feel forced to bet over and over again to make up for past losses. On the contrary, it is the pattern of placing repeated bets that gets problem gamblers so deeply into debt in the first place. Gambling operations are set up so that the House always wins, and only the lucky few who know how to quit when they are ahead will be able to walk away with their shirts still on their backs.

Fallacy #7:  Gambling addicts are only hurting themselves, so if they can eventually get help everything should be fine.

Fact: By the time they see the error of their ways and are ready to seek counseling for their addictions, compulsive gamblers may have done irreparable damage to their families as well as to others. Want to know how “victimless” compulsive gambling really is? Here are some good indicators: the divorce rate is twice the normal average when one spouse is a problem gambler; about 50 percent of all spouses married to compulsive gamblers suffer from physical abuse at some time during the relationship; children of gambling addicts have significantly higher levels of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drug consumption in comparison to the average adolescent; and 64 percent of all problem gamblers will commit crimes in order to support their out-of-control habits. “Victimless” indeed.

Fallacy #8:  When compulsive gamblers fall deeply into debt, it is a good idea to bail them out so they can get back to even and remove their primary motivation for continuing to gamble.

Fact: If a compulsive gambler’s debts are paid off by a loved one, his gratitude will likely be so immense that it will move him to tears. He will then promise to never gamble again, swearing on a stack of Bibles that his wagering days truly are behind him once and for all. And after he has done all that, he will then proceed to go right back to gambling as soon as the opportunity presents itself, and before you know it, he will be back in debt just as deeply as he was before. When you help a problem gambler out financially you are only enabling his behavior, and the chances of him giving up his habit for good following such a selfless deed are somewhere between slim and none – and slim was recently spotted hopping on a train heading south.

Fallacy #9:  It is possible for compulsive gamblers to learn to gamble in moderation, even after they have been through rehab.

Fact: Ask a problem gambler who chose to start gambling again – only in moderation, of course – after a period of abstinence how that experiment worked out. The high that gamblers experience when they are having success is so powerful that the memory of it can sustain them through years of heavy losing. Trying to gamble in moderation following rehab will only stimulate those recollections and send the problem gambler spiraling back into the black hole of addiction from which they had previously fought so hard to escape.

Fallacy #10:  Gambling addiction is more easily treated than other types of addiction, such as those that involve substance abuse.

Fact: Relapse rates for problem gamblers in recovery are among the highest for any type of addiction. Even with a comprehensive treatment program that includes therapy, regular peer group attendance, and medication, it can take up to two full years of intensive rehabilitation before a gambling addict will finally have a good chance of keeping his personal demons at bay. It is extremely hard to overcome a compulsive gambling habit, and those who suspect their gambling may be getting out of hand should either quit immediately or consult with an addiction specialist if doing so on their own proves impossible.

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