How I faced my past, embraced my culture and left the slot machines behind†
From "Problem Gambling and Video Gaming" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 23
I’m treaty Status Indian in my late 50s. I belong to a reserve in BC. I didn’t grow up there. I left at an early age because I was being abused. So I grew up in Vancouver most of my life. And then I got reintroduced to my reserve in later years when I was about 25 years old.
It’s been about 18 years since I hit a casino for the first time in my life. I went with a friend in Kamloops. I didn’t play cards, just slot machines. It was the sounds and the lights and the colours of the slot machines that got me. And the chance that maybe I was gonna win something. I just found it exciting; I never looked back.
But saying that, I look back at my childhood and I can remember in elementary school playing marbles for other kids’ lunches, so I could have what they had to eat because I didn’t have that in my home. So in Grade 4, I learned how to play marbles and do other things to win other kids’ lunches and stuff. I guess that’s where some of this started.
Shame, loneliness and desperation
At the casino, it was all happy-go-lucky at first. But within the first year, I was spending my rent money, I’d pretty much maxed out my cards and everything, and it wasn’t fun anymore. I would be out all night, all hours, it didn’t matter. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I avoided people, my family. Only the people close to me knew I gambled—but they didn’t know I was in debt. I didn’t want anybody to know I was in debt.
My family all knew how much I loved gambling. They knew I ran to the max: every penny I could spend, I spent in the casino. I could never set a limit. Any time I had money in my pocket I’d be out the door, you know. Sometimes I told stories about where I had been. It just escalated from there. There was a lot of shame, for sure.
I didn’t let anyone know I was in debt, not until I was desperate, when I didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I had to let my family know eventually. I had to borrow money off my sister in order to pay my rent, so I had to let her know. My sister didn’t give me heck, but she let me know she couldn’t do that anymore if I went down that road again and used up all my money.
Mostly I gambled by myself. I would go to the casino because I was just lonely; gambling was my escape from my loneliness. I guess I was a little depressed, too. And it was really just a place for me to be safe without drinking or using drugs. You have choices: you either go to a baseball game, or do some gambling, or you go drinking, and the last thing I wanted to do was go back to drinking and re-fund [re-finance] my misery out there in the streets. I knew I would have died out there. I never drank over my gambling debt, but I could see myself returning to drinking if I kept up the gambling because of the stress that gambling was causing in my life.
So I signed myself up for self-exclusion for a year. (The program enables individuals to ban themselves from casinos across British Columbia for various periods of time). During that year away from the slots, I got real busy with the gym as well as competition sports.
I don’t know how long it was before I went back to the casino; I think it was right after my year of self-exclusion ended. It was a New Year’s bingo thing and they were having $1000 games. I thought, “I could go to that. I won’t be playing on machines. I’ll go play bingo. I’ll be safe there.” But you had to walk past slot machines to get to the bingo hall, and of course that didn’t work.
I got into more trouble with my debt and stuff, so I signed myself up for three years of self-exclusion and this time I asked for counselling [from the BC Responsible & Problem Gambling Program]. I didn’t want to start drinking again. I knew that’s where it was going to take me if I kept this lifestyle up.
I had never talked about my past before and I needed to find out why I was in the casino. Gambling was also getting me in trouble with the relationship I had. I knew I needed to talk about my feelings because I was shutting down, isolating, which was the worst thing I could do. I seen the signs of potentially going back out and picking up that bottle. It was going to ruin my life.
Understanding the root causes
That’s when I started seeing a counsellor, about five or six years ago. I finally wanted to talk about my childhood and what brought me to gambling, and drugs and alcohol and stuff. I went through some really deep counselling for quite a long time.
I can’t say enough about how much I’ve learned about myself. I used to find it hard to talk about myself, about the past. Counselling let me get past that, where I’m not afraid about what you’re going to say about me. It doesn’t hurt me anymore for people to know what kind of person I was. I was just ashamed of gambling, drinking, that kind of lifestyle. When I started seeing my counsellor, I started talking about my childhood and where it all stemmed from and where it was going to take me if I kept it up. I would’ve never thought that the roots were so far back.
My drinking started when I was a child, about 15. It was just another addiction I picked up. But I never drank when I gambled. I’ve been clean and sober now for 16 years. When I was gambling, I had already stopped drinking. Gambling was just another way to fill a void in myself. Gambling was like burying it, not talking about it. With my alcohol, it was a very visible thing: I was a fall-down drunk, whereas with gambling, I hid it.
Gambling was always a hidden thing. I was ashamed. I didn’t want people to even know that I gambled. The only time I talked about my gambling was at group meetings at Gamblers Anonymous. I couldn’t talk to anyone outside of the group; I didn’t think they’d understand.
My recovery really started when I went to an all-Native college in Merritt, 20 years ago now. That’s where it all started for me, being around my own people for the first time. I was never so comfortable, and that’s what changed my life around. I seen a friend from my past, from the streets, who was in the AA program. That’s when I joined Alcoholics Anonymous, otherwise I knew I was going to lose my schooling because I was drinking in the first year of school and I was just going downhill real fast. When I went to the [all-Native] school, it finally gave me enough confidence and courage to move forward and join the AA program and do something with my life.
Today, I’m back at the gym. I’m also in a Native “wellbriety” AA meeting. Those are the things I do. My spirituality as well, through my Native ways: that’s what keeps me out of the danger zone. And seeing my counsellor. And being able to go to Gamblers Anonymous. When I get lonely now, I’m learning how to talk about it instead of holding it all in.
I don’t think a lot of people realize why they are in the casino. It really opened my eyes when I went to counselling and saw how my gambling stemmed from my abusive childhood, that that’s why I was feeling what I was feeling. The same with the drinking: being able to talk about it, put it on the table, really opened my eyes as to how I traded one addiction for the next. And how dangerous that was for me.
There’s always help out there: there’s a handshake around every corner, you just need to be able to reach out for it. That’s the message I have for people today, especially the kids out there that I see turning left when they should be going right—because I recognize all the signs.
When I was abused as a child, I was ashamed. The feelings I had towards my abusers, I guess I kind of blamed myself. I had those feelings so deep that I wasn’t able to talk about it until seeing a counsellor. But I couldn’t live with hatred in my heart. So being able to finally let go is really powerful. I know there’s help everywhere I turn. I just need to be able to open up to reach out to find it.
My culture’s been helpful in the biggest way. I started going to my Native sweat lodge, to pray, being at all the ceremonies, and that’s when I met the Creator. That entered my life, that changed it. All I know is, when I left that sweat lodge one day, I never thought about drinking again. I knew someone was looking out for me after getting down on my knees and asking for help. That word, “God”: all my life I couldn’t stand to hear the word until it was introduced to me in our Native ways. That’s the Creator. And once I introduced the Creator into my life, there was no turning back.
I knew from then on, I had to keep up the work in order to keep what I had, and that meant going to AA meetings and talking about myself and being able to help others. Being in that [all-Native] school, that gave me confidence in myself again, that there was hope out there for me, that I had a chance, that I could learn, that I wasn’t that stupid person people kept telling me I was my whole life. The biggest thing was just being around my own Native people. It changed my life.
†As told to Sarah Hamid-Balma. Visions would like to thank counsellor Janice Mercredi Murphy for helping us find and support an Indigenous contributor for this issue.
About the author
Wayne belongs to a First Nation in British Columbia. He currently lives in Kamloops