Some recent observations based on my work in the Chinese community
Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 30
John* is one of my counselling clients. This is his story.
The story begins with John sitting in his car in the parking lot of a casino. He has just gambled away his entire pay cheque, within only a few hours of leaving work, and now must go home to his family. How can he possibly face them? How can he admit what he has done?
Of course, the story doesn't really begin in the parking lot. It began many years ago and is rooted in John's personal experiences and the role of gambling in the immigrant community. As John sat in his car, he thought back over the past few months of gambling and his chasing after money he had lost. Then he began to think about his life in Canada.
When he first arrived in Canada from China eight years ago, John was excited to begin a new life. He did not expect to retain the same professional career that he had in China, and he looked forward to trying other professional opportunities and re-establishing himself in his new country.
John wasn't fluent in English, and this made it difficult to find the right job. But he needed to support his family, so he accepted work as a labourer, with the hope that there would be other, more suitable opportunities along the way. But long hours of physical labour meant he did not have the time (or the energy) to take English classes to improve his language skills.
Sometimes John regretted the move to Canada. But when he looked at his family, especially his children, he reminded himself that the move had been worth it. His children were receiving a good education and seemed to enjoy life here. He worked harder and hoped that one day his luck would turn around.
One evening, a co-worker invited John to the casino after a long day of work. John had not tried casino gambling before. He was curious; he decided to give it a try.
That night, he won a few hundred dollars. "My luck has finally changed!" he thought. From that point on, he visited the casino regularly. He even began to believe he could gamble for a living.
In the beginning, he certainly did win some money. But gradually, he started to lose more than he won. Then he started to chase the money he had lost, betting more and more in order to recoup his losses. His sense of guilt increased. He carried around the burden of his secret, not wanting to tell his wife and family—betting ever higher amounts in the hope that he could just break even.
Gambling in BC's immigrant community
Stories like John's are not unusual—but this does not make them less heartbreaking. Many who begin to gamble as a form of entertainment end up experiencing pain and loss. In my experience, stories like John's have a particular poignancy in the immigrant community.
Many new immigrants have not tried gambling in casinos before and are attracted by the excitement, the thrills and the satisfaction of that initial win, especially in a country where life as an immigrant can be very challenging. Winning in the casino can feel like a reassertion or reacknowledgement of one's abilities and worth—particularly if these aren't recognized at work or in everyday life in the new country. The casino can also provide an important social outlet—where people can meet others who speak the same language and share the same culture.
In the Chinese community, gambling—in the form of Mahjong, dice games and some card games—is a common pastime among family members and friends. It is seen as an opportunity to socialize with others. Perhaps this is why it was easy for John to accept his colleague's initial invitation to check out the casino. But since gambling is viewed by the Chinese community as a game, people are also expected to control their gambling behaviours—as they would in a game—and to not be negatively impacted by their participation in what is generally viewed as a harmless pastime.
In fact, in the Chinese immigrant community, there is a high degree of denial and stigma surrounding problem gambling behaviours; many of my clients tell me that they were simply not aware of gambling’s potentially negative consequences. All too easily they fell into the trap of the "chase cycle"—the need to gamble more frequently, or in increasingly higher amounts, in order to win back one's losses. But the more they gambled, the more they lost—and the more they needed to continue the chase. They truly believed that if they worked harder or gambled harder, they would eventually win back their losses. By the time they fully accepted that gambling is based on luck—not hard work—much money was already gone.
The situation is further complicated in the immigrant community because many immigrants gamble to escape emotional pain. For example, some of my clients are mothers who live with their children in Canada while their spouses work in China. While these women manage life's challenges here in Canada, they worry that their spouses may be having extramarital affairs overseas. The women's loneliness, and the prospective loss of a stable relationship, can push them into the casinos. A financial loss may be a way to exact revenge against an absent spouse. It is also a means to alleviate or forget emotional loss.
Family members of those who gamble often feel helpless and see the situation as unfair. From their perspective, the gambler "has fun" at the casino while the family suffers unstable financial conditions at home as the direct victims of gambling's negative consequences.
Some practical advice for gamblers and their families
As part of my counselling program, I explain to family members that they need to protect themselves financially and emotionally from the negative impacts of gambling. Family members might consider having separate bank accounts and credit card accounts from the gambler so that the gambler can’t access money that belongs to other family members. If credit cards and bank accounts are in different names, creditors may go after the gambler instead of family members for debt payment. There are also debt repayment plan options, and some of this research can be done in counselling sessions.
In my counselling practice, I see that family members of the gambler frequently seem to be at the mercy of the gambler's behaviour. When the gambler gambles, family members often become immensely angry and worried and seem to lose their sense of self. There is often an expectation that the gambler will change their behaviour. The main focus becomes to “control” the gambler (rather than always feeling "controlled" by the gambler) and to try to find ways to make sure the gambler does not gamble at all.
But this energy is misplaced. It is healthier—emotionally and financially—for family members to put in place some practical safeguards to protect their finances and to protect and support other family members. We cannot force the gambler to change. Instead, I encourage family-member clients to take care of their own needs, to try new, relaxing and fun activities and to live as independently as possible from the gambler. Of course, in the best-case scenario, the gambler is able to stop gambling altogether. But if this isn't possible, family members can still live lives that are less negatively impacted by the gambler’s actions.
Rebuilding calm communication with the gambler is also essential. Usually, this is difficult for family members, particularly if they have suffered extreme financial or emotional losses due to the gambler's gambling. But I have heard from my gambling clients that care shown by family members helps them to resist the urge to gamble and to question the purpose of their gambling. I have also had clients tell me that they gamble as a way to punish themselves, or that the act of gambling becomes a way to exact revenge against angry family members. If the gambler's sense of guilt or desperation to chase lost money is not understood, the gambler may continue to gamble in the hopes of regaining enough money to satisfy the family. If family members communicate their distress in ways that the gambler finds difficult to listen to, then this gives the gambler more reasons to escape the situation through gambling.
Try using the following four steps to improve your communication with a gambling family member:
Choose a quiet time and place to bring up concerns with the gambler.
Assure the gambler that you understand their perspective but that you are worried about their physical and emotional well-being.
Enlist the gambler's help in deciding what to do, and give the gambler some time to come up with ideas to engage in their own recovery.
After a few days, remind the gambler that the family needs a plan for managing the gambling.
This kind of gentle, patient communication is important for the well-being of the entire family.
Hope for John and others
John's struggle that night at the parking lot was a turning point for him. He realized that his detour into gambling had cost him financially and emotionally. He decided to tell his wife about his gambling and financial losses. She was devastated and at first had difficulty believing that her trusting and honest husband had developed such a problem. But she also accepted his apologies.
She and John worked out a debt repayment plan with their bank. She encouraged John to sign up for the voluntary self-exclusion program with the BC Lottery Corporation, which kept John from entering any casinos in BC for three years. She also urged John to receive counselling.
Through counselling, John began to understand the reasons behind his problem gambling. He also learned how to rebuild his self-confidence, establish healthy ways to manage stress and identify strategies to prevent future gambling relapses. Today, John has a healthier lifestyle, is a happier person and is able to enjoy life in Canada.
Gambling can be fun when it is enjoyed in a responsible manner. The province's Responsible & Problem Gambling Program offers prevention services and education on responsible gambling strategies. The same program also offers counselling services for those who struggle with gambling and for their family members. See the program’s website for more information, at www.bcresponsiblegambling.ca.
About the author
Irene has been a counsellor with the BC Responsible & Problem Gambling Program since 1997 and works with the Chinese community. She is a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) in BC and works at S.U.C.C.E.S.S. as the Family Service Program Manager with the Family and Community Services Division