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House of Cards

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

A daughter’s perspective on gambling

Heidi Morgan

From "Problem Gambling and Video Gaming" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 14 (2), p. 14

My dad and I had a loving and complex relationship. Like it is for many little girls, in my eyes, my father could do no wrong. He had a giving heart and an amazing sense of humour. But he was also a gambler. Horses and poker were his favourite gambles. It wasn’t just the thrill of the game or the adventure of the race. Something more than that drove him. He was addicted. I think that for him, gambling filled the emptiness that he needed to fill.

My dad was a gambler by nature. He gambled beyond the betting arena, in other areas of his life. For example, he claimed to not know the extent of my mother’s mental illness before they married, but in retrospect I think he just didn’t want to believe she was ill. Here was a woman with a comparably warm and loving heart, who had been through a horrible ordeal in her first marriage. Perhaps he told himself that her illness—she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia—was situational, which of course it wasn’t. Yet he took a chance on their love. On her.

My mother is brilliant, and an amazing pianist. Because of her illness, however, she also faced many challenges, which meant that she and my dad dealt with a lot through their marriage. I think he found in gambling an escape from the reality of our crumbling family life. But it’s very possible that he would have ended up gambling even without the challenges at home.

I don’t think my father ever felt like he was good enough just as he was. His life’s journey seemed to be focused on proving his worth; he constantly looked outside himself for validation. At some point, I believe his motivation to work hard in life just died. In the absence of grit and persistence, he hoped that gambling would net him the big golden payoff. He had big dreams.

In some ways, my childhood was difficult. Sometimes there was no food to eat at home. We spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents, but sometimes I would be home alone (my mother was often hospitalized and my older brother wasn’t around). On those days, I would walk the half-hour to the poker club that my dad frequented, in the hope that he would provide me with a meal. I was only 11 years old the first time I did so, and I remember being afraid, walking into the building by myself. My dad would add the food to his tab, and then after the hand of poker was done, he would come and sit with me. I remember one time I went all the way to the club only to find that he wasn’t there. I had to walk all the way back home, which seemed to take much longer than the walk there.

He never physically abandoned us—he would always eventually come home. But I often felt that he was disconnected from us—as if he’d “checked out,” mind, body and soul. He seemed unaware of the consequences of his gambling, untethered from reality, always hoping that his winning big would somehow be our ticket to a life of ease.

I remember going to the racetrack with him on several occasions. Inside the building, the halls were filled with the smoke of hundreds of cigarettes. I remember it being so hard to breathe and smelling so bad that I still don’t understand why I ever started smoking.

My dad was a passionate man: boy, did he ever get animated at the track—whether he lost or won. If he won, he would shake those papers towards the heavens and yell with glee. It was great to see him win. But if he lost, he would cast the folded program he held in his hand violently to the ground and scream blue murder. It was hard to see him lose. He took a hit to his self-worth every time—the house of cards he had built for himself was coming tumbling down.

My dad’s gambling did result in some positive events once in a while. Once, he had a big win and surprised my brother and me at Christmas with brand-new bikes. I was so happy. I rode that bike from our house to the end of the street and back for hours! I always liked those sorts of surprises, few as they were. They were much better than the empty promises he made. There were a lot of those.

When I was 12 and my brother was 14, we went into foster care. My mother had had enough of our grandparents having to stock the fridge and pay the rent, so she asked her brother, my uncle, for help to place us. What felt like an eternity in foster care was really only a little short of a year. We eventually moved back in with our parents, but things didn’t get any better. They still had trouble paying the rent and buying enough for us to eat.

We ended up staying in hotels a lot because you can pay for shorter periods of time. Sometimes, I had to be strategic about it: when the hotel staff came to demand payment, I would say, “Hey, I’m just a kid and my parents aren’t home, so leave me alone.” One day, that strategy didn’t work. I had to pack up what I could carry and leave. That was a lonely walk out of there.

In another hotel, all four of us shared a single room with two beds, a hot plate and a bar fridge. This time, I made the choice to go back into foster care, leaving behind my mom, dad and brother in the hope of finding a better life.

Eventually, my dad decided to move from New Westminster to the Downtown Eastside. My mother followed him there—though by this time they were living apart. My brother moved out on his own, and I met and moved in with my boyfriend. In my mid-20s, when that relationship ended, I moved to Vancouver as well. It was the first time I had ever lived alone. I found a good job and rented a small bachelorette pad in the West End. But I felt guilt for the stability I had found in my life.

Then my dad took another big chance, one that would cost him dearly. He began seeing a woman whom he had met at the single-room-occupancy hotel where he lived and worked in the Downtown Eastside. This woman seemed very wise, had a pretty good outlook on life, and she was funny. I liked that. I wanted to be loyal to my mom but I liked my father’s new love interest.

When my dad told me that he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive, he explained that he was pricked with a used needle while cleaning one of the hotel rooms. I later learned that he’d contracted HIV from the woman he was seeing, but I never confronted him with what I knew. They were both good people, and it was hardly important.

I cared for my father in the final year of his life, as his health rapidly deteriorated. During this time, I learned deep lessons about forgiveness. Caring for my father in those last few months meant experiencing, understanding and accepting every shade of sorrow, anger and resentment that coloured my heart.

Over time, as my wounds have healed, I’ve learned to view my father in a different light. His struggles and his experiences provided me with an opportunity to learn from him. Today, when I see a racetrack or a casino, I think of my father and thank him: he inspired me to work on accepting myself for who I am, and to take chances on connecting with people and loving them deeply. The insights I gained from him are a gift: if we can truly accept and heal our wounds, we can transform them into blessings. Life is a gamble—but even good things can come from a house of cards.

 
About the author

Heidi is a Vancouver-based musician and writer with a day job in mental health. She is a passionate advocate for human connection and our own acceptance of our “enoughness.” She has two cats and would like to live in a tree house in a tropical climate some day. She hopes the cats will consent

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