In the third edition of ‘Just Checking In’ series, we spoke to a brave and courageous man about his gambling addiction. He talked about how it started, how bad it got and why, with the help of Sporting Chance and his family and friends, he turned his life around.
How are you feeling about your mental health currently?
At the minute I’m in a really good place. I started a new job three months ago and I just recently passed my probation so everything’s going well. I get on with everyone at my work whereas before in previous roles, I was struggling to integrate into work environments on a social level.
When was the first time you became aware of your own mental health and realised that it wasn’t just physical pain you experienced?
The first time I became aware of my mental health was in my early teens or maybe even earlier. I played football when I was younger but I was quite shy and I wasn’t able to express myself. As I got older, the problem persisted.
I’m an introverted person and I worried how I was seen by other people. A lot of the time I would follow the crowd to fit in. I was constantly doubting myself. That was a key reason why I eventually developed gambling problems in later life.
If you had to describe your mental health issues (if you had any), what are they and how do they affect you in your day-to-day life?
I still get quite bad anxiety. It’s not as bad as it once was but it still affects me. For example, when I used to get on the tube to go to work, I used to have to get off the train every few stops because I felt like everyone was staring at me. I would have panic attacks because of how uncomfortable I felt. That paranoia affected me a lot. It used to make me really self-conscious.
Those sorts of things I still struggle with now. For example, when I go to the cinema I still have to sit on the end seat in a row so I know I can get out easily if I have to.
I also get some obsessive thoughts that affect me. For example, I knew yesterday night I had a lot of work to get done in the office today. Because of that, I ended up only getting three hours sleep because I couldn’t stop worrying about all the tasks I had to do.
Let’s take a step back in time a little if we can. You’ve been very vocal about your gambling addiction, tell me a bit about that? How did it start, how did it get out of control and when did you ask for help or did people intervene on your behalf?
It started when I was around 17-18 years old. I’d place really small bets like £1 or £2 bet here and there but when you win £40 from your £2 bet, you think “this is going to be pretty easy, I could get used to this”. Very quickly I became emotionally hooked to it.
There were times when I thought “right I need to win some money” but actually, I didn’t NEED to. My financial situation was fairly stable.
What turned my habit into an addiction was needing the buzz and excitement that came with gambling.
When I was in the casino, I felt comfortable. I felt at home. I could escape all the worries and problems I had in life. It was one of the only places I could be free. Unfortunately, I fell into this trap of escapism and began to do it so obsessively that my habit became out of control.
There were so many times where I would get my pay-check at the end of the month and I would gamble it away in a matter of hours. I was deteriorating mentally. Gambling addiction is a vicious cycle and I became a very unreliable person as a result. For example, I was calling in sick more than I would normally because I’d either be in too dark a place to face work or I’d lost all my money.
It got to the stage where I became so down that I fell into a hole, so to speak. No one knew about the extent of my addiction or the money I’d lost. I’d put on a mask and pretend everything was normal but in reality, I was in turmoil.
There were times when I’d lose significant amounts of money in a few hours and I’d come home and I’d see my sister and brother and I wouldn’t want to let them know what I had done, so I’d put on a smile like I would normally. They knew something was up.
I’d go to my room and hide. My mind would be in bits about what I’d just done a few hours earlier.
How did those examples you’ve just given affect your mental health?
I felt tonnes of guilt and remorse over my actions. I hid the extent of my addiction from people to stop them knowing about the pain I was going through.
By the end of this period, I had no self-confidence, no self-esteem and no dignity left.
I’d look in the mirror and I was ashamed of what I’d become. It’s the worst feeling in the world to think you’re worthless.
Now, I can look at myself in the mirror and be proud of who I am whereas before, I felt like a horrible person.
I genuinely felt like I was under a spell. People would say to me “why can’t you just stop?” as if it was that simple.
Would you say the gambling addiction changed you as a person then?
It changed me in lots of ways, both good and bad. For example, I started not turning up to social events. I would say I was going to attend, then I’d make up a reason why I wasn’t going to show and sneak off down the bookies instead.
One positive that came from going through such a bad period is that I now know who I am as a person and I have the tools to deal with situations in life the right way. The only thing I knew about myself was that I was good at football but I knew nothing else.
Some people look at individuals like me quite shamefully and think gambling addicts are scumbags but it’s a mental illness. I had a mental illness.
I think some of the deeper-rooted problems can be traced back to football. When I was in a situation I didn’t want to be in, my escape was to do some kick-ups or play football because it made me feel comfortable. That in itself is an obsessive personality trait.
I think that strengthened my obsessive nature growing up and it probably made me more susceptible to becoming addicted to gambling.
Would you say addiction is a disease?
100%. It’s a mental illness. I’d challenge anyone who says it’s a myth or a fantasy to walk a day in my shoes or anyone else who has an addiction; go to the AA meetings, go to the GA meetings up and down the country and you’ll realise it’s a mental health issue.
I find it quite offensive when people say that addiction doesn’t exist. I know for a fact, if they were in my position, they’d realise what a foolish thing that is to say.
Would you say you have an addictive personality or was it just that gambling in itself became an addiction for you?
To be honest, gambling was my drug of choice because of the money, the buzz and the lights. It was my escape from my normal life.
When I won money, it made me feel like a success – that I was worth something.
However, there’s other substances that I would never touch because I’m scared I might get addicted to them in the same way I got addicted to gambling.
There was loads of moments that I thought was my lowest moment. Every time I hit rock bottom, I’d be an emotional mess. That would be my rock bottom for about two weeks and then I’d do it all again.
I’d tell myself “right, I’m quitting, I’m not doing this anymore” because I was ruining myself. My life was spiralling out of control. Two weeks later I’d be gambling again and hit another low.
Every time I thought I couldn’t go any lower, I went lower.
On the 28th June 2017, I reached the lowest point I’ve ever felt in life. That was the last time I placed a bet. I can’t predict what will happen in the future but I’m taking each day as it comes.
When I was gambling, I wouldn’t look after myself. For example, I would be in the casino for 7 or 8 hours non-stop without eating or drinking. “I’ll have a drink when I’m done” is the mindset I used to have.
Betting companies also tried to hook me back in, even when I began to fight the addiction.
For example, when I was trying to give up gambling, I got cold-called by a representative from a bookmaker. He told me they had a great discount offer especially for me. I told them I wasn’t interested and I was in a bad way but he persisted. I told him “don’t call me again” and put down the phone. He then emailed me, giving me the link to where I could take up his offer.
If I had clicked that link and lost money, that could have been the end of me. He pushed me to the limit. People like that should be ashamed of themselves.
In my opinion, they’re on a par with pay-day lenders.
Talk to me about your fundraising efforts, what made you decide you wanted to raise money for the Sporting Chance clinic?
The Sporting Chance clinic is a place where current and ex-sportsmen and women who are struggling with their mental health issues or addictions can go to receive help and support.
I was in Sporting Chance for 26 days on an intense, tailored programme. I came out feeling great about myself and so much better in who I was. I was so grateful. They turned my life around. I owe it all to them. I wanted to give something back.
I ran the Brentwood half-marathon for them. I raised around £1300. I can’t thank everyone who donated enough.
What positive steps have you taken to get your life back on track and fight the addiction problems you have? What’s been the best method you’ve found useful?
I go to a weekly GA meeting and they’re brilliant Fred, they really are. They let you know you’re not alone. Before, I used to think I was the only person in the world who felt like this.
When I went to the meeting there was ten other people who have gone through exactly what I’ve gone through. It’s relatable and helps me a lot. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s dealing with addiction.
I also work on myself a lot more and try and improve myself as a person. I’m doing little things like setting mini-goals or targets to hit. When I meet those targets, I feel a sense of accomplishment and it makes me feel proud of myself.
When I went to Sporting Chance, they gave me loads of tools and methods to help me work on myself.
Do you remember any examples that they gave you? Did anyone of them stick in your mind for any particular reason?
They helped me understand my character traits and make me recognise when I’m vulnerable and susceptible to placing a bet.
There’s also a technique called ‘Just Checking In’ which is the name of this feature you’re doing Fred!
Thanks for the plug mate!
You’re on the ball with that one! Basically, in the morning, you’d use it by saying to yourself “what are the things I have to do today” and say how you’re feeling about it. You reassure yourself by saying things like “I can get through this, I should be fine. I’m healthy and I’m a strong person”. It’s helped me out a lot.
Are your family aware of your mental health and how supportive have they been when you’ve asked them for help?
My family have always known about my mental health issues but when I told my family about my gambling, it was terrible.
They didn’t really understand it at first. They’d say things like “c’mon you’ve got to sort it out” and then later down the line they’d say “right, you need help with this”. However, no one really understands it unless you’ve been through it.
My family always wanted what’s best for me though, I should stress that. My Mum and Dad thought they were telling me the right things but there’s only so much they could have done. My close friends also helped me a lot in my darkest days, they know who they are.
Every few months I’d say to them “look, I’ve just lost x amount of money”. They’d be disappointed but they’d always support me. When I went to Sporting Chance, they were over the moon that I’d finally got some professional help.
When I was growing up, there was a lot of pressure on me to be a professional footballer and a lot of people had high hopes for me. My Mum and Dad never put any pressure on me but I put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve that footballing dream. If I messed up on the football pitch, I’d beat myself up about it.
I’m also very sensitive to change. For example, one day I could have a brilliant day and I could be flying high. However, if one little bad thing happens to me on the next day it’ll ruin my day and my mood.
When I came out of Sporting Chance, I felt like my family were proud of me again. That was such a good feeling. I just don’t want to let them down again and go back to that dark place.
Do you think the conversation around mental health is changing and if so, how?
I think it’s brilliant that people like you Fred are giving people a voice. This is a brilliant outlet for those who are struggling day-to-day.
Mental health problems can start at a young age. We need to do more to protect children and teenagers from things like bullying and make sure they’re supported.
I think we need to try and be more positive about mental health too. When someone says the word “mental health” immediately you think of issues like anxiety or depression. It doesn’t always have to have negative connotations.
Mental health could be describing positive things in your life like happiness, gratefulness and altruistic acts of kindness. More needs to be done to balance out the conversation but there’s plenty of time for that to change.
We also do need to be careful at times not to over-diagnose and overplay certain situations. Everyone has mental health but not everyone has mental health issues. It’s important for that distinction to be made.
I was very fortunate at university when I had a mental breakdown because I was suicidal and I was seen straight away and put on 8 weeks of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I know I was one of the lucky ones. What more do you think needs to be done to ensure everyone who has mental health issues can get the support they need?
There should be more outlets for people who need to reach out and be given help. I had appointments with two different counsellors and to be honest, they weren’t great at all.
It was only when I went to Sporting Chance and I met with their therapists that I felt listened to. They gave me advice and treatment on how to feel better and improve my own mental health.
There needs to be more clinics in the UK to help people with gambling addiction and addiction more generally.
In addition, I feel like no one does enough to help gambling addicts because people see it as a bit of fun. What they don’t see is how some bookmakers try and reel you in and how they prey on the weak.
Why do you think it’s important to speak out and be open about your mental health issues?
If you keep your sad thoughts and feelings inside, it’ll destroy you. If you suppress those feelings, it explodes out of you in other ways. For me, suppressing those negative feelings caused me to gamble more excessively.
Its so important for people to speak out. The rates of suicide amongst men is shocking. I feel it might be because men feel like they have to achieve a certain status to be looked upon positively.
Finally, if you could pinpoint a reason, why do you think historically it’s taken so long for men and boys to get to a stage where they feel even remotely comfortable talking about their mental health?
I think historically, men haven’t spoken out because sometimes they might be worried they’d get taken the mick out of by his mates or online by other boys. That makes people retreat into their shells.
In football, I can see a change happening which is positive.
What’s the one piece of advice you could give to someone who’s struggling with addiction or mental health issues?
The best bit of advice I could give to someone if they have a gambling addiction is to go to a GA meeting.
For anyone who’s struggling with a mental health issue, try and find someone you trust and open up to them about what you’re going through. That takes a lot of weight off your shoulders.
This interview was published anonymously.
If you have been affected by similar issues to the ones discussed in this article and want to speak to the author, please contact us.
You can read more ‘Just Checking In’ conversations here.