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The Compulsive Gambler: A Basic Overview

Edward Looney, CCGC
Executive Director, Council on Compulsive Gambling of NJ, Inc
Kevin O’Neill, CCGC, LCSW, CADC, CEAP, CPS
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), Pathological Gambling , commonly referred to as Compulsive Gambling, is classified as a “Disorder of Impulse Control”. This is considered a primary psychiatric disorder although some clinicians argue that it may be a “symptom” of another emotional disorder. Many professionals consider it to be an “addictive illness” with most of the same symptoms of alcohol and drug addiction. The disabling factors involved are often: depression, financial devastation, commission of illegal acts, lying about gambling winnings and losses, family disruption, major changes in employment and social functioning, suicidal ideations and preoccupation with gambling thoughts and feeling guilty about their behavior. To the casual observer, many compulsive gamblers give the appearance of being enormously egotistical. A closer look at coping style reveals an entirely different picture. The fact that they continually need to find ways to feed their undernourished egos belies this idea.

In the first stages of compulsive gambling, the person may want the largest car and the finest clothing available, as their way of reassuring themselves of their self-worth. In their struggle to relate to others, compulsive gamblers create the image that they are philanthropists and an all-around “good guys or women”. They are considered by most to be very charming and lovable people. Their families may feel that the gambler is concerned for everyone except them. Compulsive gamblers usually set unreasonable and unrealistic goals for themselves which, in frustration, they are never able to reach. They have a tendency to expect too much from those around them as well as from themselves. They may be extremely controlling persons.

When faced with personal failures in life:

  • The compulsive gambler copes with the frustrations of day-by-day living through escape and fantasy.
  • They seek relief from their poor self-image by dreaming of a Monte Carlo-type existence, filled with friends, new cars, furs and jewelry, penthouses and rubbing elbows with “the right people”.
  • There never seems to be a big enough win to make even the smallest dream come true–probably because any winnings are, to them, sacred. Compulsive gamblers believe they must always return to win more.
  • Ultimately, they gamble in reckless desperation and this “dream world” brings them no relief. They feel emotional conflict and group acceptance only when gambling. This self- destruction is a terrifying experience for the family because it may involve their destruction, as well. As the illness progresses, gambling (the problem-solving device used to relieve anxiety, tension and unpleasantness) fails to anesthetize the pain, so the obsession to gamble is accelerated.
  • Through all the various stages of gambling, the compulsive gambler must wear the mask of a happy-go-lucky person. Denial, minimizing, blaming, rationalizing, deflecting are some of the most common defenses used to prevent accepting the reality of their gambling disorder.

Most compulsive gamblers cannot admit a need for help until their obsessive-compulsive behavior has made life intolerable. Each must find his or her own depth of despair. This could be any number of experiences, such as the loss or threatened loss of the person or thing most important to them. It may be loss of freedom (because of impending incarceration), loss of family, or the final realization of their complete loss of self-respect. When this crisis presents itself and the compulsive gambler reaches the point where he or she is willing to admit loss of control of gambling and the complete chaos of their life, they may be ready to accept help. They will find the help they need in Gamblers Anonymous (GA) and through specialized counseling with trained and/or certified professionals.

If they are to abstain from gambling indefinitely, it may be necessary for most compulsive gamblers in recovery to maintain regular attendance in GA. There they will find identification, emotional comfort, group acceptance, pressure relief and assistance in the arduous task of changing their life coping style. To learn more about the illness of Compulsive (Pathological) Gambling, please contact the nearest Council on Compulsive and Problem Gambling in your area or your local chapter of GA (found in your phonebook). You may also obtain information on the web at  www.800gambler.org , www.ncpgambling.org or visit www.gamblersanonymous.org  . You may also contact the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, Inc. @ 609-588-5515 x 10.