Over the last thirty-five years, I have amassed some considerable experience dealing with drug addicts and more recently, problem gamblers. Both can be classed as suffering from mental illness [in 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognised pathological gambling as a mental illness, similar to pyromania, kleptomania etc.] Both are equally destructive to the addict and to the people close to them.
I came to the conclusion a long time ago that there is very little to choose between the druggies and the gamblers. Both groups display exactly the same behaviour, the same physical and mental symptoms and the same levels of denial, irresponsibility and disregard for others. In short, the similarities between gambling and drug addiction are striking.
Both drug addicts and aficionados of the amusement arcade spend all their waking hours preoccupied with their only real goal in life – gambling and getting more drugs. Both need increasing amounts of money, even though have both already made repeated and unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut back [cutting back never works.]
Both problem gamblers and druggies experience and display restlessness and irritability, not only when they don’t have access to their drug of choice or their favourite machine, but also when attempting to stop or cut back. Woe betides any therapist or social worker who dares to question them about their addiction because this will always translate into overt displays of anger and resentment.
At the beginning, addiction is a way of escaping problems or of relieving mood problems such as feelings of guilt, helplessness, anxiety or depression, but addiction eventually becomes a way of just feeling normal. These emotions soon turn into a craving for instant gratification – the principal motivator in continuing the behaviour – behaviour that has a negative effect on not just their own heath, mental and physical, but also on those close to them. Before long, they will jeopardise relationships, marriage, family life, children, job and educational opportunities.
Gamblers on a losing streak [that’s all of them] believe that by continuing, they will eventually make good their losses in the same way that drug addicts fool themselves into believing that they can give up any time they want.
Both types of addict will tell blatant lies to their families, therapists and others in order to conceal their involvement. The lies will gradually become more barefaced and outrageous as they start to steal to fund their habit. The usual victims of their theft are again most usually those closest to them. They will move on to committing more serious illegal acts, including prostitution, as they descend deeper into addiction. Overall, their ability to make rational and sensible decisions becomes severely impaired.
It would be a mistake to assume that all addicts are poorly educated. Drug and gambling addiction affects rich and poor, although it would be fair to say that most addicts come from poor backgrounds and have not received education of the same standards as those who hail from wealthier families. There are exceptions, the odd marquis and son and heir, but they are in the minority. Either way, I believe that for whatever reason, they have at some stage in their lives become vulnerable.
Vulnerable persons have specific sociological needs. Many suffer from depression, even though they may not recognise this fact. They do not realise they may be suffering from anxiety – their dependence on short term ‘highs’ is because they are unable to manage stress.
But all that is only part of the story. My own experience suggests that addicts also have an unusually low tolerance for boredom – idle hands make the devils work! In the 1980’s, levels of heroin addiction were higher in areas of the country where unemployment was also high. Gambling and drugs especially are a great time-killer. Heroin was a plague that struck hardest in grim inner city areas such as in Liverpool and Manchester. It’s also fair to add that many of the druggies had a family history of criminal behaviour. Certainly all the druggies I met either knew someone who had been to prison, who was in prison, or who was about to go to prison.
All the drug and gambling addicts I dealt with also had very short attention spans. Within five minutes of the commencement of a session, I noticed a sense of urgency in them, as if they were worried about getting to another urgent appointment somewhere else (which in fact they were!) and that’s if they bothered to turn up in the first place!
Both drug and gambling addicts are afflicted with impulsiveness, a personality trait they already possessed before they became addicted. I would go one step further and say that it was their impulsiveness that first assisted them on the road to ruin. In the case of the drug addicts, they will not hesitate to use (or more correctly abuse) alcohol when drugs become temporarily unavailable. I do not know whether the same would be true of compulsive gamblers, though I suspect it might be.
Both gambling and drug abuse produces a strange and ironic tranquilising effect. 99% of drug addicts go on a daily basis, first to obtain the money to buy drugs before searching or waiting interminable hours for their dealers [at least they have some structure in their lives!] The ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of that activity play havoc with the brain’s chemical balances – the feelings of inner dread or desperation as the withdrawal symptoms become more unbearable contrasting sharply with the sheer joy of finally obtaining the precious gramme of magic powder are noticeable in the sudden and otherwise unexplained mood changes of the user.
The same can be said of the compulsive gambler. Most compulsive gamblers are addicted not to the roulette tables but to machines where there is a much higher frequency of play. The same emotional highs and lows are evident when the player has a win (no matter how small) or a near win (which is actually a loss.) Play exerts a tranquilising effect on gambling addicts that is often enhanced by the excitement of the lights and sounds of the machines that help perpetuate play.
Celebrity endorsement of gambling machines, that is machines with familiar and recognisable images, for example machines with pictures of familiar characters from the Simpsons or Star Trek, also enhance the player’s experience. Players unconsciously feel that their machine is a better machine than all the other machines. Consequently, the player unconsciously believes the machine will be trustworthy. Again, unconsciously, they believe that a Simpsons endorsed machine will be more fun to play, or if they are knowledgeable about Start Trek, they will be able to get better results from that machine. This of course is delusional, but the illusion is cleverly maintained when the machine produces comical sounds even when there is a loss. Arcades also use a lot of red lighting, which increases arousal.
Other tricks the designers of gambling machines build in to the machines include an increase in the speed of pulsating sounds and lights when a gambling decision has to be made, creating more of a sense of urgency and thus excitement. The same goes when addicts buy drugs from their dealer – the excitement of not getting caught and the urgency of the deal is all part of the addiction.
It’s important to remember drug or gambling addicts have nothing else of import in their lives. The desire to gamble or take drugs surpasses even the natural instincts of caring for their children. [I believe the children of addicts should be taken into the care of a normal, addiction-free, foster family. I also believe that drug dealers are no better than murderers and should be treated as such.]
Most machines these days have the ability to communicate with the gambler verbally. The machine offers encouragement by the overt use of flattery and can become a substitute for real friendship. To the drug dealer, his client is his best friend – successful dealers take time to ask how users are and even exchange gossip and hugs (also a useful way of transferring the drugs without detection!)
In this way, both the gambler and the user build a relationship with either their favourite machine or their dealer. Problem gamblers form relationships with one or two machines in the same way druggies develop a loyalty to one dealer. If a dealer is arrested or sent to prison, the user has to build a new relationship with a new dealer from scratch, which means establishing ‘trust.’ The machine addict will experience an enormous sense of loss if his beloved machine is removed from the arcade. This is especially true of machine addicts who play not for money, but to get their initials on the Space Invaders machine. Their addiction is to improve their score and stop anyone else from getting their initials on the screen.
Many, if not most gambling machines use tokens instead of real money; the effect of this is that the player loses the sense of the real value of the money they are spending. This suspension of sensible judgement is common with drug addicts too – as the user descends deeper and deeper into addiction it becomes less and less likely they will be using their own hard-earned money!
Machines often award players ‘free goes.’ The effect is to bamboozle the player into thinking they have got something for nothing when in truth, the desired result is that the player put even more money into the machine. In the same way, drug dealers sometimes give their clients free drugs – secure in the knowledge they will soon be back for more.
So as a hypnotherapist, what’s my success rate been like? Actually, it’s been abysmal and I’ve pretty well given up. The reason? Any client going into therapy, no matter how skilled or patient the therapist, will only succeed if they really want to. It’s the oldest psychological joke all over again: how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is, only one, and only if the light bulb wants to change. And therein lies the problem.
For all the reasons above, dealing with addicts of any persuasion requires the total honesty of the addict. It is the addict that has to uncover the truth (ref. Carl Rogers, who discovered that the only worthwhile result is when the client stumbles on the truth and decides to act upon it) not the therapist.
Addicts are usually guarded and economical with the truth. By the time they get to me they are already skilled in the arts of guile and deception. In short, they are kidding themselves. Very rarely have I met an addict who genuinely wants to change and willingly bare their soul to make this happen. Because of their addictions, they have become, universally, self-absorbed. Every last vestige of empathy with their fellow human beings has evaporated. In that, they share many of the characteristics of the sociopath. [Sociopaths have learned and honed their skills to survive – psychopaths were born with their brains wired that way.]
The most effective cures for addiction seem to lie in rehab clinics where there is time for addicts to explore and recover. For once, I’m not willing to recommend hypnotherapy as a cure for addiction.
Many of the dysfunctional personality traits described above could easily describe alcoholism or addiction to computer games or Facebook, but on a purely financial level, none is as devastating as addiction to drugs or gambling. Successive governments have failed to control gambling – the machines that make the most money reside in areas whose inhabitants are made even worse off by their presence. After more than thirty years of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ we are no nearer to eradicating them. In the meantime, our children continue to be targeted by unscrupulous and conscience-free dealers and the companies that own the machines continue to rake in the easy money.
Where is our social conscience? We decry the shooting of a lion in Africa yet we stubbornly remain blind to the thousands of our own citizens who slowly commit suicide on a daily basis while the dealers continue to get rich.
I cannot offer any easy solution to the devastating drug abuse which destroys families and fuels organized crime, except perhaps, in the case of the dealers, the final one.