Regardless of the specific type of addiction or dependency we are speaking of, in almost every instance it will be seen as an equal opportunity destroyer of lives that is not constrained by barriers related to age, gender, socioeconomic background or personal history. But problem gambling is different in the respect that it is seen largely as a “man’s disease,” and the stereotypes that people have about the typical compulsive gambler will lead them to picture that person as a desperate and out-of-control male who neglects his family and work responsibilities because he is always hanging out at the track or the casino or the sports book, or spending hours a day in front of the computer playing online poker. Women who gamble are usually assumed to be dabblers who do it to pass the time or while socializing with friends, and it would never occur to most that a woman indulging in the occasional card game or playing a scratch-off ticket might be headed for trouble down the line. This perception and the stereotypes that accompany it are far removed from reality, however. Millions of women in the United States alone suffer from a gambling problem at some point in their lives and those who do tend to be quite masterful at concealing their behavior from others, which is why counselors who deal with female compulsive gamblers often refer to this disorder as “the hidden addiction.”
Secrets of a Dream Killer
Male compulsive gamblers do outnumber women, but the ratio is probably more along the lines of 2-to-1 and not 10- or 20-to-1 as most would assume. And among women whose gambling has spiraled out of control, the vast majority—approximately 95 percent—can be classified as solo gamblers, meaning they practice their activities alone and almost exclusively in secret. So the female gambling addict who goes to the casino will not arrive with a group of friends, but instead will go there by herself when her spouse is at work and the kids are at school; or she might sneak out of the house late at night to do her gambling and return before the rest of her family wakes up in the morning. The appearance of Internet gambling has of course made it far easier than ever before to play games of chance in secret. Many speculate that the explosion in the availability of online gambling venues will ultimately lead to an epidemic of gambling addiction among women that dwarfs the alarming numbers we are already seeing. Experts believe that female compulsive gamblers gamble in order to escape from feelings of emptiness or dissatisfaction, and that because they have emotional difficulties that are not being addressed, they are highly vulnerable to addiction. When people develop strategies of evasion to circumvent psychological suffering they will tend to return to the practices that give them momentary comfort repeatedly, making it easy for a compulsion to develop that will keep bringing them back for more long after the activities in question have ceased to bring pleasure, excitement, or distraction. Gambling at this point becomes more instinct than personal choice, and when a person reaches this stage she is undoubtedly on a collision course with disaster. Because of the relentless nature of the problem, compulsive gambling can leave its victims in an overwhelming predicament. Gambling addiction ruins relationships (the divorce rate is double the average when one spouse is a problem gambler), empties savings accounts and obliterates nest eggs, and can make it impossible for its victims to hold down a legitimate job for any length of time. Approximately two-thirds of problem gamblers will at some point commit crimes in order to support their gambling habits, and in many cases this involves the embezzlement of funds from the workplace, which just goes to show how powerfully a gambling addiction can corrupt the soul of a formerly honest person.
Pathways of Escape
Treatment for compulsive gambling usually involves a combination of talk therapy with an addiction specialist and regular attendance at peer support group meetings such as those sponsored by Gamblers Anonymous. In many cases psychiatric drugs are also prescribed to help addicted gamblers control their compulsions, although “anti-gambling drugs” don’t exist. Treatment for compulsive gambling is complicated by the fact that this addiction has one of the highest recidivism rates of any type of dependency, so those who undertake the rehabilitation process should be prepared to stay in it for the long haul. Compulsive gamblers suffer from a condition known as euphoric recall, which leads them to experience extremely vivid memories of past gambling successes and to intensely relive the emotions they felt during those times, and it can take quite a long time for the effects of such recollections to lose their power and influence. Nevertheless, with determined effort and clarity of purpose, any women whose life has been flipped upside-down by a gambling problem can regain her equilibrium and return to good health once again. But because of the dire consequences that can accompany a gambling addiction, it is important for women whose gambling activities are escalating to uncomfortable levels to get help as quickly as possible, before a trickle of difficulty turns into a flood of misery and woe.