Confessing a poker machine addiction

This article has to be anonymous. I'm too ashamed to identify myself and it's the only way I can tell the truth.

You might think that's a cop-out but I'm sure you wouldn't want to be identified either, knowing that people would completely reassign their perception of you, shake their heads, and only ever see you as 'that pokies addict'.

I'm a middle class, well educated, single parent in full-time employment in the public service, have a typically dysfunctional but supportive extended family, beautiful kids, friends who are always there to help and yet, I'm still a pokies addict.

My father and sister are addicts too, but we never play together – it's a solo sport. I've tried playing with both but there's a palpable discomfort. Like watching porn – it's just something you don't do with family. There's also a propensity to alcohol addiction in my family; and my siblings and father bet on the nags. The apples have not fallen far from the tree.

I have come to the conclusion that addictions are rarely about reaching a goal. After the first time, there's no real point, no purpose, so you continue to engage to get something nebulous and unattainable. It's not really about the high and it certainly isn't about the money. Eventually it's about self-disgust and dissatisfaction with something that's nothing to do with the addiction.

Some people, myself included, have a number of addictions and what is clearly an addictive personality. We don't have a drink with dinner and stop. We don't look in the mirror and rationalise that no sweets for a week will get rid of that extra pound.


We don't stick $20 in the pokies with our friends, have a laugh, and when it's gone, shrug and head for dinner or the trivia night. We're dismayed if our resources only allow us to lose $100. If we had more, we'd win. When we have more, we lose more.

We never really win. We sit furtively, chasing our losses but when we reap our losses back, we want more. I often wonder if winning is equally disgust-inducing because as soon as we're ahead, we double our bet and keep going until it's gone.

I haven't stolen (I have 'borrowed' from my kids' bank accounts) but have theoretically stolen mine and my children's lifestyle as it could have been, and their future if I can't stop. Even worse, my desire to play the pokies has taken away too much of the time and caring I should have been directing to my children. I could have been a better parent, better friend, better person.

If I were brave enough to do the calculations, and I really don't want to, I can estimate that over the past 12 years since my addiction started, I've definitely fed more than $150,000 into pokies; maybe $200,000. Every bit of savings, tax return, inheritances, and a big chunk of equity in my house have all gone. If house prices hadn't boomed after I bought my house, I'd be destitute instead of with double the mortgage I started with. Maybe that makes me lucky.

So what's the appeal? The most I ever won was $3000 on a linked machine, the most I've ever lost was $3000 on a three-day binge. I've won $1000 on a machine only to leech it all back into other machines the same night, looking for that momentary high where I was king of my world. Sometimes I leave with a 'profit'; usually not.

In all this, I function like a normal, hard-working parent. The bills all get paid, I do my job well, the kids are well dressed and rarely miss out on the things kids are supposed to have and do. I don't have a big salary but I don't do anything else like hang out with friends in a bar, or eat in a nice restaurant, or plan a trip not on credit. It's all kids and machines. The kids give me so much back. The machines give me nothing but I seem to love them just as much.

I play the clown and all seems right in my world. Only one person has an inkling to the extent of my addiction and that's because she's been there too. My sister. She's been strong enough to stay away for over a year now; I've managed so much less, so far. But three months of abstinence feels like a bloody good start and is the longest I've ever gone away from the machines.

She told me last night she had an overwhelming urge to reward herself by having just one go.  She resisted but before that I was pretty confident that as the desire weakens, the easier it would get. It seems vigilance is key.

I've had two people in my life commit suicide over their addiction; both men with loving families who just couldn't tear that demon off their backs. Even while sobbing over the second one, I've made my way to a club to poke away the blues. There's been more than one occasion when I've left the first, second or third club, where my luck didn't change no matter which lucky machine I picked and I've been in my car, hands clenched on the steering wheel, realising I've blown the whole family budget again, thinking seriously about driving over a cliff. I understand their demons.

The number of people playing the machines for pleasure and not out of some desperate need is way less than proponents would have you believe. Seriously, what pleasure is there to be had by a normal person, alone, plying hard earned money into a game of chance? The only people I come across in clubs who don't have that desperate aura are elderly couples who may have run out of things to talk about, or groups of young men or women, a bit tipsy and playing together. They seem to be having a riot but I'm confident at least one person in every one of those groups will end up in front of a machine another day, alone, trying to catch the buzz again.

Mostly, I see middle-aged people like myself, more women than men, socially isolated, inept or uninterested, wanting a little space to themselves that no one else can invade. There has to be a better place to find that.

In all this, no matter how much they proclaim to be here for the community, Canberra's wealth of clubs are there to suck the susceptible dry. It's so difficult to quit when there are clubs with $5 memberships and virtually no membership restrictions on every street corner ready to invite you in to air-conditioned bliss and a non-judgmental look the other way.

The hardest part of my quitting has been avoiding the weekly raffles night at my local club. On some level it became my acceptable big night out.Everyone knew my name, the kids were welcome and catered for in the no expenses spared kids club, the restaurant's cheap and, even if you lose all your cash in the pokies there's still a chance you'll go home with a meat tray or a gadget you have absolutely no use for. 

All the regulars are there, close but not too close; 'You having a win?' the nearest thing to a hello. George from the Salvos wanders around, collecting more from those who've had a win but stopping to chat with everyone regardless, proffering his gently refused War Crys.

In Canberra there are around 5000 poker machines, in more than 50 clubs, turning over more than $1.5 billion a year. Half-hearted attempts to reduce problem gambling are easy to work around. It's easy to have several bank accounts and belong to several clubs. I was a paid up member to five club groups and never had a problem spending all the money I could get hold of.

If the ACT is successful in its bid to introduce pre-commitment, there's always Queanbeyan. We problem gamblers will always find a way. The only way to reduce the number of problem gamblers is to get rid of the bloody machines. Not reduce by 20 per cent, or pre-commitment, or self-barring or any other such crap, just get rid of them. 

I started this article when I was still playing the machines, when even writing about how destructive they are, elicited a Pavlov's dog response, a little saliva, a desire to go and play. But three months down the track, the physical response and desire are still there but so much weaker and easier to brush off.

I'm pretty confident that this time I won't go back, that I've kicked the dirty dog to the curb. I have to be strong. If I do go back, I don't think I have a future at all.