With an infusion of money, local counselors hope to loosen the grip of gambling addiction in the area.
By TRAVIS REED
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Hope is not always free. In fact, it cost Mahoning County lottery players more than $73 million in the last fiscal year.
That means if every county resident 18 and older bought an equal amount of tickets, each would have spent $373, ranking it first in such spending in the state.
Many players don't think twice about it, dropping a dollar here and there with other purchases. But for some buyers, it's more than a diversion -- their purchases are perpetuated by addiction, not hope. And their ultimate cost may be a job, healthy relationship with family or even their own life.
The region's high rate of lottery expenditures helped make it one of four counties in the state to recently receive a $50,000 grant to fight gambling addiction. The money is the result of a partnership between the state lottery and the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services aimed to treat people specifically with simultaneous addictions, such as gambling with drugs or alcohol.
Meridian Services, a rehabilitation and counseling company on Meridian Road in Youngstown, was awarded the grant for the Mahoning program. Meridian officials say it's the first clinical treatment option in the area for gambling.
Once problem gamblers are brought in for treatment, Meridian also plans to work with support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous -- which has provided informal group counseling here for more than 20 years -- and debt counselors at nonprofit agencies.
But they know they've got their work cut out for them.
Those familiar with the issue say gambling addiction transcends class, race and gender boundaries. Problem gamblers may forgo groceries or payment of an electricity bill or previous gambling debts for the next wager.
Some say they know they can't afford to play anymore but crave those few fleeting moments of anxious possibility.
Faces of the problem
"Sandy" has been a recovering gambler for 71/2 years. But she was in the game for much longer than that.
"Sandy" is not her real name. She is a GA member and agreed to speak with The Vindicator on condition of anonymity. Part of the program is an insistence that the group's "anonymous" pledge be vigorously honored.
Sandy said she wants to help other people, so she's willing to share her story.
She is the kind of person who skews that $373-per-resident annual spending figure. At her worst, she spent that much on lottery tickets in a single day -- mostly scratch-offs, but she also played bingo.
Started early in life
She started gambling when she was 7, riding her bike to a market on South Avenue to buy lottery tickets for her grandmother. Things were different then, she said, and even though it was illegal, most clerks were happy to give her tickets with verbal confirmation that she was only an intermediary.
Largely, she was telling the truth. She delivered the tickets to her grandmother and bought only one for herself when she had extra money.
When she was 16, she got a part-time job delivering newspapers, which paid enough money to finance regular gambling. Her addiction grew from there.
About 12 years later, Sandy was several thousand dollars in debt. She had learned to make people trust her so she could steal from them. She would lie about needing money to feed her kids, pass bad checks, max out credit cards and take money out of people's accounts.
"They trust you, then you completely take advantage of them," she said of her victims. "Usually you try to take it and replace it before they know it's gone."
She siphoned money from her husband's savings account, pulling some out and stuffing it back in when she could cover it. She kept replacing less each time until finally, it was severely depleted.
"He never looked," she said. "I thought, 'Why should he have it when I need it?'"
Finally he did look, and gave Sandy a choice: She leaves gambling or he leaves her.
Sandy called a help line on the back of a scratch-off ticket, and they directed her to a GA hotline. She started going to meetings.
"At the beginning, it was very difficult. I had people watching me," Sandy said of friends and family trying to help her quit. "But over time -- when you learn to live without it -- then you're not gambling because you don't want to gamble, not because you can't."
Now, she pays little attention to the lottery tickets wallpapering service station counters, small reminders of her darkest days and the kicks of instant gratification.
She hates when her daughter's school holds raffles, because she wants to help them, but she doesn't want to gamble ever again.
"I loved it. I'd still love to gamble, I just know that I can't," she said. "The more you gamble, the deeper you get, and the more important it becomes to you. It's very progressive."
Sandy doesn't like to think about how her strong and dangerous addiction affected her children. They were very young when she was still gambling. They don't remember what she did, but she does.
"I did what I had to do to keep them quiet. I fed and dropped them off at the baby sitter's. But I didn't spend enough time with them at all," she said.
Timothy Bailey of Meridian Services has been a counselor for about 10 years. He soon will have completed 2,000 hours of training to become certified to treat compulsive gamblers.
Bailey hopes to see clients by August. Meridian is now setting things up, ordering literature and trying to determine how many people might need treatment.
Gambling is what counselors call a hidden addiction, which makes evaluating need particularly difficult. Compulsive gamblers don't wreck their cars or fall asleep at their desks or vomit in restaurant bathrooms or hide needle scars under long sleeves in sweltering heat.
An overall recovery rate is so uncertain that anyone interested could probably make up a number and be as close as any researcher.
"Gamblers have problems particular to them," Bailey said. "They have a low tolerance for frustration and boredom, and they're more adept at covering it up."
Most drug and alcohol addicts never really think another drink or dose could end their troubles. Gamblers, on the other hand, are often convinced, beyond all odds, that the next roll, deal, scratch-off, dog race or football game will pull them out of debt, difficulty and dead-end jobs, Bailey said. After that, they wouldn't need to gamble.
That belief makes it uniquely difficult to deal with problem gambling. Equally tough, Bailey said, is that treatment can last for just so long.
A different kind of hope
Sandy said she's skeptical of traditional medical approaches to gambling addiction because the programs exist over a definite period of time.
Insurance companies won't pay for it forever. Formal treatment follows a written plan, and after it's over, so is the counseling.
The answer isn't financial counseling, either, she said, because the root problem for compulsive gamblers is not a need for money. It's the addiction.
"Winning always made it worse, because you always push that line. You win a thousand, pay off [debt], and then say, 'Well, I did it once, I'll do it again,'" Sandy said. "Money is just a tool to gamble."
After dealing with her addiction, Sandy knows reform is bumpy ground to cover. That first-hand knowledge can be an important tool in helping other gamblers recover. It's difficult to counsel compulsive gamblers unless you've experienced it yourself, she said.
"To understand the mind of a compulsive gambler, you have to be one. 'What would make you steal from your mother?' Who can answer that? I can: It's gambling," Sandy said.
Sandy has seen people come to meetings a few times, then never show up again. Sometimes, the next time she'll see them is on the news, being arrested for robbery to bankroll another "fix."
She's even known people in GA to take their own lives.
Despite all the hardship, she still has hope. The key to recovery is perseverance and peer support, and for people to stay in treatment long after they think their problem is erased, she said.
"If they use that [grant money] to promote health and get people in there and then send them to GA, it'll probably be beneficial," Sandy said. "If they're looking to cure them, they're not going to. You can't be cured of compulsive gambling.
"I will always be a compulsive gambler. I just happen to be recovering right now."