Opinion

My gambling hell and why it’s time to ban gambling advertising

25 Sep 2021 23 minutes Read
Gambling advertising on shirt and perimeter boards at West Ham (Credit: Gamstop) / David Owens (Credit: Rob Browne, Media Wales)

David Owens

I have an app on my phone.

I look at it occasionally.

It serves as a constant reminder of my past – and a place I never want to revisit.

It currently reads 826 days. That’s 826 days… since I last gambled.

My name is David and I am a compulsive gambler.

Thankfully, I’m also a compulsive gambler in recovery.

My Day Count app tells me that it’s now two years, two months and 25 days since my world fell apart.

Then there was a stark choice to make. Lose everything or seek help. Go under or learn to live again.

I’m writing this now because we are at a pivotal moment. We are in the grip of a gambling problem that is spiralling out of control.

Since going public about what I’d been through, not a month goes by when somebody doesn’t contact me for help and advice.

These are not just gamblers who can’t see any escape from addiction, but those who through no fault of their own are the collateral damage – the parents, the brothers, the sisters, the friends, those who are desperate to help their loved ones find a way out of this gambling hell.

The group that turned my life around, Gamblers Anonymous, continues to see increased numbers seeking help, no doubt a reaction to the upsurge in gambling during lockdown.

Yet, despite this, we live in a society swamped with gambling advertising.

It’s everywhere you look. On television, online and in print, through text message and email marketing.

Paddy Power gambling advertising

Sport is riddled with gambling advertising with football the chief culprit. You can’t watch a game without being bombarded by ads – proving an ever present threat for both those with a gambling addiction and those in recovery.

The gambling industry rakes in billions a year with a robust lobbying operation, yet it’s also an industry without proper regulation and a widely derided, toothless regulator in the form of the Gambling Commission.

Too long the gambling industry has been a law unto itself. While the tobacco and alcohol industries are heavily regulated, the gambling industry has been allowed to act largely unchecked for decades.

Urgent reform of the Gambling Act has to be a government priority to ensure more people aren’t ensnared by this insidious addiction that destroys lives.

That reform appears near to hand but it has to be tough, wide-ranging and wholly effective.

This week the government signalled that it was to ban all gambling related football shirt sponsorship. We can only hope this is the domino effect that rids the game of all gambling advertising.

Gambling companies sponsoring Premier League club shirts (Credit: Creative Commons)

Ronnie Cowan MP, who is a member of the Gambling Related Harm All Party Parliamentary Group, summed up the mood of those who think stopping at shirt sponsorship is not enough.

He said: “A ban on shirt advertising is welcomed but it’s not enough. The acknowledgment that these adverts can harm should be the catalyst for banning all gambling advertising. How can it be wrong to have an advert on a football players shirt but ok for adverts pitch side?

“If we are seeking to protect children and people harmed by gambling, then it has to be a concerted effort across the board.

“Banning shirt sponsorship is one step, but it can’t end there. If they are taking logos off football shirts, to me it suggests they know there is a problem. So why stop there? These measures should be going much further.”

This week Bolton Wanderers Football Club announced it was to cut ties with all betting organisations and instead back charities providing support for people with gambling addictions.

The tide appears to be turning but the stories of the damage gambling can cause have to be heard.

Last year I wrote about what I had been through for the Western Mail.

The newspaper has kindly given Nation.Cymru permission to reproduce my words here.

This is my story. Exactly as it happened…

David Owens (Credit: Rob Browne, Media Wales)

THURSDAY, AUGUST 1, 2019 – it’s a warm evening in the Welsh capital. People are walking home from work, soaking up the sunshine.

Some are taking advantage of the temperature to sit outside Cardiff’s many bars and restaurants. The atmosphere is that of gentle bonhomie. One of those carefree summer’s evenings that can only lighten your mood.

Pacing nervously back and forth on a street in Cardiff city centre, I’m feeling anything but bright.

I’m anxious, my heart is racing and, if my wife wasn’t by my side, I daresay I would have made a run for it. That is, however, not an option.

My wife has driven me to the destination where we find ourselves out of sheer necessity and urgent need.

My life has hit rock-bottom and I need help.

If I don’t walk through the door of the building that stands in front of me, I risk losing everything I hold dear, including myself. I have no idea what to expect, but I know it has to happen.

We walk inside. My wife holds my hand, stroking it gently, offering added reassurance that this is the right move – for both of us.

There, I’m met by warm smiles and a comforting welcome. My nerves ease slightly and we take a seat next to each other.

This is Gamblers Anonymous – the weekly gathering where I finally admit out loud what I’ve secretly known for more than three years – my name is David and I’m a compulsive gambler.

That evening I tell my story to a room full of strangers.

When I speak there are knowing nods and murmurings of agreement. There’s also understanding and no end of gentle empathy when my voice cracks and I break down, burying my head in my hands, tears rolling down my face.

Finally unburdening myself of the secrets and lies, the shame and embarrassment, the pain and anguish that I have carried around with me for too long is a moment of absolute liberation.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was to be the first day of the rest of my life.

Coming storm

The people in this room, with the support network of my family and my friends, would lead me out of the darkness to a place of sanctuary and recovery.

To understand how I reached the edge, we need to revisit its moment of inception, some three and half years earlier.

Then, in January 2016, I had no idea of the coming storm or how tumultuous its after-effects would be. The irony of the exact date is not lost on me. It was the day of my daughter’s birthday.

We’d held a tea party for her with family, ahead of a fully-fledged party with her friends the following weekend.

With my little girl tucked up in bed, exhausted from unwrapping presents and eating too much cake, I took the opportunity to unwind by opening the laptop to surf the ‘net.

Being a keen football fan, I’d make my nightly rounds of football websites, scanning the latest news and hacking my way through the unruly undergrowth of outrage and conjecture that constitute fan message boards.

It was an evening like most others, except this one would cause untold damage to my mental wellbeing.

I have to say at this point I had never been much of a gambler. I’d place the odd accumulator, an occasional £10 bet, attempting to predict the outcomes of an improbable number of games throughout Europe. Mainly, given the vagaries of each league, I’d lose.

So far then, so predictable.

“Betfair & PaddyPower” by Jim Makos is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

This time, however, I spotted an ad on one of the football websites which caught my eye.

It read something like “Get £88 in free bets”.

Much like you never forget your first girlfriend, I’ll never forget the first online casino I visited.

And that dubious distinction is awarded to 888.com (although, unlike my first girlfriend, this wasn’t to be a brief flirtation).

I couldn’t quite believe that there was a gambling website that was offering £88 in free bets. The money offered could be used on sports betting or in their online casino.

Figuring my shonky sports betting was better left untroubled given my history of perpetual underachievement, I searched through the casino and happened upon the online slots.

Guessing these were much like the digital versions of the one-arm bandits and fruit machines I’d played on holidays to Barry Island and Porthcawl as a kid, I decided to give them a whirl.

Anyone who has indulged in online gambling and, in particular, slots will know there are a myriad choices – and a myriad ways to lose your money, as I would later discover.

To give you an idea of this, I plumped for a game themed around the Coen Brothers’ cult crime comedy The Big Lebowski.

The Big Lebowski (Credit: Publicity image)

Truth is, I had little idea what I was doing or even how the many bonus features the game possessed worked. Neither did I know how much I was to place in a single spin or the potential rewards they could bring.

I was mindlessly clicking the spin button wondering what was happening. Then, something very big did happen. The screen exploded into life telling me that I had won and that my win was BIG, then MASSIVE, then MEGA. If it was to convey a feeling of excitement, it worked.

I stared at the screen and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had somehow won £750. I double-checked, triple-checked to ensure this wasn’t a mistake. There was no mistake.

There were no catches. In a little under 30 minutes I had won a sizeable amount of money.

That thrilling endorphin rush could have been a needle in my veins, it was as potent as any drug.

Three days later I won £500. That was it. I was hooked.

From that point on, my life revolved around gambling. Every waking moment it was on my mind.

From the outset I dreamt up endless fantastical scenarios of how this would make me rich, how this could be a source of second income in addition to my full-time job. It seemed so easy.

But then that is the gambler’s fantasy, the grand delusion that we are in control even when our lives are inevitably descending into chaos.

Online slots (Credit: Creative Commons)

For the first couple of months my stakes were low. When I lost money, I stopped.

When I won, I withdrew winnings and put the money to good use. Those first few wins paid for my trip to watch Wales at Euro 2016.

However, subconsciously I must have known what I was doing wasn’t good for me. From the outset, I told no-one about my habit or those initial winnings. It was a guilty secret to be kept from others.

When the months passed and my addiction took hold, my behaviour became more reckless and more erratic. I chased losses, staking ever higher amounts in an attempt to recover the money I had lost.

Invariably, I lost even more. It still wasn’t enough to make me stop.

During the trip to France during Euro 2016, I shared a house in Bordeaux with two friends. One remarked that he had got up in the night to use the toilet and noticed my light was on.

I spun a story about how I fell asleep reading. The truth was the only thing I was spinning was the reels of online slots.

Those rapid reels turning ever onwards had a hypnotic effect – caught in its unerring gaze, I was an all-too-willing victim.

The trip to France was triumphant and enjoyable. Wales’ passage to the Euro semi-finals was an unexpected one. Nevertheless, if I think too hard about it, I have to admit that I was spending way too long on my phone, lost in my own world.

Photo David Owens

The ease of access to online gambling sites provided me with endless opportunities to gamble. There was an inexhaustible supply of casinos, first deposit offers and bonuses to entice the would-be gambler. It was no surprise I succumbed to their abundant charms, flitting from one casino to another.

My email inbox was overrun with marketing missives and my phone pinged constantly with SMS messages from casinos offering even more enticements.

By the autumn, I was in trouble.

The subject line of an email I sent myself at 6.10am on the morning of November 6, 2016, after another all-night gambling session, underlined how much I was spinning out of control. It simply read “PLEASE STOP NOW I’M BEGGING YOU”.

It was the first of many emails I would send myself, in the vain hope that when I managed to grab some sleep, a new day would bring with it sense and reason. Sadly, it rarely did.

From the outset gambling had become escapism. I was trying to escape the noise in my head, the stress and anxiety I was suffering. But in reality, all that gambling gave me back was even greater levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

I hardly slept. The lack of sleep was crucifying. When I did manage to close my eyes the thought of opening them again filled me with dread.

In that moment of blurred thought between sleep and wakefulness, those momentary seconds of confusion when your thought process gains a foothold in a new day, my immediate mood would be dictated by what had gone on the night before.

It brought either paralysing fear at the remembrance of how much I had lost or, on rare occasions, blessed relief that I had somehow not managed to gamble at all.

Still it did not stop. I managed to discover even greater lengths I could go to hurt myself – mentally and financially.

I took out loans, I applied for and then subsequently maxed out credit cards and drove my overdraft to its outer limits. I viewed credit like water on tap. Turn it on, pour it out, empty it down the sink. This was numbers on a screen. It didn’t feel real.

“Gambling in Neon” by www.davidbaxendale.com is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

On the night before payday, I would sit at the computer waiting for midnight to strike when my salary would be paid into my account.

If there was one sliver of sanity, it was that while I was aware how much would be coming out of my account every month, I never risked the payments on our mortgage. However, that didn’t stop my bank account from resembling a war zone, with direct debits failing to be taken and standing orders not being paid.

Still, while the flames leapt ever higher, I maintained I was in control, when in truth, of course, I was completely in denial about the scale of my problem. Spinning towards oblivion, I was rationalising normality through the prism of madness.

A miasma of doubt hung over me every day. I felt helpless, hopeless and in utter despair. I hated myself, I hated what I had become. My self-loathing grew to unprecedented levels, but all it did was feed the black dog on my shoulder.

I disappeared into isolation. I felt numb. I was existing, not living. Not feeling, just drifting in my own state of listless inertia. The world turned on, but I was a hollow facsimile of the man I used to be. The darkness descended and I retreated into a solitary world.

I put my life on hold. I didn’t want to go out, I didn’t want to see anyone, I was locked within the prison of my mind. I had low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth.

From being socially gregarious, a fixture at venues around south Wales, I slowly cut myself off from the world. I saw less of my friends and when I saw family it was for all-too-brief periods. My anxiety skyrocketed. I barely left home, save for the journey to and from work.

The problem was, my escape was back into the arms of the thing that caused my anguish in the first place.

To all intents and purposes I was a functioning gambling addict. I was displaying the classic characteristics of a compulsive gambler – mood swings, irritability, not looking after myself – all markers, but not immediately obvious if you don’t know there is a problem.

(Credit: Creative Commons)

I hid it well, especially from my colleagues at work, shouldering the burden of this hidden disease. People had no idea what I was going through, but it couldn’t last.

It was 2017 when I finally told my wife. She was shocked but knew something was wrong and promised to help me.

She paid off debts and I, in return, promised that I would stop gambling. I went to see my doctor and he referred me to an in-practice counsellor. I was then referred to an addiction clinic, which offered me six free counselling sessions.

I enjoyed them and they were tremendously helpful in tackling my anxiety. For a time they also stopped me gambling. That period of abstinence lasted around six months from October 2017 to March 2018.

Still having control of my bank account, I once again maxed out my overdraft.

Falling off the wagon followed the same pattern. If I felt stressed or anxious I would once again try to make myself feel better through gambling. But once again I just ended up making my life even worse. It became a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, which I felt powerless to break.

Looking back now, I’m reminded of the saying “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Believe me, many times I asked myself: “You are supposed to be a fully-functioning adult – how could you have possibly got into this mess?”

Then, out of the blue, apparent redemption. One evening I watched as several hundred pounds disappeared out of my account from another online casino. Out of desperation, I increased the stakes and then rubbed my eyes in disbelief – on one spin I had netted £8,000.

I stared at the screen, shellshocked.

Within seven days, the endorphin rush of this huge win, this intoxicating high, had been replaced by the crushing low of a stomach-churning loss.

I had lost everything. I sat in front of a screen transfixed, numb, in a catatonic state of disbelief. Did that actually happen?

I realised it had become less about winning, more about playing. Continue to play until I lost everything. I’d earmarked everything I could do with the £8,000, even when I was throwing it back into a machine. The loan I could pay off, the overdraft I could clear, the escape from the monthly worry of juggling debts.

I feared that this was it for me. I felt there was no way out. At my lowest, I felt I couldn’t beat it. Its grip was too tight to ever escape. A life sentence without bars. That’s when the darkest thoughts arrived. I can understand how people can be pushed to take their own lives. In the enveloping darkness, you can see no way out.

(Credit: Creative Commons)

Fearing what could follow, I confided in my sister and my parents, who, with my wife, propped me up as I limped through each arduous day that followed.

Those nearest to you are the unwitting victims, caught in the crossfire of your own dangerous behaviour. For partners and loved ones, the desperation is raw and the helplessness and hopelessness they feel is all too real.

They are at their wits’ end as they don’t know what to do. All they want to do is help.

I felt huge guilt at what I was doing to my family, the worry I was causing them.

That autumn I put blocks in place through GamStop – a self-exclusion scheme which blocks you from accessing online casinos with a UK licence. I felt refreshed and renewed. I thought that was an end to it.

Every gambler in recovery has had their tipping point, that moment when the penny drops and they finally see the light. For me, this moment arrived only when I was about to lose it all.

It was one Saturday morning in July, 2019, when I was finally rumbled.

Despite being signed up with GamStop, I had found other sites that weren’t registered. Gamblers are conniving and devious. We will know every trick, every way to circumnavigate blocks.

I had constantly told my wife that I hadn’t gambled, that everything was okay, that my finances were in order. I had lied to myself as easily as I had lied to everybody else. I had become so used to lying, it became second nature.

She didn’t believe me. After what she had been through, who could blame her?

She could read me like a book. Her gut instinct told her that something was wrong. After running a credit check, she discovered the financial mess I had once again created. Understandably, it was the final straw.

She was about to walk out the door and take my daughter with her. I couldn’t have blamed her if she had. It was all that I deserved for putting her through such heightened emotional torment, none of which was her doing.

This, I now know, was my tipping point, the moment I hit rock-bottom. I knew it was in sight when in those final few months I felt like I wanted to punish myself. I deserved to lose, to gamble until there was nothing left. I deserved this pain, because I had brought it upon myself.

I sank to my knees and begged her to stay, telling her I would do anything to keep our family together. Of course, she had heard this before. Previously my protestations amounted to nothing but empty promises.

Thankfully, thank God, she agreed to stay, but on the proviso I had to attend Gamblers Anonymous. She also informed me that if one penny more came out of my account due to gambling, she would be gone. She would also take control of my bank account, changing the passwords so only she could access my account. Credit and debit cards were cut up. With no access to money, it ensured I couldn’t gamble even if I wanted to.

A week later she drove me to Gamblers Anonymous. The place that would provide my salvation.

Gamblers Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who have joined together to do something about their own gambling problem and to help other compulsive gamblers do the same.

It was there I learned that recovery only comes from total acceptance. I had finally accepted who I was and what I was – a compulsive gambler.

It’s undeniable that sitting in a room full of like-minded people has helped me turn my life around.

I’ve sat and listened to people from all walks of life, of every age, from every corner of society, from every ethnic group whose lives have been blighted by gambling. This is an addiction that doesn’t discriminate, but it does destroy lives.

It’s been sobering, bruising, moving, heartbreaking but, ultimately, wholly cathartic and an absolute privilege to be privy to men and women talking about their emotional journeys with such candour and honesty.

I’ve listened to the heartbreak of compulsive gamblers who have tried to take their own lives, who have arrived in the room with bags packed as their partners have kicked them out, those whose marriages have broken down, those whose mental health has disintegrated.

I’ve also heard the anguished stories of husbands, wives, partners, friends desperate to help their loved ones.

How I got to such a place is still hard for me to qualify, but it’s evident that my descent into the chaos and madness that gambling addiction brings is a well-worn path for many.

Problem gambling in the UK is now so endemic it should be treated as a public health crisis.

There needs to be urgent reform of the Gambling Act to ensure that more people aren’t ensnared by this insidious addiction that destroys lives.

There is hope, there is light and there is redemption. But only if you want it and only if you accept it.

Addiction isn’t something to be ashamed of. Don’t suffer alone, please give yourself a chance to recover and be the person you dream of being.

Gambling addiction stops you from speaking out, as you feel a failure. That shame and the guilt is so debilitating. That’s why gambling addiction is the silent disease.

If you’re hurting, if you’re struggling, please speak up. There are plenty of people who will listen. I know how hard it can be. But getting help was the best thing I ever did.

Gambling stops you living. It puts your life on hold. I can’t get back those wasted years, but recovery gives you hope and opportunity. It gives you a fresh start, clarity of thought and mind. Peace and quiet from the noise and the madness.

Hitting the bottom was both the worst moment of my life and the best. I can never forget the pain and I won’t allow myself to.

For now I wake up with a clear head.

I take it one day at a time.

That’s all I can ask.

///

Where to get help for gambling addiction

GamCare

GamCare offers free information, support and counselling for problem gamblers in the UK. It runs the National Gambling Helpline – 0808 8020 133 – and also offers face-to-face counselling.

www.gamcare.org.uk

Gamblers Anonymous UK

Gamblers Anonymous UK runs local support groups that use the same 12-step approach to recovery from addiction as Alcoholics Anonymous.

www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk

GamAnon

A support group for family and friends, run by the people behind Gamblers Anonymous.

www.gamanon.org.uk

BeGambleAware

A website that gives advice on gambling responsibly.

www.begambleaware.org

Samaritans

A 24-hour service for those feeling suicidal. Call 116 123.

www.samaritans.org

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Huw Davies
Huw Davies
25 days ago

Wow. I was going to say adverts aren’t needed and the worse thing about them is the way they suggest a gambling life is somehow normal (This is the Ladbroke’s life etc.) , like being a football fan or collecting stamps. David Owens has just given a very honest and graphic description that shows it’s more like being an alcoholic or drug addict. So totally agree on a ban on gambling adverts, especially those mealy mouthed ones that urge one to ‘gamble responsibly’ (so it’s your own fault if you get into trouble, but most of all just give us… Read more »

Mark
Mark
24 days ago
Reply to  Huw Davies

doesn’t matter what it is, drugs to hoarding, addiction is a disease and needs to be treated rather than the addict being shunned, made fun of, or left to sort themselves out, which is the usual reaction.

Christian
Christian
25 days ago

Thank you for sharing this story with us David, gaming is so permissive in our society that the industry is not seen as a primary threat to people’s lives.

I was going to forward this to my partner before realising that gaming addiction is a trigger for her as her father gambled her grandparents entire savings away before she came of age to be granted it.

Best of luck to anyone struggling with this vile system of exploitation and devastation.

Stu Mountjoy
Stu Mountjoy
24 days ago

The interesting thing I find, is that some pirated movies have the gambling adverts too LOL. I used to gamble, but I’ve been “dry” or “sober” since May of 2010. Thank you David for the article.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
24 days ago

I wonder how much of Tony Blair’s fortune came from investing in the betting companies he liberated ?

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
24 days ago

Thank you David Owens for your openness on this subject, it couldn’t have been easy for you. I have never gambled and have never wanted to but I’m fully aware of the advertising around and how hard it is to avoid. You are right, stricter regulations must be put into place to protect people. It is a scourge in our society. Best of luck with your recovery.

j humphrys
j humphrys
24 days ago

This is how we do it: State control of all gambling by giving gamblers a “Betcard.”
The codeline allows only so many bets or slotmachine games before cut-off.
All profits go to Welsh State which enables helplines and aid to addicts and families.
System could also be used for other addictions?

Last edited 24 days ago by j humphrys

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