Something happened yesterday that tore open an old wound—no, a fresh wound. Okay, let’s just go with an unhealed, hanging over my head, wound.
A beautiful and brave friend shared a story with me, and it kicked me hard right in the gut. That piercing, stomach wrenching, holy-shit-I may-puke feeling is one I am all too familiar with, and I will get to the reason why in just one moment.
When someone is brave enough to share a piece of their troubled heart with me, I feel honored. I know what it’s like to put yourself out there for people to judge, especially when you have messed something up so incredibly, you want to die.
That’s the deal with shame; it gnaws at your core with the hunger of a rabid dog. Whether you run from it or walk, it somehow finds its way back into your stomach with a vile taste rising up through your throat.
I have felt shame take my character, throw it to the ground, and stomp furiously on it until all of what I once was oozed from my heart. My regret and shame comes from a dark place, one I haven’t been willing to go to, not in my writing, not until now. The bravery of my friend has given me the guts to write this and tell my story. I thank her for that.
Almost six years ago, I discovered a pretty little website, with gorgeous sounds and flashing lights. I came upon it by accident, looking for a way to buy a local lottery ticket online. The jackpot was huge that day, my Facebook feed abuzz with friends’ statuses proclaiming they each would be the one to win the $50 million. Friends’ promises of sharing the riches everyone dreams about were smeared across my wall.
I signed up for the jazzy website and put $10 in the online wallet. I bought a typical lottery ticket and left the site, not thinking about it again. Easy-peasy, I could buy lottery tickets online—what a wonderful and convenient way to do business.
A few days later, I received an email notification stating I had won a few dollars on my ticket. I logged in and realized the winnings were directly deposited into my online wallet. I did what most people would and put the winnings into another ticket, again, and went on with my life without another thought of it. It went on like this for a few weeks, each time winning a little and receiving a few more dollars in my wallet.
One night, I went online to buy another ticket, which is when I saw the pretty flashing lights advertising casino-like games on the site. My boyfriend was in bed and the kids at my ex’s, so I had some free time. Noticing that I had a few dollars left in my wallet, I decided to play one of those online slot games. I pushed the button two times, and nothing. The third time, and with only a dollar left, I pushed it again.
Something incredible happened (which, by the way, would be my demise). There were flashing lights and my wallet, within seconds, my wallet had increased from 0 to 27,827.69. I watched in disbelief. Then I screamed, ran around my house, and may or may not have done the Tom Cruise dance from Risky Business a few times.
Let’s just say, my boyfriend and I celebrated that night. This money couldn’t have come at a better time—it was life changing. Bills got paid, bringing my family back into the black for the first time since my divorce had wiped me clean. We celebrated a little but wanted to be safe, so we put some of the money aside in a wee nest egg—something to fall back on.
My life finally felt as though it was back on track.
A twinge, a need to feel that euphoria again, brought me back to the site a few times over the next couple of months. Every once in a while, I won a few hundred dollars, but it never compared to the jolt of nearly $28,000 landing in my lap.
Every so often, I could hear it taunting me, calling me back, whispering in my ear, “Just imagine if you could feel that way again.”
It became my addiction, and I didn’t even know it. I lusted for that feeling. I needed to feel that way again, and the back of my brain told me I could and should. Meanwhile, my frontal lobe felt guilt, remorse and lows like I had never felt before. I had handed my ticket to the attendant at the gate and got on the gambling roller coaster. And, oh baby, what a ride.
Within six months, I was gambling every day. I would get home from work, and the first thing I would do is jump on the computer, log in, and go off into a place that didn’t judge me. The only place I didn’t have to think about anything but my love for her. Gambling became my best friend, my lover. I didn’t need anyone else; she understood what I required more than I did, more than anyone ever had. There were no thoughts or cares, just the desire for pure ecstasy, the win, coursing through my veins.
Gambling consumed me every day for more than two years. Any chance I could, I would hide from my family, just to feel the click of the button and the opportunity to feel her love again. At times, I’d hide in the bathroom with my laptop so my kids wouldn’t see. Eventually, I began gambling on the computer where I worked.
I began to hate her, but I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stop. I tried. She owned me. I could get there again, she promised.
Money had begun to dwindle. All of my savings were now gone, and no one knew I was gambling, no one. I began gambling an entire paycheck in one night, within less than an hour at times—occasionally winning, but mostly losing. Within these two years, I had gambled compulsively to the tune of nearly $100,000. It was getting terribly hard to hide. I lied to my loved ones every day. I fabricated stories of money frozen in accounts, so I wouldn’t have to stop. I lied so much that it breaks my heart as I am writing these words. I still can’t apologize enough.
Here comes the kicker, my shame, my rock bottom.
In the last six months of my gambling addiction, I started stealing from my work. I was terrible at it; stealing is clearly not my forte. But gambling had a hold on me like no other. I needed to hide my addiction, and not because I didn’t want to get caught, but because I didn’t want to stop. I was chasing that damn metaphorical dragon with a vengeance, not caring whom I hurt along the way.
Without getting into the details of how or how much I stole, let’s just recognize that I did something illegal and morally questionable. It’s something that has given me shame, like nothing I have ever done in my life. And for the very first time, I was the one who had caused my shame. I was putting my hand in the cookie jar, and it was about time I got caught.
With tremendous forethought, I planned how I would expose myself. Taking the easy way out, I emailed my boss a detailed letter explaining I had stolen and I had/have a gambling problem. I ended the letter with my resignation. The two hours I waited for a response were sickening and physically painful. Every few minutes, between gasping for air and sobbing, I would run to the bathroom and vomit. Then, there it was, his number on my cell phone. It took all I had for me to answer, to not run away and try to win one more bet.
The gist of the conversation: He already knew, and the police were now involved. I should expect an officer at my door in the next few days.
Through convulsions and tears, I came to the realization it was time to tell my family everything. My secret needed unveiling, and I had never in my life been more afraid than I was that day.
My thoughts couldn’t have been more unclear. With $80 left in my bank account, the idea of jail time, and the possibility of losing my family forever, I did what any compulsive gambler would do. I opened up that pretty little website and loaded up my wallet. You got it, I gambled it all away. I didn’t hit the big one. Three minutes later, I had nothing left, not even my dignity.
I haven’t gambled in 708 days, for the first 400 days or so it crossed my mind at least once a day. These days it rarely does. During the first few months, after my secret was divulged, I had thoughts of suicide daily. Shame can do that to a person, something I learned very quickly. Without the many hours I have spent in counseling, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
My story doesn’t end here. I wait to this day for a court date. I have been charged, fingerprinted and have had my very first mug shot—all of which is incredibly humbling and terrifying. I am facing possible jail time, and at the very least, retribution. Because I don’t believe in excuses and have learned the hard way that owning your shit is the best way to go, I will plead guilty when the time comes and hope for the best outcome.
I am a compulsive gambler. I will never be able to gamble again. I don’t even play card games any more. I have learned more about myself in the last 708 days than my 43 years on this planet. I am not excusing my indiscretions or choosing to blame my crime on my addiction. But you need to know, I have forgiven myself. I also know that I hurt many people while riding this rickety roller coaster, and for that, I will always be sorry.
But please understand this is only part of my story. It should not define me as a person, and I will not let it.
If you or anyone you know has a gambling problem, please contact your local Gambling Addiction Treatment Center. Help is there, and usually it is free of charge.