Shelby Township resident Nicholas Tabarias’ initiation into problem gambling began in 2014, when he moved in with an aunt who frequently visited the casino.
“She loved to play slot machines and frequented the casino almost every day,” he says. “At first I would accompany her to the casino and watch her play, but eventually the sights and sounds and the idea of the big win… turned into a gambling problem.”
Tabarias started going to the casino every day to play blackjack, Texas hold’em, and tournament poker. He also started showing up late for work or missing work altogether. He started gambling his paychecks, turned to payday loans, and eventually pawned his beloved musical instruments.
“I would lose all my money, rack up debt, and chase my losses by taking out more loans,” he says. “It was a vicious circle that was gradually destroying my life.”
When he wasn’t at the casino, he spent his time researching strategies, like card counting, to improve his chances of winning.
“I thought a big win would solve all my problems, I could take care of myself and my family, and life would be great,” Tabarias said. “Unfortunately that was not the case. I was definitely digging a very deep hole. I had to hit rock bottom and realize that I was helpless in the face of the game, that my life had become unmanageable and seeking help.”
Tabaria’s first step on the road to recovery was to call the Michigan Problem Gambling Hotline. Help from Mike Moody, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with the helpline, and a referral to Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings were just what Tabarias needed to overcome his addiction.
“I love recovery meetings. You’re welcome with open arms. You’re in a non-judgmental zone and you’re with other people who have very similar stories,” Tabarias says. “It’s like a family unit. You can talk about what you’re struggling with. For me, that really made a difference.”
The Problem Gambling Helpline is a safe bet
Tabarias is far from alone in his problem gambling experience. His call to the problem gambling hotline was one of 4,400 made in 2021 – the first full year that online gambling was legal in Michigan. This number triples calls received in 2020. As online gambling has brought the state $20.5 million in tax revenue and other payments in January 2022 alone, referrals to gambling treatment increased by 42% from 2020 to 2021. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation has left many Michiganders with downtime, stress and anxiety, which increases the urge to play d a problematic player.
“Online gambling led to an increase in gambling activity for those who were already engaged and visiting casinos and whatever their gambling activity of choice,” said Alia Lucas, treatment program manager and prevention of gambling disorders in Michigan. “Also, it introduced gambling as an individual game. If you add the increased accessibility with online gambling and sports betting, you now make it even more available. It’s at your fingertips on your phone or your computer. You don’t have to leave your home. It’s definitely heightened gaming activity.”
The gambling disorder is classified as an addiction-related disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Gambling addiction has the highest intentional suicide rate of any addictive disorder. Problem gamblers are 15 times more likely to commit suicide than the general public.
Signs of problem gambling include being preoccupied with how to get more gambling money; playing with increasing amounts of money; unsuccessfully trying to cut down or stop playing; feeling restless or irritable when trying to cut down; using gambling to escape from problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression; try to recover lost money by playing more; lying about gambling; jeopardize relationships, school, or work opportunities; and steal or borrow to replace money that has been gambled.
“Gambling is a hidden addiction. There really isn’t any physical cue that you can assess to determine if someone is in over their head,” Lucas says. “It takes such a hold and puts such a hole in your life. Often compulsive gamblers see no other way out.”
The expectation of the big win further clouds players’ judgment. Lucas notes that people who win big when they first experience gambling have a 30% higher risk of problem gambling.
“One thing that makes this particular addiction difficult is that the world recognizes gambling as a recreational pastime,” Lucas said. “For a lot of people, it’s normalized in the household. I grew up with family members who played the lottery and I don’t think about it. Some family members may have gambling parties, or you can play bingo at church. We often dismiss problem gambling as a lack of self-control without viewing it as something beyond recreational gambling.”
The state symposium extended the work of the hotline
To Address the Rise in Problem Gambling, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Hosted a Virtual Meeting Gambling Disorder Symposium March 3-4, 2022. The event brought hope to people struggling with problem gambling, those who have loved ones who are problem gamblers, and practitioners who help others with problem gambling. Gambling addiction experts spoke to people who have experienced gambling problems. The symposium also discussed the increase in the number of young people struggling with gambling problems due to online gaming.
“The game has changed, and so have problems,” says Brianne Doura-Schawohl, symposium keynote speaker and CEO of Doura-Schawohl Consulting, a government relations and gaming consultancy. “We are seeing, thanks to the proliferation of online sports and gaming, that hotlines across the United States are experiencing an increase in calls for help, many of whom are young men struggling with sports betting. now that it’s become much easier to play from your phone and from the comfort of your home.”
Doura-Schawohl notes that online access has evolved the game from a release or event to an ever-present temptation. What was once a single opportunity to bet on a sporting event has become a series of real-time bets throughout a match.
“If someone is struggling with gaming disorder, it will negatively impact eight to 10 other people around them. It really is a significant emotional and mental addiction,” says Doura-Schawohl. “The shame and stigma associated with gambling addiction is the worst of all addictions. Many people who struggle do so in silence.”
To further aggravate problem gambling, gamblers can place bets with credit cards and e-wallets funded by credit cards. Other countries, like the UK, Spain, Australia, Germanyand Franceban credit cards and e-wallets and restrict gambling ads.
“With legalization, the aggressive marketing, promotions and bonus offers that are often dangled in front of people are enticing them to gamble more. People are probably gambling when they never would have, and it’s instantaneous” , says Doura-Schawohl. “We are attracting a whole new customer base with this wave and people are getting into gambling for the very first time. Many of them are young and unfamiliar with the risks of gambling.”
While the new generation of problem gamblers tends to be young, white, well-educated, and male, problem gambling does not discriminate. It is no longer relegated to certain populations. And its reach extends beyond financial ruin.
“Gambling involves risk, and so does that sip of alcohol,” says Doura-Schawohl. “Gambling disorders ruin lives. But there’s no reason anyone should struggle in silence. There is help. There is hope. And there are people who want to help. .”
Tabarias found his way to hope on the other side of problem gambling. He hasn’t played in a year and finds serving newcomers in his GA group helps him stay away from playing.
“They also remind me of what I went through. The program helped me change the way I think and live,” says Tabarias. “I was able to pay off my debts. I show up for work and show up on time.”
He also rediscovered his love of music, having released an album and playing shows with his father.
“It’s such a contrast,” says Tabarias.
To reach the Michigan Problem Gambling Hotline, call (800) 270-7117.
A writer and freelance writer, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellbeing, and the arts. She is the development news editor for Fast growing media and The Tree Amigos chairs, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her greatest accomplishment is her five incredible adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.
Photos of Nicholas Tabarias by Nick Hagen.