I grew up in your average Minnesota small town. We were neither rich nor poor, just like most everyone growing up in that area.
My father was sporadically employed as an accountant. However, he was also a big gambler and a big drinker. His addictions affected our family in ways that have taken me a lifetime to fully understand.
My father’s gambling problem resulted in our losing our house twice – once when I was four and again when I was 12. We were lucky in that the mortgage company felt sorry for us and allowed us to keep the house, primarily because my mother was a fulltime worker.
When I was about 10, I remember sensing that something was wrong. I went upstairs and heard my dad screaming and crying into the phone. I heard him saying, “I paid you. I paid you. You’re not getting another penny out of me!” I remember his distress vividly, and it was devastating to me to see my dad in that way. Later, I learned he was talking to a loan shark because of financial problems brought about by gambling.
After that, I remember my father had a good job as a comptroller for a company. However, he continued to drink and gamble too much. He was a regular at fraternal clubs over lunch hour where he’d play card games with large stakes of up to $4,000 per game, hardly casual gambling. This was during the late ’60s and early ’70s when there were no casinos or other ways for someone to gamble.
In those days when my father had a good job and gambled, we lived the roller coaster life that he did. Our lives – and lifestyle – dramatically improved when he was winning, but they would be dramatically worse when he was losing. The peaks were wonderful; the valleys were horrific.
As a child, you’re in need of security and stability, but having a parent that gambles does not provide either. As a family, our emotions were tied in to the fate of the breadwinner. In good times, things were okay, but still untrustworthy. In the bad times, it felt like we were in freefall, never knowing when we’d hit bottom or if things would get better again.
During these years, my mother did her best to shelter the family from all that was going on. She absorbed as much of it as she could. Later, when I understood all that had happened, I felt anger for all that my father had put her through.
Things came to a head a few years later. When I was 21, my father was arrested after he didn’t show up at work. He was charged with forgery and embezzlement. He had been diverting checks intended for others and convinced the banks to give him cash for those checks, money that he’d use for gambling. I remember thinking that it was all so inevitable – it was the gambling and the drinking.
The best thing that happened was that my dad’s attorney, himself a recovering alcoholic, convinced my father to go to treatment and encouraged our family to do an intervention. This intervention helped liberate me from the addiction hold. It took time for me to process everything and to realize the power of the addiction and the damage it caused. I made choices to not live an addictive lifestyle and transcended away from the cycle of addiction.
Having a parent with an addiction problem often means that children will suffer with the same types of behaviors. That was true in my family as well. There were eight of us kids, and half suffered addiction issues of one sort or another or were in relationships with others suffering abuse or addiction issues. I’ve been fortunate in recognizing the power of addiction.
I’m sometimes asked what advice I might give to the child of a problem gambler given my experience. I have two suggestions. One is to seek help individually – and sooner than later before they have to experience all the destructive aspects. They can get help even if they are not the subjects of the addiction. A second thing I would encourage is getting involved in the intervention and not to be fearful of it. They likely have been afraid of this for a long time, but getting involved in the intervention is a chance for them to flip things upside down and gain control for themselves.