A few days ago, I spent the morning with my dad and my uncle at a local casino. They like to try their luck once a week or so, enjoying the penny slots and discounted meals, and invited me to join in the fun. As a first-timer at this casino, I was given a card with $50 casino cash to use in the machines. My dad also gave me $20 to start my journey of wins and losses.

I put the crisp, new $20 bill into the oversized Sons of Anarchy machine and settled down into the high-backed pseudo-leather chair. I was ready to win, and win big. And I did, sort of. In just three pushes of the button (no more pulling the handle), I won just over $100. I printed out my cash-out ticket and walked away with my earnings. It was the quickest money I have ever made and I intended on keeping it. Dad asked for the return of his $20 investment, to which I smiled and responded (using his line), “I'd rather owe it to you than cheat you out of it.”

I spent the next two hours drinking free iced-tea and going from machine to machine, inserting my casino cash card and shouting “show me the money” with every push of the button. It wasn’t long before my $50 casino cash once again belonged to the casino.

We completed our morning of laughter and fun (only after dad introduced me to every person he has become friends with at the casino) and headed to a local Mexican restaurant for lunch before we made our drives home.

My dad and uncle take about the same amount of money each time, limiting their spending and focusing on the social rather than the financial aspect of the now-weekly ritual. Dad brags he always comes home with at least $10 more than he takes; my uncle says my dad gets winnings that should have been his.

Overall it is a fun way to spend a few hours and I welcome the chance to hang out with my dad and uncle again. Of course, I will continue to expect the initial $20 investment and the free lunch.

For some people, however, gambling crosses the line of fun and entertainment and becomes an addiction. Gambling and problems associated with gambling have existed throughout history. However, with the increase of availability of gambling activities, such as casinos, state lotteries and online games, we are seeing a corresponding increase in pathological or compulsive gambling.

According to Gamblers Anonymous:

  • Approximately 2.5 million adults suffer from compulsive gambling
  • About 3 million are considered problem gamblers
  • Around 15 million are at risk of becoming problem gamblers
  • More than 148 million fall under the low-risk gambler category

Winning money is the allure of gambling, but some people become compulsive with the risk-taking and exhilaration commonly referred to as being "in the action." For some people, gambling can be a form of escape and becomes an avenue to release stress and avoid feelings or problems. This scenario is particularly true of people who are addicted to playing slot machines and video poker games. The combination of thrill-seeking and avoidance sets the stage for what may become an addiction to gambling.

Some symptoms of compulsive gamblers resemble addiction to drugs and alcohol. For instance, a gambler's need to increase the amount and frequency of a bet is not unlike the increase in tolerance to alcohol or drugs in a chemically dependent person.

Like drug and alcohol addictions that progress through phases, so does compulsive gambling, moving through winning, losing and desperation phases. A person may experience some winnings in the early phases, suggesting that it's easy to win.

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However, as the gambling increases and losing becomes more common, a person will attempt to recover their losses through more and more gambling. At this point, many people will postpone paying bills or begin using credit cards or borrowing money to get more money to gamble. The hope is for the "big win" to get their finances straight. This behavior is called "chasing the losses."

Most people never recover their money. This leads to the desperation phase, when a person may go against their values or commit illegal acts to continue to pay for their gambling behavior. In the desperation phase, a person may become depressed, hopeless or suicidal as the consequences of their out-of-control gambling behavior continue to mount.

Unlike alcohol or drug abuse, where the user usually has a saturation point, a compulsive gambler never "passes out" and can continue the behavior for hours, neglecting food, sleep or even bathroom breaks.

When a person is abusing intoxicants, it becomes obvious in their behavior. But with compulsive gamblers, their addiction can be concealed, becoming obvious only after the gambler is in the losing or desperation phases.

A final point: Because scratch tickets provide an immediate win/lose outcome, many people become compulsive with them but don't see it as gambling. However, people can become addicted to this form of gambling as well and begin to lose control over how often and how much they spend on them.

If you or a loved one have crossed or are standing on the line between fun and addiction, help is available. As a matter of fact, a portion of the Arizona Department of Gaming, the agency that oversees the Arizona Lottery and casinos, has designated funds to assist problem gamblers in getting the help they need to stop gambling.

In Coconino County, the state-funded program for gamblers and/or family members affected by compulsive gambling is through Flagstaff Medical Center’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services; call 213-6400 for more information. For a list of providers throughout Arizona, visit ProblemGambling.az.gov or call the Arizona Council on Compulsive Gambling at 800-777-7207.

Is there a health topic you would like to know more about? Contact Starla S. Collins, health writer, life coach and strategic personal and business analyst, at StarlaSCollins@gmail.com.

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