At what point do you acknowledge that gambling is destroying your life? Is it when you lose the last R100 in your wallet, when you start alienating family and friends or when you begin considering suicide as your only way out of an all-consuming gambling addiction? For 30-year-old Lesego Kwanini overcoming her compulsion was one of the hardest battles she has ever fought. A mom and marketing consultant from Alexandra, Lesego started gambling in 2010 to escape the twin stresses of her relationship and financial situation. She opens up about how casino slots became her drug of joy and how she managed to get her life back.
“Problem gambling may not be as openly discussed as other addictions as, say, alcoholism – but for sufferers, the addiction is just as painful, and the consequences frequently as dire. There’s no denying that there’s certain glamour to gambling. Think of the glitz and bling of the casino, how it draws you in with the chimes of the slot machines, the serious faces of the croupiers, that heart-stopping moment between the throw of the dice and the landing – the moment that might make all the difference in your life. And yet, for someone suffering from a gambling addiction, life is far from glamorous.
It started innocently enough, taking a chance on the slot machines, usually at Montecasino or Gold Reef City. In one day, I won R50 000. It’s hard to say no to that kind of rush. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. Visits to the casino became more frequent and I landed up spending every moment of my spare time gambling. Looking back, my habit cost me far more than I ever won. Between 2010 and 2015, when I finally sought treatment, I had won only R17 000 in casinos. On the other hand, my losses included my job, my family and my friends. Part of my problem, as a gambling addict, is that I was lying to the people who were closest to me, who should have been able to trust me. It’s not surprising that they turned away from me when they found out. I didn’t care, though – I reached a stage where I felt I didn’t even need human companionship. I had my slot machines – they were my friends.
It was only a matter of time, however, before those ‘friends’ turned into bitter enemies. Running out of money to support my gambling habit, I found myself in debt. Desperate, I turned to loan sharks to help me sort out my financial problems, but I wasn’t able to pay them back, either. Living with the constant stress and anxiety was nothing compared to the knowledge that I wasn’t providing the financial security my son, then 17, needed. I was on the verge of suicide.
So, what changed? I saw a National Responsible Gambling Programme (NRGP) pamphlet at the casino help desk detailing the assistance offered to problem gamblers by the South African Responsible Gambling Foundation (SARGF). I phoned the helpline provided, and found the counsellor who answered immensely professional and helpful. The outpatient treatment programme easily accommodates individuals who are in full-time employment and can only attend sessions for a few hours a week. Few individuals need residential inpatient treatment. This entails four weeks of admission to an addiction rehabilitation facility and it works best for highly motivated and committed individuals who have good support from family or friends.
I started attending outpatient counselling sessions after work. I learned that my problem was a complex one: it wasn’t simply about the thrill, or even the chance to win money. Nor was it even about the high I experienced when I returned home with a fatter wallet. In fact, education was a big part of my treatment. I finally understood that addiction is a multi-faceted issue, involving the brain chemicals which are released to give us a feeling of reward when we win. The same chemicals are at play in drug and alcohol addiction, which is why problem gamblers frequently experience impulse control disorders, unhealthy relationships with recreational drugs and alcohol and even other psychiatric disorders such as depression and anxiety. This was not the case with me – I simply found that, in a life where I felt alone and a low self-esteem I needed an escape from harsh realities and the slot machines provided comfort.
It took me three months of intensive treatment, during which time I attended 20 counselling sessions provided by the NRGP at no cost. Even at this time the threat of relapse was ever present. It was hard. There were many times when I felt like gambling. I was a black card holder – that’s how much a part of my life casinos were. I was on their database, which meant that I was constantly receiving text messages and vouchers; casinos are always trying to lure you in even when you are addicted or have declared yourself into self-exclusion. When that happened, I simply phoned my treatment professional. I managed to stay strong – I haven’t been to a casino since November 2014.
I also had to learn to find new ways of coping with stress and my low self-esteem. I found the ultimate support in my family. One of the greatest incentives to keep away from the slot machines is my six-month-old daughter. She keeps me busy, so I don’t really have time to think about gambling.
My story has a happy ending – but I’m convinced that other problem gamblers can beat their addiction too and believe it’s never too late especially if they seek treatment and counselling. I really do think that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Problem gambling can be cured. I feel blessed now. I’m in a happy place with my two children. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Winners Know When to Stop
The National Responsible Gambling Programme operates a 24-hour counselling hotline call 086 006 008 or [email protected]) or SMS to 076 675 0710. If the problem is particularly severe, the NRGP will refer the individual to an inpatient programme and, if necessary, will subsidise the treatment.