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"I Gambled Away Our Life Savings"

She spent their life savings at the casino. Can this marriage be saved?
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Her Turn

"Rob acts as though I purposely gambled away our life savings just to hurt him and our kids," said Janet, 50, who has been married for 32 years and is the mother of a son, David, 22, and a daughter, Becky, 20. "He's so wrong! I love my family with all my heart! I'd give anything to be free of this irresistible urge to play the slots. But all Rob does is belittle me and say things like 'Why didn't you just stop?' If only it were that easy!

"He's got a right to be furious, though. He bailed me out of $35,000 of debt a year ago. I promised him I'd never gamble again but in no time I was right back at my favorite machine, 15 minutes from our home in Nebraska. Two weeks ago Rob found out I'd taken almost $50,000 out of our joint account and cashed in the kids' CDs. I paid off some of my credit cards, but there's still $50,000 more to pay. Whenever I used credit cards to borrow money to gamble with, I'd get preapproved offers with higher and higher lines of credit. I signed up for all of them. What's really scary is that even when I drained our savings to pay off as much debt as I could, I put $1,000 aside for a last hurrah, convinced I'd hit it big and make everything back. I was planning to go to the casino that very night — and would have, if Rob hadn't called me at work to say he knew everything.

"I hate the person I've become. And now that Rob and the kids have withdrawn their love, my need for a gambling high is greater than ever. When I'm not lost in the fantasyland of jackpots that might be won, all I can think is that I should drive my car off a bridge.

"It's not that I haven't tried to get help. After Rob agreed to dip into our retirement account to pay off that first $35,000, I went to Gamblers Anonymous. At the first meeting, one guy started rhapsodizing about hitting the 777s; the point was to let us in on the moment when he knew he had to quit. But I got an incredible rush. After leaving the meeting, I drove straight across the bridge from Nebraska to Iowa, where casinos are legal. I won $10,000. I went back the next day and promptly lost all of it and then some. The day after that, I took a cash advance on one of my 'little saviors,' my credit cards. Like always, I told myself I'd use the money to win everything back. I lost $3,000 that day and then at least that much for I don't know how many days in a row. It was about a year later that I went to the bank and got the cashier's checks for $50,000 and cashed in the kids' CDs. Wouldn't you know, Rob picked that day to go to the bank to deposit his monthly pension check — he's retired from the military — as well as some money from his part-time job as a chef."

"His working nights at a restaurant is one reason I got away with all that time in the casino. That and the fact that the kids are away at college. I'd leave my job as a school secretary at 3 p.m. and come home just before Rob got in at midnight. On days he didn't work, I'd say I was shopping. My absence didn't bother him. Ever since he retired and moved near his family, he's been content to watch TV or visit his parents or brother and sister-in-law. I don't go with him because his family and I have nothing in common. They've spent their whole lives in Nebraska and I've been all over the world.

"In fact, Rob and I had an exciting and romantic life together from the moment we met. I lived near the Navy base where he was stationed and one night when I was 17, a girlfriend and I went to one of the Navy dances. I thought I'd pass out when this handsome guy in uniform asked me to dance. Soon we were dating. When he got his orders less than a year later to go to Hawaii, he asked me to marry him and come with him. Over the years we were stationed in all sorts of fascinating places. David was born in Guam and Becky in the Philippines. I'm a thrill-seeker and a gypsy at heart, so I thrived on packing up and moving to each different place. My secretarial skills meant I could always land a job, and I loved meeting new people.

"Then, two years ago, Rob took early retirement. Suddenly I was also coping with an empty nest. I had no kids to take care of, a husband hooked on ESPN, neighboring in-laws I didn't like, and the first symptoms of menopause. I felt bored, old, and worried that my good years were behind me. Rob suggested I get a hobby, and I did: I started going to the casino with friends. At first I was a social gambler like them. But before long I was going alone so I could spend as much as I wanted with nobody watching. I'd find one slot machine and stick with it all night long. I played a game with myself, trying to figure out when it was set to pay off. If I won, I'd tell myself I knew what I was doing.

"But then came that horrible day two weeks ago when Rob found out I'd emptied our account. He didn't even know about the extra credit-card debt. I was terrified to face him, so I stayed at a girlfriend's for three nights. By then my kids had flown home because they were so worried about me. I can't even describe the shame and hopelessness I felt when I finally faced my family.

"Rob and I are living like strangers, barely civil. I'd give anything to get myself under control and have his love and trust again."

His Turn

"Let's get something straight: I have never for one minute thought about divorcing Janet," said Rob, 54. "I have a strong faith and I take my marriage vows seriously. Janet is beautiful and funny and great company. I have so many wonderful memories of our years together. I can't let this crisis break up our family.

"I thought Janet had come to her senses a year ago when I cashed in savings bonds to pay off her $35,000 gambling debt. No such luck. This time she got us in an even-deeper hole — six figures' worth. She not only took money out of our account behind my back, but she cashed in our children's CDs without telling them. That's about as low as you can get.

"So yes, I'm angry. She betrayed my trust twice. I don't see how things can ever be the same between us. She dashed all our dreams for the future, dreams I'd worked toward all my life. We both loved Hawaii when I was stationed there and hoped to move there someday. She carries on about how she dislikes Nebraska and having my family around, but the plan was never to stay here forever. It was a stopover, a way to reconnect with my family after living all over for so long. I thought it would be nice for David and Becky to have a few Christmases and Easters with their grandparents. I'm not sure Janet understands that. Her parents are divorced and she keeps in touch with her family mostly by e-mail.

"Now, of course, it looks as if we're stuck here because she's burned through all the money that was supposed to get us to Hawaii. I guess I should be grateful we're not completely destitute. I have a good pension and make decent money at my part-time job. But we'll never get back to the financial comfort we enjoyed in her pre-casino days. What breaks my heart is that we started out with nothing and worked hard for every penny we put away. Both of us come from modest backgrounds and we did pretty well, considering. Now, except for the house, we have absolutely nothing to show for it.

"How could Janet, a smart lady, do something as stupid as gamble away just about everything we had? Maybe I could get rid of some of my resentment if that mystery could simply be explained to me. As it is, I get upset just looking at her. We live in the same house, but there's nothing between us anymore. The kids are upset, too. I mean, what kind of mother effectively steals from her own children? When I contemplate the woman I married, the woman I loved so much for so many years, I'm totally baffled."

The Counselor's Turn

"To answer Rob's question, I explained that the major cause of compulsive gambling is a sense of loss," said the counselor. "In Janet's case, one loss was the exciting lifestyle of a globetrotting Navy spouse. Another was the departure of her kids for college. And a third was the beginning of menopause and thus the end of her reproductive years. Compulsive gambling, also known as pathological gambling, is defined as an impulse control disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And for the first time, women are afflicted as often as men, a trend that began in the '70s, when women joined the workforce and established their own lines of credit and some economic independence. Here in Nebraska we grapple constantly with the problem because of our proximity to legal casinos right across the Missouri River in Iowa.

"A standard evaluation during my first session with Janet revealed that she had most of the symptoms of the disorder, including a preoccupation with ways to get money to gamble; a need for the stakes to rise to ever-greater levels in order to get a high; unsuccessful attempts to control her gambling; restlessness and irritability when she attempted to cut down or stop; temporary relief of guilt, anxiety, and depression while gambling; and lying to conceal the extent of her addiction. What's more, she relied on her husband to pay her debts. And unless a gambler simultaneously gets appropriate help, a well-meaning spouse who bails out a gambler becomes an 'enabler,' allowing the gambler to start again with a clean slate.

"True, Janet did go to Gamblers Anonymous. I recommend such groups as a supplement to counseling, but they don't work for everyone, and they didn't for Janet. My colleagues and I use a different approach. We teach gamblers to recognize their personal triggers and to learn to resist the urge. For Janet the triggers were anger (at her in-laws, for instance), boredom, and a sense of uselessness. With Rob's support, she mastered the techniques I gave her for controlling her triggers.

"Janet's favorite technique is the Niagara Falls metaphor. 'I envision myself being thrown in the water at the top of the Falls and then being able to toss out an anchor so I don't get swept over,' she said. 'My triggers — being angry or frustrated or bored — can put me at the top of the Falls. So now I mentally toss out an anchor. Mine is that I don't want to destroy my precious husband and children, or myself, by succumbing to the urge to gamble. I never again want to feel like I should drive my car off a bridge.'

"Not all spouses are as open to counseling as Rob turned out to be and, fortunately, he could absorb their financial loss, albeit at the expense of his dream of spending his golden years in Hawaii. But losing those hard-earned savings left him deeply resentful. To his credit, he was eager to get rid of his negative feelings and move on. To that end, I helped Rob understand that Janet missed the excitement of their travels and that she had felt lonely and bored while he watched TV or visited his family. After hearing this, Rob made every effort to spend time with Janet in pleasurable activities. They took up golf, which they both now enjoy, and joined a square dance club. This new companionship with her husband went a long way toward helping Janet control her urge to gamble.

"'Money is tight, but every penny we spend on leisure together is well spent,' Rob told me. 'I was amazed she was pining for our old life. To me, all that relocating was exhausting and disorienting. I couldn't wait to have a more predictable, peaceful life. But she's happier now that we're doing more things together. She's also become more willing to socialize with my family.'

"'I've learned to like Rob's family,' Janet agreed. 'I'm kind of embarrassed that I didn't even give them a chance before this. They not only enjoy my stories of all of our travels, but they have interesting stories of their own. They run a bed-and-breakfast so they've met lots of fascinating people.'

"Two years have passed since Janet and Rob first came to me, and in that time she has not gambled once. She cut up all of her credit cards and I got her off the mailing lists for preapproved cards. She also gives her paycheck to Rob and he puts no more than $150 at a time in a debit-card account for personal expenses such as gas, haircuts, and lunches. Some gamblers hate being placed in this childlike role, but Rob helped Janet avoid that reaction by praising her for her strength in following the new plan.

"Like all addicts, Janet will never be cured. She is in recovery. She can't gamble at all, any more than an alcoholic can have one drink. She still comes for counseling once a month and has continued to resist temptation — not an easy feat when it lies a mere 15 minutes away.

"Janet's crowning achievement came a few months ago when she and Rob went to a wedding in Las Vegas. She was nervous about putting herself in the capital of gambling, but she enjoyed the celebration without even going near the slot machines.

"'That's as good as cured in my book,' said Rob with obvious pride. 'I never thought I'd be able to say this, but our marriage is even better because of what we've been through. I don't hold what happened against Janet anymore, and I like knowing I'm able to help her resist her triggers. If she gets angry, I say, "Toss out an anchor." It works every time.'

"By sticking to a strict budget, the couple have begun paying down their debt. Once it's gone, they plan to build up their savings again. They have also paid back their children, both of whom have forgiven their mother. 'I don't know if we'll ever get to Hawaii, but that doesn't matter anymore,' Rob said. 'We've got each other.'

"'I'll never slip again,' Janet reassured her husband. 'You and the kids mean the world to me. I almost lost everything, but I got a second chance. And for that I am eternally grateful.'"

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2006.

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