This week, writer and Beit T’Shuvah resident, Darrah S., spoke with Brad R, who coordinates Beit T’Shuvah’s gambling program, about what makes gambling different from other addictions, and what impact the crisis has had on those seeking recovery. While “there’s no sports to bet on [and] no casino that’s open,” there are still ways we can all act out, Brad tells us.
Darrah: So my first question is, what is your role in the gambling department?
Brad: So I’m the program coordinator of the gambling department and also a counselor.
Darrah: What brought you to this work, and what is it like working with people who are struggling with addiction?
Brad: My life experience was such that I suffered incredibly dramatic experiences from my gambling and my lifestyle. The consequences, you know, as they say in the Big Book, are prison, insanity, or death. Of course I experienced two of those three things. And so for me, knowing that I hurt a lot of people along the way, I started to realize that the only way to repair a lot of my damage was to hopefully try and help others like me to make sure they don’t go down the same path that I was on. In other words, I hurt a lot of people – hurt my family, hurt friends, hurt business associates, many of whom I can’t pay back because of what I did.
However, there are other ways to pay back, as we know in recovery. This to me was the ultimate thing. The career that I previously had, which was working in finance and working on Wall Street, is no longer available to me. So now I have to figure out what I’m going to do with myself, and how I’m going to apply myself. And it became very apparent to me that the best way to do this was to take the message and the lessons that I’ve learned and hopefully instill them in others through my own life.
It really became apparent that I have a very unusual life experience. And it’s really easy for me to take that and to hopefully help others. And what I’ve actually found in my nearly three years here is I made the right move.
Darrah: So with this current crisis, what impact do you think it has had — or will have — on people struggling with a gambling addiction?
Brad: As for anybody that is in the mental health profession or doing any kind of clerical work, fears about the impact it will have are astronomical. And unfortunately, it’s been borne out in our community. We see that. I have such empathy for those who are out there right now, relegated to staying at home and who are suffering from mental health issues and issues with addiction. I’m blessed—I get to come to work every day. Because God only knows what I would do, sitting at home all day as an addict. The ability to have a defense for this is unprecedented, there’s no playbook for this. Particularly with those that struggle with ADD, OCD, anxiety, and depression, all of a sudden they’re sent home with no recourse. Many of them alone. Many of them not able to tolerate discomfort in their own devices.
Darrah: What is it like to come to work, even though this is all going on?
Brad: So technically speaking here, my caseload is a little lower because obviously only half the number of people are here now. But the work is far more intense for not only the people that are in here, but those have left—I’m still in touch with them. I mean, I really work seemingly all night.
I have families of former residents and families of those who voluntarily left calling me like, “are they OK? What can we do?” I mean, it’s kind of like I’m on call. And I feel like it’s something I have to do. I mean, yeah, there are boundaries. But at the same time, people are really, really struggling out there. And I think we’ve all come to know in recovery, we can’t do this thing alone.
And of course, you know, I want to speak to the residents that are here. I, frankly, don’t know if I could have done this. I am so, so impressed by the residents that have gone through this for the last seven weeks, by all the work that they’ve done. They literally could have all got up and left. We actually have one gambler that came the day before they closed this place. And he had a decision. He stayed. And that tells me how badly that not only my gamblers, but everybody in here wants it.
I’ll be straight. I was very skeptical about the quality of care that we would have with Zoom and with telehealth. I’ve been just so blown away by the whole experience. Our groups, the quality of our interactions, the quality of their work is off the charts.
We’ve had a couple of our gamblers who did leave voluntarily. They have actually been more engaged in their program since they left, than they were then they were here. And that just speaks to them, and the community that we have here. I mean everyone’s rallied together and we’ve made quintessential lemonade out of lemons here.
I know Rabbi Mark. I know his teachings, and the concept of gratitude. There are 30 million people that are out of work right now in the United States and that number is probably understated. The notion that not only do I get to come to work, but I get to actually impact people’s lives? I know I’m so blessed to be doing this number one, and number two to be doing it in a time like this. I’m very fortunate.
Darrah: How do you view gambling as different from other addictions?
Brad: So gambling is unusual in a lot of ways. When someone has a gambling problem, there’s no objective sign, typically. There’s no diagnostic test, but they have a gambling problem. It’s not like you show up and your pupils are constricted. It’s not like you show up smelling like alcohol. It makes it very hard to detect. The other thing that makes gambling difficult is the concept of money and the relationship with money.
We talk about an alcoholic who is a dry drunk, so that means that this person is an alcoholic, they drank, they’re in recovery, but they still exude the same behaviors and characteristics that they did when they were drinking. The only difference is they’re not “wet” anymore.
So gambling is unusual because we don’t have that ability to step away from the alcohol. We have to have money in our pocket. We have to exist with money — that makes it a very, very big challenge for people. And hence the relationship with money, how we view money adversely or how we view it favorably. What does it mean to us? It makes it very tough. I also think that along those lines, what makes it difficult in recovery is this idea of still staying in action as a gambler but not going to the casino. And this is what I impart on the people I work with every day.
So everybody in here is abstinent. Nobody’s gambling as far as I know. There’s no sports to bet on. There’s no casino that’s open. Yet, we can all still act out. And I find that’s even a challenge for me. And how does this manifest itself? You know, for example, parking in a loading zone. Speeding on the freeway. Things like that. Testing limits. Testing boundaries. Testing power. Testing myself.
Another facet of gambling that is a bit different than other addictions is this idea of validation. So when I go out and play and I go out and win, I pat myself on the back — you don’t necessarily do that with cocaine.
And so this idea of self-esteem and gambling is very, very closely linked. Not only in the original addiction while we were in it and while we were still in action doing what we were doing before we got into recovery. After that I still have self-esteem problems. My self-esteem problem that I had when I was 12 years old didn’t all of a sudden go away. I still have it. It manifests itself differently. So before I used to test myself I played poker, now I test myself in other ways. I may, you know, drive while my gas tank is on its way to zero and see how many miles I can get without having to fill it up. There’s all sorts of mind games, mind-bets that we play with ourselves. And that’s what makes gambling very unusual.
There’s a lot of ways it manifests itself. It’s not just typically the traditional on your phone or at a casino or watching a football game. It’s a lifestyle. That’s what makes it really hard. But again, the idea that we can’t detect it. Although, if you listen to the research experts — and I do —there are physical signs every now and then. I mean you get restless, you get irritable, you start to get sweaty. Those things are true, but it’s just as it would be with a substance user.
Darrah: Yeah, it’s not as much objective as it is situational.
Brad: There’s no objective diagnostic way to figure it out.
Darrah: What do you think, in your experience, really works with gambling addicts in recovery?
Brad: Inner motivation, I apply a lot of motivational interviewing in what I do. That’s a clinical term, but that stems from having the client as being the internal motivating force, not me as their motivator. Now I’m there to guide them along the way, of course. But I can’t want it more than they want it for themselves. It doesn’t work. I can’t force somebody not to do something that they ultimately want to do. If they want to gamble? You know, you can come to Beit T’Shuvah for a year and if you actually want to go to the casino, you’re gonna go. You’re not going to use your sober support network.
So ultimately, I need them to verbalize to themselves reasons why they want to be sober, why it’s important to them, what’s their value system, what are their goals. And I sort of equate it this way: I want them to be the visionary. And I’m — to use the football analogy — I’m like the coach and the press box who looks at the field and says, OK, maybe you want to go around this player or that player, go in this direction or that direction. So it’s not that I’m hands-off. It’s that I want them to be the ones with the internal drive.
Now to be sure, I have a life experience that is unlike any that most of these people who walk into our gambling program will ever meet. Because of my life experience, it is important for me to impart to them the consequences that could happen because I’ve lived them. So I’m very transparent. I use a lot of self-disclosure, probably more than most counselors do, because I want them to understand that if you keep doing what you’re doing, you will wind up like me. There is no question, you will go to jail. And you will suffer the consequences. Ultimately, I want them to verbalize it to themselves.
Darrah: And internalize it.
Brad: Exactly. What’s your value system? What are your goals? Because again I can’t want it more than you. And that’s — that’s not an easy task sometimes. It takes a while. You figure it out though. It’s hard though, again, because the relapse rate is so high.
Darrah: What is the relapse rate?
Brad: It’s like seventy percent. It’s really high, it’s really tough. When gamblers come in here, they have a long tail on a lot of their consequences. So, for example, they may have student loan debt. They may have payday loans. They may have casino markers. They may have stolen from friends and family, so they come in here, they get better, they’re feeling good. Six months, nine months rolls around and they actually get to go out and go to work. And all of a sudden they get whacked upside the head. They get an apartment: “Oh, you have a debt due from this.” And that just sets them backwards. Now, other addicts have this stuff, too. But money makes it a little tougher. And that’s the issue.
Darrah: Because that desperation kind of drives you to relapse.
Brad: Exactly, that’s the word I would use. I would use desperation in the sense of: “I have to play catch up again?” One of the biggest things about gambling is chasing. Chasing loses. People chase limits but they definitely chase losses, and they get behind. So they come into treatment and they’re not chasing anymore. They get out, and all of a sudden they get hit with consequences that they had many years before they came in here, and then they feel again like they’re in that chasing cycle. And that’s why the relapse rate is so high.
Darrah: Is there a way that you prepare people for those future consequences?
Brad: Great question, actually. That’s something that’s the hardest work to do. Because on one hand, this is a Beit T’Shuvah thing, you want to have people have as much autonomy as they can. We want to set them off where they are their own boss when they leave. But on the other hand, I don’t want people to leave here before their time, and when they’re not ready. I’ve seen that really, really, really blow up. When people think I’ve got this, I’m good, I’m not going to gamble anymore. And they go, they leave and they all of a sudden feel, you know what, I’ve been in treatment for nine months, I’m going to reward myself with a $2000 apartment. And like, dude, do you have a job? And so they go back to what they know. And so it makes it really hard.
One of the things that I have tried to do, something I’m quite proud of, is to have more in-depth touch with our alumni to see how they’re doing. I can’t be a guardian for them, but at the same time I could at least be somebody that they could reach out to and say, “Hey, you know what, I’m struggling. What do you recommend I do?”