‘It’s our heroin’: Meet the compulsive gamblers battling against a cruel addiction
PUBLISHED: 07:00 23 August 2018
I’m met off the train by Barry waiting at the ticket barrier. We exhange greetings before he leads me to his car, a silver Mercedez parked just outside.
It’s a short drive to the church hall through streets that would look familiar in any town.
The hall nestles among rows of houses, minutes from the town centre. There’s a bar up the road that features in TOWIE, Barry tells me.
Across a patch of lawn a few men gather outside the church hall entrance.
The inside is like any other. Strip lighting, wooden floors, brown plastic chairs, curtains that look as if they’ve been hanging since the 1970s.
But the atmosphere is a pub’s. Joking, jeering, the easy familiarity found among friends. Though the only refreshment on offer here is tea or coffee.
“There are people from all walks of life here,” Barry tells me. “Accountants, bankers, builders.”
The youngest must be in their early twenties. The eldest, maybe 70.
The meeting begins. Everyone takes a seat in a widening circle.
“We’re junkies. Gambling is our heroin,” Ray, not his real name, tells the room.
“We’ve got our different reasons, but it’s our drug. The same reasons people go out and fill a syringe. It may not be a physical drug, but it’s in your mind,” he continues.
Everyone in the room - about 40 men and two women- listens closely, as they do to each and every compulsive gambler who wants to speak from the ‘honesty chair’.
It’s a chance to get something off their chests, to talk about what’s tempting them to give in to an old, familiar habit they battle to keep at bay.
And there’s tough love in return. It’s a therapy of sorts, but without the couch.
You tell an honest story, and you get honest responses in return.
As did Dave, again not his real name, a first timer tonight who “lost an awful amount of money” through spread-betting.
It’s not a problem financially, because of family support, he says.
“I was encouraged to come along. Telling my wife the extent of my issues was a horrific day,” he explains. “You feel like you’ve disappointed everybody.”
As with everyone here, Dave has given his bank cards and control over his spending to a loved one.
“I don’t know what would happen if I got it back again,” he says.
But he’s told it is a problem and he should rely on himself to do something about it. Tough love.
Then there’s Graham, again not his real name, going through a breakdown in a relationship and keen to share what’s happened.
Different stories each time, but as tonight’s chairman points out, “It’s all the same, because with gambling you can’t win.”
What is clear is that everyone gets a buzz being there, speaking, listening and understanding. It’s a buzz filling the gap left by gambling.
Those who talk benefit from members with a lifetime’s experience resisting the urge to bet.
Graham, whose gambling addiction led to a suicide attempt, explains: “It’s nice to know people care about you. In the end it doesn’t matter how much you lose. It’s what it does to your heart, mind and body. This fellowship is a fantastic group of friends.”
And there’s plenty of wisdom on offer to those ready to take it, as Barry points out.
“A pound you’ve earned in one pocket is worth more than £1million in another you’ve won through gambling,” he says.
At first it sounds crazy. Who wouldn’t rather have a million in their back pocket? But then the meaning becomes clear. Winning big at gambling can cost your health, happiness and even your family. For a compulsive gambler it could easily be lost again, along with the things you can’t put a price on.
Gamblers Anonymous groups meet daily in Brentwood, Gidea Park, Romford, Basildon and Upminster. Visit gamblersanonymous.org.uk