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Tips for Dealing With a Compulsive Gambler in the Family

My father was a compulsive gambler. This is what I learned about how to protect myself.

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For the Real Victims of Compulsive Gambling

If you are a compulsive gambler, you have my sympathy, but you may want to skip this article. It will upset you. If you are the spouse/partner, parent, or child of a compulsive gambler, then the advice I’m about to offer may save your sanity and your financial future.

As the adult child of a compulsive gambler, and someone who’s grappled with my own addictions, I feel I’m in a good position to offer some sound advice. I am not a trained counselor or psychologist, and it is definitely a good idea to seek the help of a licensed professional for support. In the meantime, here are some tips that can help avert disaster until you and the gambler get the help and support you need.

This article is for the families—the silent victims of a destructive, progressive disease that can wipe out a family’s life savings and financial future in a matter of days. A compulsive gambler is not thinking about whether his or her family has a roof over their head, or food on the table. Active gamblers are consumed with placing the next bet, and they don’t care where the money comes from. That may sound harsh, but it is the truth. Most gamblers are not willing to discuss this issue until they get into recovery.

In addition, the disease compels gamblers to lie compulsively. When you have to spend a large portion of your time covering your tracks and keeping your activities secret, lying becomes a way of life. When you make promises you can’t keep, the embarrassment and humiliation of constantly letting down the people who care about you the most forces you to lie.

The Longer You Deny, the More You’ll Lose

Many families and spouses of compulsive gamblers say they never suspected a thing, until their bank accounts were wiped out. That may be true, but there are usually subtle signs that something is amiss. Are there some months where you’re short of money? Are there other months where everything is okay and you have money to pay the bills and splurge on extras? Are you constantly fighting with the gambler because you can’t figure out where their paycheck is going?

Unless one of the breadwinners has an income that fluctuates wildly, this kind of financial instability is a red flag. A gambler’s finances are a roller coaster. They may borrow from savings to place bets, then win money back and replenish their bank accounts.

My father was able to siphon a lot of money from my parent’s joint accounts. This went on for years because my mother was in denial and was willing to ignore most of the big, red flags that had been waving in her face for decades. She was willing to trust someone who had demonstrated, on many occasions, that he couldn’t be trusted.

Admit That There’s a Problem

As the adult child of a serious compulsive gambler, I feel confident saying that the reason many gamblers get away with their money problems for as long as they do is because the people around them live in denial. This denial cushions family and loved ones from dealing with a horrific problem in the short term. In the long term, the consequence of family and friends living in denial has a far-reaching impact, both financially and psychologically, on the people who are intimate with the gambler.

Every day that a gambler’s problem goes unchecked, is another day that they are slowly sucking their family dry of income and assets. If they are borrowing from other relatives and friends, they are slowly burning bridges because nothing will sour a relationship faster than unpaid debts.

The sooner you can admit that your partner, child or parent has a serious problem – the sooner you can warn family and friends not to lend them money. There are going to be people who will lend them money in spite of warning, but your conscience will be clear because you told them and what they do with that information is not your responsibility – alerting them and being honest is.

Don’t Be Afraid to Tell the Truth to Others: Don’t Hide the Problem

On the day I stepped in to stop my father from any more plundering of their mutual checking and savings accounts, I knew I needed help because I was butting into something that was legally none of my business. Luckily, I knew the staff at the local bank. I also knew that the only way to get support was to admit the truth to people I didn’t know well.

One of the reasons I got cooperation from the staff in my parent’s bank, was because I walked in and pulled a manager aside and explained the situation. I basically said, “I need your help, my father is a compulsive gambler and he is draining their accounts.” When the staff heard this they advised me to get my mother into the bank to switch their accounts into her name and my name.

Once you have people on your side and they understand the severity of the situation, doors will open and help will materialize from every corner. People want to help if they can. If they don’t know what’s going on, there is very little they can do.

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Protect Your Finances and Assets

It’s important to be proactive about your finances and check bank statements and credit card statements for yourself. Make sure money is not disappearing. Gamblers will use every trick in the book to fool their loved ones. They are not being deliberately malicious, they are simply giving in to the throes of an incredibly powerful mental disorder that compels them to lie, cheat and steal from their own families to satisfy their insatiable craving.

What my father was actually doing was moving money around between their checking and savings accounts to cover the slow depletion of funds. He would transfer money from their savings to their checking. Then he would go to the bank teller and get a receipt printed that showed an inflated balance. After he showed my mother the fake receipt, he would return to the bank and move the money back to the savings account.

He had been doing this for a long time and getting away with it, but he must have sensed that at some point he would deplete their savings—and the game would be over. That’s when he decided to go for the jugular. He managed to figure out a way to forge a withdrawal slip from a large, tax-deferred annuity my mother had been saving up for 30 years for both of them in their retirement. I’m going to skip the details of how he pulled this off, because I don’t want to give any of the CG's reading this any ideas.

Needless to say, he cleaned out half of their life savings and spent the next year blowing it on blackjack, his game of choice. He had managed to talk my unsuspecting sister into typing up a fake financial statement. This is the power that CG’s have over their children—the power of persuasion and the uncanny ability to make the implausible sound reasonable. Luckily, my sister said something to me about what was going on, and I alerted my mother immediately.

My mother is a very smart woman, but when it comes to her husband she lives in denial about the person she’s really been married to for 50 years. It’s too late now to blame anyone, but if she had been more proactive over the years about limiting my father’s access to all of her accounts, this wouldn’t have happened.

As it turns out my mother is one of the fortunate ones because her gambler husband was only able to clean out half of her life savings. Thanks to my intervention, the other half is now safely out of my father’s reach.

I am the only one in my immediate family who suspected my father was up to no good from a very tender age. My immunity to my father’s tall tales has saved my parents from destitution and mentally prepared me for the eventual fallout. Not all children are so lucky.

In many instances, children grow up wanting to believe and trust someone who can’t be trusted. As a result, these adult children grow up living in denial about a parent’s addiction. They choose to remain silent even as their elderly parents are headed for the poorhouse. Additionally, these adult children frequently seek out dysfunctional and abusive relationships, because that’s what was modeled for them.

Protect yourself, and your future, by having your own savings and checking accounts that no one else can get into. In addition, cutting the gambler off financially is the next big step. Once you’ve locked the gambler out of your finances and income, you no longer have to buy into the dysfunction of fighting over money. If you are economically dependent on a gambler then it may be time to consider a divorce and let the courts take care of forcing the gambler to pay their way in alimony and child support.

Do Not Give the Gambler Any Money

Giving a gambler is money is the same as setting fire to a hundred dollar bill. Everyone’s circumstances are different, but unless the gambler is cut off from an external money supply they will never hit bottom and seek help.

Furthermore, the people closest to the CG will never achieve any long-term financial stability if money is constantly going to bailing out the gambler. It is up to the people around the gambler to stand up for themselves and refuse handouts.

An active gambler is not healthy or sane enough to repay debts. Until they get into recovery, compulsive gamblers are money pits—and you can only help them by cutting them off. If you really feel compassion for the CG, and really want them to seek help, then you have to cut off the supply of money. Once they run out of people and money, many of them are ready to admit they need help and do something about it.

Gamblers are not just addicted to “staying in the action,” they are also addicted to money, because money is the only thing that feeds their incessant compulsion to gamble. This is why gamblers frequently hoard money by stashing away extra cash for the next round of gambling—even if they’re short on the mortgage. Their priorities are not rational.

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Do Not Listen to Lies, and Don’t Lie for Them

Lying is a way of life for compulsive gamblers. The extraordinary amount of sneaking around doing things they know they shouldn’t be doing forces compulsive gamblers to lie about their whereabouts, lie about why they have no money…and lie about their addiction. You cannot believe what they say because after a while they lose the ability to tell the truth. Once their addiction takes over, getting the truth out of them is impossible.

If you’ve been out all night on a gambling binge, getting up and going to a job is not a top priority. This is why so many gamblers have trouble holding down a job. If you are the spouse of a CG, you may have been asked to lie for them on many occasions.

You may fear that they will lose their job, or that their reputation in the community is in jeopardy. Well, guess what? They’re going to lose that job eventually anyway. Their reputation is already eroding, and lying for them or covering for them is just delaying the inevitable crash. It’s making you a liar, as well, which leads to more insanity.

Don’t buy into the lies and don’t argue with a gambler, because their insecurity and guilt will just make them angrier. Deep down every gambler knows that their addiction is destroying them and their relationships, but without help they are unable to get humble or get honest.

You can let the gambler know that you know they are lying, and then simply go on about your business. You can also let them handle their own mess. Don’t make calls for them or help them cover their tracks.

A responsible adult takes care of their own affairs and does not ask other people to clean up for them. You can let the gambler know that you are no longer willing to lie for them, and then make a commitment to stick to it.

Don’t let yourself be manipulated by a sad story and a lot of tears. You are enabling when you help the gambler lie. The sooner you stop, the sooner they will have to deal with the fallout from their addiction.

State Your Expectations and Boundaries Clearly and Stick to Them

The term “abuse” is appropriate because lying to the people you love is emotional and psychological abuse. Spending the rent money or grocery money on gambling and then lying about it is financial abuse. Once you face the reality that the gambler is abusing you, even if it’s not intentionally malicious, it is easier to set emotional boundaries and live your own life. Whether you opt for counseling, Gam-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, or any kind of spiritual support group. It’s important to get clear on what you want your life to look like, with or without the gambler.

People who have lived with an addict for a long time are so tuned in to the addict, and to dealing with the addict’s problems, they lose the ability to tune into their own feelings and take care of their own needs. Once the partner or child of a gambler starts living life on their own terms, the gambler either decides to get their life together and get help, or they won’t. Either way, at least you can then decide whether to end your relationship with the compulsive gambler, or stick it out. If everyone stays stuck in the pattern of addiction and enabling, it’s impossible to move forward.

Take the Space You Need

Life with a compulsive gambler is frequently chaotic and dramatic. There’s always some kind of crisis, or the people around the gambler are trying to avert a crisis. The amount of energy it takes to deal with any kind of active addiction can drain even the hardiest soul.

Once you’ve acknowledged the problem, protected your finances, and decided to maintain strong boundaries, it’s okay to give yourself permission to put some distance between you and the gambler.

I remember feeling suffocated after I helped my mother protect her assets. I would get phone calls from my father asking to get together and chat about what happened. The problem was, I was tired of a lifetime of having this man invade my emotional space. It was always about him, and how it wasn’t really his fault, and how no one was on his side. The list of complaints was a mile long, but accountability and personal responsibility for his problems had always been missing.

I was tired. In my case, I needed a year off from looking at my father. In a particularly troubling conversation, shortly after his deceit was uncovered, my father claimed he was thinking of killing himself. Now if I believed for a moment that he was serious, I would have taken the appropriate action. As it was, I knew it was a ploy for sympathy.

Such is the extent of the emotional manipulation a gambler will use on those closest to them – the people who have been brainwashed into listening to idle threats and other assorted nonsense.

I asked my father if he was serious about suicide, letting him know that I would have an ambulance there in five minutes. He didn’t know what to say and hung up. Needless to say, I know his tactics better than anyone. I knew he would never have the courage to kill himself.

I knew what I was doing in his case. However, I would not recommend treating other instances of suicide threats lightly, because gamblers do have a very high suicide rate. You know your loved one better than anyone, so you know whether a threat is genuine or you’re being manipulated. Trust your instincts.

If you suspect your compulsive gambler might actually hurt themselves, then you should call an ambulance immediately. Threats of suicide in gamblers under 18 should always be taken seriously and handled with immediate medical intervention.

Meanwhile, it’s important to have outside interests and a support group of friends. Building a strong foundation in your own life of people and activities that are important to you will help you get some clarity on your situation with the gambler.

While it’s recommended in Gam-Anon not to isolate the gambler, I am of the mind that it’s okay to take some personal space. Once again, the gambler needs to see the consequences of their actions. We cannot be responsible for another grown up. Taking some space from the gambler allows us some breathing room and gives the gambler some time alone for some possible reflection.

Keep Information and Resources Handy in Case It's Needed.

Each gambler is unique, as is each situation, but there is one common denominator with any addiction: The addict must be willing to get honest, humble, and seek help. No force in heaven or earth can move a gambler to stop gambling, unless they get serious about recovery. Recovery is different for everyone—it can be a combination of therapy, support groups and a spiritual practice, but no matter how the gambler chooses to face their disease, it is ultimately up to them to want to get well.