Jesse Howard, 51, of LaPorte, is a recovering gambling addict. | Supplied photo
On Tuesday, Porter-Starke Services will host its Learn@Lunch series with an informative educational lecture, “An Overview of Problem Gambling.” The free program takes place from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Porter-Starke Services, 3176 Lancer St., Portage.
David Johnson, an outpatient mental health and addictions therapist at the agency, will be the featured presenter. He will touch on the phases of gambling addiction as well as the cycles of compulsive gambling, phases of recovery, types of treatment available and where to get help.
For more information, call
476-4502 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: August 10, 2014 6:10AM
Jesse Howard started gambling at a very young age.
“When I was 5, I played marbles,” he told me straight-faced. “We played for keeps.”
Marbles led to playing cards and tossing quarters against a wall at school. He didn’t think anything of it at the time. That’s what teenage boys do, right?
When he got older, gambling didn’t go away. It became part of his life. Then it became his life. Nothing else mattered. Not his wives. Not his stepkids. Not his job. Not his family. Not his future.
He gambled money on all sorts of casino games and other get-rich-quick opportunities, including scratch-off lottery tickets.
“If you think scratch-offs aren’t gambling, you’re foolin’ yourself,” said Howard, of LaPorte, whose Southern accent reflects his Louisiana roots. “I could easily blow $200 or $300 at a time on scratch-offs. Sometimes I’d win, too.”
The 51-year-old disabled Army veteran said he “crossed over” into compulsive gambling while visiting casinos with his first ex-wife. At first, she would hold his winnings so he couldn’t gamble and, eventually, lose them. In time, he secretly started keeping those winnings and not telling her. He lost those winnings, too.
He enjoyed playing Texas Hold ’em poker. The flop, the turn, the river — he’s watched thousands of them. He won just enough tournaments for his addictive personality to whisper in his ear: “You’ll win the next hand, the next game, the next tourney.”
“Gambling was just an escape for me, an escape from reality,” said Howard, who’s twice divorced with no biological kids. “Gambling is a fantasy world where you don’t have to think about anything else or anyone else.”
He thought of himself as a “big shot.” He lied to himself. And to anyone who would believe him.
“I had only one thought every day — gambling,” he said. “Nothing else mattered.”
Over one five-year period, he figures he gambled away up to $350,000. He didn’t have great jobs, a lucky inheritance or a lot of savings.
“I begged, borrowed and stole. I lied, cheated and manipulated people. Flat out, I was a con artist,” he candidly confessed. “Should I be in prison? Yeah, probably.”
In 2007, his compulsive gambling caught up to him. Call it hitting rock bottom. Call it karma. Call it a bad beat. On April 10 of that year, he called Gamblers Anonymous for help.
He went into a rehab program in Louisiana for his lifelong addiction. It took him a few days to fully realize, and admit to himself, that he had a problem. It’s the first step in any program.
“Someone there told me to take the cotton out of my ears and stick it in my mouth,” he recalled. “That really hit home with me. I never forgot it.”
He was in rehab for 43 days, several days over the program’s limit. He needed the extra days.
“Gambling is a horrible way to live,” he said, choking back emotions. “You can’t blame everything that goes wrong in life on gambling, but it’s easy to do. Too easy.”
Gambling addiction is the worst addiction, he claims, because it’s the easiest to hide.
“It’s not like you can easily spot a gambling addict walking down the street,” he explained. “There’s no telltale signs to look for.”
No bottles of booze. No prescription bottles. No track marks. No syringes to hide. No obvious clues at first blush.
According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, “a simple definition for gambling is risking something of value, such as money, property or anything considered worthy, and hoping to receive something in return of greater value.”
“The compulsive gambler will continue to gamble in spite of the terrible toll it takes with their life, including accumulation of debt, betting on anything, chasing bets, hiding the betting, depletion of savings and (possibly) fraud, theft or other criminal activities.”
Gambling addiction also leads to the highest rate of suicide and attempts, according to the organization. Howard agrees.
“Living without money is a lot harder than living without booze or drugs,” he said. “And keeping it a secret drives a lot of compulsive gamblers to suicide.”
According to the NCPG, roughly 80 percent of compulsive gamblers consider suicide at some point, with one in five attempting it. The most common trigger is the size of a gambler’s debt.
“It’s not just keeping your gambling a secret, but also your financial problems,” said Howard, who says he hasn’t gambled since 2007. “But I still go to (support group) meetings.”
In fact, since 2012 he’s been facilitating weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in his town. Every Saturday he welcomes problem gamblers who need support, fellowship or tough love. Some meetings attract only two gamblers. Others attract more.
“Some meetings I’m the only one who shows up,” Howard said. “But that’s OK. I’m still in recovery. And I still need to make amends to people I hurt with my addiction.”
Howard says he hasn’t stepped foot in a casino since 2007, not even for a free buffet dinner.
“I still have that fear,” he said. “It’s a good fear but I can’t take that chance.”
If you’re a compulsive gambler who also needs help or someone to talk with, call Howard at 229-1303 or call Gamblers Anonymous at 855-2CALLGA or visit www.gamblersanonymous.org.