Letter From Hell: Confessions of a Native American Gambler
The first time I ever gambled was early one summer morning when I was in my late forties. I went into our reservation’s tribally-owned bingo hall and casino, then just a cinder block building, to gamble a little and try to find out from first-hand experience what gambling was.
I had often been asked, when I still lived in New York City, what my opinion was regarding legalized gambling on Indian reservations. That was something of a hot issue since Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequots had recently opened their Foxwoods casino, which was soon to become the most successful casino in the country.
I really had no opinion. Usually the white liberals who asked my opinion would tell me how great they thought it was that Indian tribes now owned successful casinos, that after all the dirt the American government had done Indians, it was high time the tribes could start to earn big money.
I didn’t understand why the Indian casinos were so controversial. Donald Trump was one whose motives were not hard to grasp: he thought the Indian casinos “unfair”. Their existence outraged him! He was so angry he called the governor of Connecticut a “fat slob” for having the audacity to permit the Pequots to have a casino. At first the neighbors also complained about Foxwoods, saying it was like having a restroom in their back yards, but that was before the wave of economic benefits of the casino washed over them, too.
I didn’t understand why so many hated the casinos, why the governments of the various states where they existed were for the most part aggressively against them. The people who have the most to complain about, it seemed to me, were the compulsive gamblers themselves, and I’d never heard or read a word about them complaining. Are the governments’ concerns moral? I have come to believe they must be, as these state governments perceive themselves as the guardians of public morals. I wonder why they don’t recall that great experiment in saving people from themselves, prohibition, and all the evil that it wrought.
I know from seeing the second Godfather movie more than a few times that most people probably do not consider gambling immoral. In one scene a Corleone (was it Al Pacino as Michael?) discusses the family’s plans to get out of the drug business and into casinos, because gambling is perceived as “good clean fun”.
Although I knew nothing about gambling, what its appeal was or why people wanted to gamble, I did know that the gambler was always the loser. I knew the stereotype of the gambler who goes to Vegas and loses every dime, and of gamblers who borrow from loan sharks to pay gambling debts and end up having their legs broken, or worse, when they can’t repay the high-interest loans.
Compulsive gambling was for many years a popular topic with writers of television sitcoms: Archie Bunker, for instance, once won a lot of money at the track and bought gifts for his family, which made his wife Edith slap his face. It turned out that Archie had been a compulsive gambler and Edith had decided to divorce him; she only stayed after Archie begged her, made promises, and even wrote a legal contract stating he was sorry and would never, ever gamble again. Archie then willingly renewed his vow.
On “The Golden Girls”, Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, had been a terrible gambler long before the other girls had met her, but her gambling had somehow erupted again and was threatening to ruin her life. Both Archie and Dorothy managed to get back on the gambling wagon with a little help from family and friends.
Alex, on “Taxi”, had also been a compulsive gambler in the long ago past. Alex’s gambling problem resurfaced when a fare had him drive to Atlantic City and gave him a hundred dollar tip. Since he was right there in casino-land, he thought he’d try his luck; after all, if he lost that tip, he really wouldn’t be any worse off -- it was an unexpected windfall. But, unluckily for Alex, he fared well and won an amount that was many times his bet. That was enough to trigger his compulsive gambling, after which his slide to the depths was quick. It took his mentally challenged friend, fellow cabbie Jim, to talk sense into Alex, who was finally sufficiently shamed to stop gambling.
That day when I first went into our tribe’s fledgling casino to try my luck and to learn what gambling was, I had begun to suffer a serious depression. Despite anti-depressant meds and the poor counseling I was able to get from a social worker employed by the tribe, I have never been able to fully recover. It had to do with finding myself, in my late forties, unexpectedly divorced, and betrayed by a woman I’d considered a good friend. And, whereas I’d believed I at least had my literary career and thought I was becoming recognized as an important writer, I was rejected by my editor and told in no uncertain terms how unimportant I really was. I was fighting for my survival.
Besides the large bingo area, the casino had a long room that contained two back-to-back rows of “Wildfire” slot machines, eighteen machines in each row, and another, smaller area where a cashier sat in the middle of about twelve other slots. I decided to play the Wildfire machines, partly because there was no one in that room and I did not like the noise the machines made, nor being near the customers who were often chain-smokers.
The cashier-attendant took me into the other room. I took out a twenty dollar bill. He told me to choose a machine, and I chose one located about in the middle of the row and sat down on the chair in front of it. The attendant showed me where to insert my bill, and “400” showed up on the screen in lighted digits in the appropriate space. He showed me the button to push to choose the number of credits I wanted to play ( these were “nickel” machines so each credit was five cents). He told me I had to play eight, sixteen or thirty-two credits. (Not true. I could play just one if I wanted, any number up to thirty-two.) He said it would be better to play the max, thirty-two. He knew many who were sorry they hadn’t.
The attendant then went back to his post in the other room. Following his advice I selected thirty-two credits ($1.60 )and pushed the button; on the screen, reels appeared to spin into place, too rapidly to see except as a blur. No reels actually spin on these computerized video machines, the appearance of spinning is for entertainment purposes.
Nothing. Not a nickel or even a penny. I pushed the button again and nothing. In a few seconds I had lost three dollars and twenty cents. At that rate my twenty dollars would be gone in no time. In those days I still regarded gambling money as a normal person would, and twenty dollars was a large amount of money to throw away.
Before I pressed the betting button a third time I pushed another button, and pulled my bet way down to the lowest amount I’d been told I could bet: forty cents. Even that seemed like quite a large amount to me, given that it took only a fraction of a second to push the betting button. Twenty dollars could still vanish very, very quickly.
The reels on the screen again spun in a blur, but this time, the third turn of the first time I’d ever bet, something different happened. All nine windows (three by three) were alike, and they appeared now to all be connected to one another with pink neon lines. The machine began to make a tooting noise and a little sign on the screen, also in pink neon, flashed Call the Attendant. Call the Attendant. I didn’t know what had happened. I pushed the button again, trying to get the machine to work again, but it was locked. I was afraid I’d broken it and almost left, but then I decided I’d go get the attendant instead.
“Holy Mackerel!” He said. “Nine of a kind! The big jackpot! Look up there,” he said, pointing to a big sign above the row of machines. It said: $28,000. “That’s what you would have won, the big progressive jackpot, if you had been playing the max like I told you.” The progressive jackpot got higher and higher the more the machines were played without hitting nine of a kind. This jackpot, that began at a mere $5,000, hadn’t been hit in a long, long while.
“So does that mean I don’t get any money because I was only playing eight credits?”
“No,” he said, “it doesn’t mean that. It’s a tough break, though, not hitting the big one.”
“Four-hundred dollars.” Four-hundred dollars? For betting just forty cents! The depression and anxiety that had plagued me now for months fell away like magic.
My mother had never permitted me to enter so much as a supermarket drawing when I was a kid. She said that “we are not the kind of people who win,” and it was useless to try, useless to get our hopes up and then be disappointed. I had somehow always believed that, too, that I am just not the kind of person who wins. As an adult I had sometimes bought raffle tickets if they were sold to raise money for a cause I believed a good one. I had never won a thing. When my daughter was about eight I let her enter a supermarket drawing but told her not to expect to win because the chances were small they would draw her name.
She grinned and told me, “Oh, I’ll win all right. I just know it!” The prize was a little motorized bread truck, big enough for a child to get into and drive around. She lived in happy anticipation for a month as she awaited the day the truck would be hers. She wept the day of the drawing when she didn’t win.
Now, suddenly, I had won four-hundred dollars when I’d gambled just forty cents! My mother was wrong! I am the sort of person to win! I was absolutely elated, overjoyed. Everything seemed right with the world now. While I waited for the attendant to do his job, turn his key in the machine’s lock and take off the pink lines that held it frozen, do the paperwork, and so forth, I turned to another Wildfire machine and inserted another twenty into it and played max. The first spin resulted in a twenty dollar win. I cashed it out. Now I’d have four-hundred twenty dollars! With that “big win” I’d already become a compulsive gambler, and I didn’t even have an inkling of it.
Of course I went back again and again. My life did not improve, but I didn’t know it would never improve, that I would never get a job I applied for. Work on reservations is very, very sparse, and although I did apply to the casino for a little minimum wage job, they never called me for an interview. I applied to get on every committee that announced a vacancy. I was never selected for membership by any committee. I never developed any kind of life, and my life soon centered around gambling.
I knew I was a winner now. I’d hit nine of a kind once, and I “knew” I would hit it again, next time playing the maximum bet. I began to daydream about all that money and what I’d do with it. I was as sure I’d win that big one as my little girl had once been sure she’d win the drawing for a toy bread truck.
After several months had passed and the big jackpot progressed in value -- because now all the players played only the max, not wanting to miss out as I had playing just eight credits -- without anyone hitting nine of a kind, the casino put a fancy car of some sort on display inside and announced its intention to give the car away on President’s Day if, by then, nobody had hit the jackpot. It would be the car instead of money.
I wasn’t sure now that I’d win the car, but I did believe I had a good chance. I was lucky, wasn’t I? Favored by the forces of the universe, smiled upon by God, though I am really an atheist, have been since age twelve.
The scheme the casino came up with was this: every time a person won a jackpot -- the player had to be playing 32 credits to win any kind of jackpot -- he or she would be given a key. On Presidents Day, the gamblers with keys would all try their keys in the lock of a little treasure trunk that contained the key to the glamorous car.
My $20,000 grant in creative writing arrived before President’s Day. I had to start from scratch. I had to buy a bed so I didn’t have to sleep on the floor anymore. I had to buy a television set and a radio. I even had to buy pots and pans and dishes. I had nothing, and when you have nothing and you have no income of any kind, $20,000 doesn’t last long. It wasn’t long before it was so low I could not pay the taxes due on the grant. I could not. I’d have too little then to pay rent and buy groceries and keep myself afloat. I decided I’d gamble now, not just to win a car, but to win enough money to pay the taxes on the NEA grant. I had a new incentive to gamble.
Once I lost seven hundred dollars in a single sitting and I hated myself. How could that have happened to me? How could the God of Gambling have forsaken me so? He’d proved he was on my side, hadn’t he? (I am not only an atheist, I am a confirmed existentialist. I have never been a superstitious person, “The God of Gambling” was just something I thought of to entertain myself, sort of like reading my daily horoscope. I didn’t really believe in it. Did I?)
My daughter had become very concerned about me by now, by the time I lost seven hundred dollars in one binge. She spoke sharply to me telling me I had a serious problem and I was getting worse and worse all the time. She asked me, “Do you realize how out of control you are?” One time she even drove the sixty miles from her home in the university town to come to the casino and look for me after she’d tried to call me over the course of six hours and I hadn’t picked up. She said, “Come, Mom. Let’s go home. I rented a video. I brought some popcorn and soda pop. Let’s go home.” I was losing, and it wasn’t hard for her to persuade me to leave with her.
That evening as we ate popcorn and watched a movie I told her, “I know now that lucky first time didn’t mean I am a winner. It was just dumb luck. I’m going to continue trying my luck though, winning little jackpots (seven of a kind paid eighty dollars, eight of a kind, much rarer, paid eight hundred) right along and collecting keys until Presidents Day.”
Of course I had lost a lot more money when Presidents Day finally arrived. I’d won a lot of small jackpots, though, including several $800 wins. The night before I’d stayed with my daughter and left her house for the casino. The last thing I told her as I walked out the door was, “This is it. The end. My last day of gambling. Today, win or lose, I’m quitting.”
My daughter smiled, “Good, Mom. That’s good news.”
Presidents Day was the day I realized the potential was there for my tribe to own an extremely successful casino, maybe even to rival Foxwoods. Of course many people were there to play bingo, not to play the slots, but the gambling area, now expanded, was so crowded there was hardly enough room to move. There wasn’t enough room to turn around easily. It had to be done gradually all crowded up against other people. And no slot machine was available. People lined up three deep, sometimes five or more deep, waiting for the person on a machine to decide to quit or to lose all their money and have to quit.
I got into the long, long line with my forty keys to get up to the little treasure trunk and try all of my keys in its lock. There were well over a hundred people ahead of me and someone told me it had been like that since early morning.
When I’d waited in line about an hour someone yelled in a shrill voice, “YES!” and everyone’s attention turned to the little old lady with the blue-tinted permed hair who was jumping up and down and hugging the casino workers up by the snazzy car. Her key had turned the treasure trunk’s lock and she had won the car. I felt very let down.
I decided to try a machine for a while, after all, today was my last day, and I’d found gambling took my mind off my feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, my anger, my despondency. Whatever was getting to me, nothing else offered relief like playing a slot machine.
I lost everything I had with me, then went home, still thinking my gambling had come to an end. A few days later I was fighting the urge to go to the casino, which is twenty miles from where I live. I kept trying to push thoughts of gambling from my mind. I could not get interested in the video I put into the VCR. I could not concentrate when I tried to read, and I found myself reading the same sentence over and over. I went to bed because it was late and I was tired. I should have been ready for sleep but I just lay there fighting the urge.
I got up and got dressed and took my checkbook to the casino. That was when it dawned on me: I am addicted to gambling. I am. I can’t quit. It rules my life and takes away every cent I can get my hands on.
I began to try to somehow get myself some help. Many years ago, when I was young, I had been something of a heavy drinker sometimes and I wanted to quit not only for myself and my sense of well-being, but for my little girl. I didn’t want her to have a mother who drank.
I went to AA meetings then for a couple of years. I never had drunk that much, but enough, still, to be what could be considered drunk. I’d only drink every two or three months and then just for a single evening. I began going to AA in the hopes I’d be able to quit altogether with support. I didn’t know what AA was actually like.
I made good friends in AA and had, still have, a lot of respect for people who “work their programs” and become non-drinkers, improving their lives to a high degree. But it wasn’t for me. I continued to attend meetings in order to have a place to go see people besides work friends, a place full of people who used to drink but now did not. I’d still drink, though, settling into a pattern of going out to clubs with friends and drinking a bit approximately every ninety days.
I think it was ninety days because ninety days is the point at which you got some kind of pin or coin or something and could chair meetings. I did not want to be an AA person. I was not really an alcoholic, I knew, and would soon be able to stop, now that the horrible marriage that drove me to drink in the first place was over.
The AA people, of course, followed a twelve-step program that involved a belief in god and turning your life and your will over to him, which I could not ever do. I got told off whenever I’d say I did not think I was an alcoholic. It didn’t matter how much or how often I drank, I’d be told, I was just a garden variety alkie like all of them, and I was in denial. I’d say I knew people who used to drink and decided to quit and were successful, as my mother had done, long before I was born. She’d decided drinking was something she did not want and she quit. Just like that. And she was a strict teetotaler then for the rest of her long life. But AAers would tell me even if a person quits drinking without AA they are not really sober, not at all, but merely “dry”. Zealots. Yet, AA was saving their lives and they had to continue with the program and the meetings or they would be back on the streets.
I stopped going to meetings after about two years, but still heard all the talk in AA about how I was really an alcoholic no matter what I thought and would not be able to achieve sobriety on my own. What if they were right? How could so many former drunks be wrong? But they were wrong. I stopped drinking in 1982 and only got drunk once since, in 1993. Since 1993 I have even stopped having an occasional glass of wine with dinner.
I knew, therefore, what those twelve-step programs are like. All of them, AA, NA, and GA, followed “the program” outlined in The Big Book, written by the founders of AA, and which all of the ex-drunks seemed to regard as the faithful regard the bible, as the word of God Himself, the absolute truth.
So when my gambling continued to get worse and worse and I knew it would never get any better, I began to cast about trying to find help. This was the first time I knew absolutely I had never been an alcoholic. I wasn’t even close to being one. Because though I took no drug of any kind, drank no alcohol, I was addicted to gambling. Gambling had a strangle hold on me as nothing else ever had. This was the unshakeable addiction AA people had suffered and only “the program” and the support of other zealots kept them from the hell they had known.
My tribe had no provision for helping gamblers in any way, shape or form, although it has big, well-funded programs for residential alcohol and narcotics treatment. I asked a distant relative who was the CEO of the casino if the casino would pay for me to go away for treatment. He said yes, but I had to do everything very quickly because the tribal council was taking discretionary control of the casino’s funds in just a week and then I’d have to go through them.
I went to a social worker in the mental health program and she agreed to help. She found a Native American treatment center in Denver that did not employ a twelve-step program and treated not only alcoholics but addicts of all kinds with a program they had devised themselves in the twenty-five years of their existence. They told her they were housed in a great Victorian place. One of the things I found so attractive about this center, besides the fact that they did not adhere to a twelve-step program, was that in their brochure they claimed to treat their clients with respect.
I went to Denver, then, and found the “great old Victorian” to be a horribly run-down, ragtag building I didn’t think was fit for any kind of occupancy. I had to sleep in an attic room, barracks-style, with seven other women. The other “clients” were all alcoholic Native Americans and all from the Southwest. In fact, that place had never had a non-alcoholic client in all the twenty-five years of their existence. They just believed they could treat any kind of addict.
All the inmates were there because they had to be there, because some court had given them the option of going to treatment instead of going to jail. A couple of them had been sent by their employers (both of which were Indian casinos) and told them they had a choice of getting treatment or getting fired. One man ‘s wife would divorce him if he didn’t go to treatment. I think a few of them were homeless people in need of medical attention and this was where they could go, like a charity clinic, where they would have a roof over their heads and access to medical care. One man, still suffering alcohol withdrawal, had come directly from jail.
I didn’t believe even one of these clients wanted to give up alcohol. They were always sneaking alcohol and sometimes they would have a strong alcohol stench on their breath. Only one was expelled for drinking. I could go on and on. I did stay three weeks of the ninety-day program and felt like a heroine for lasting that long, though it was a miserable, miserable time.
My rudest awakening was the untruth that had pleased me most in the center’s brochure: we believe in treating our clients, always, with high respect. It is upsetting just to describe examples of the rude, denigrating treatment. Once I said bitterly, “This is the high respect you claim to treat your inmates with?” and the counselor shouted, “You have to earn our respect first!” The director was forever bawling the inmates out and telling them “We don’t need you. You need us. We have a long waiting list of people wanting to come here. If you don’t like it here you are free to go anytime.”
Before I went to Denver I’d asked them if they would allow me to go to a conference in Seattle where I’d been invited to deliver a lecture and do a book signing. I had no income of any kind except for a little bit in royalties and from speaking engagements, so I really needed the income this would provide. They agreed.
I went to the conference and spoke to a large audience and signed lots of books. I was, for sure, treated with great respect as I always am when I do these things, when I meet people who know my work and want to tell me what it’s meant to them. One young woman took off the earrings I’d admired and insisted that I take them. She had wished she had something to give me, she said, my books meant so much to her.
When I got back to Denver I felt like I was going back to a correctional facility. I sat on my bed, where I was not supposed to be until bedtime, but they had let me go there to unpack my suitcase and put my things away that day. I thought, then I went downstairs and told them I had decided I’d go home now and they said, somewhat angrily, “Fine!” Just before I left the next day a forty-two year old woman client and two males, aged eighteen and nineteen, got busted for carrying on a three-way sexual affair, but they were not dismissed. Drinking was the only thing people were ever turned out for doing. It was an awful experience. I was glad to get home.
I remained gambling-free, try as I might, for only three and a half months. It was actually four months, but the Mental Health Counselor told me the three weeks I spent in Denver did not count, because I was locked up and closely watched and was therefore not able to gamble. My not gambling in Denver was not something I had achieved.
In 2001 I won a huge jackpot, more than $80,000 and, at that time, went to some trouble to give myself “closure” rather than just quitting. I’d written a long letter to the editor, published in our tribal paper, just before winning that big jackpot. The editor was very late getting that paper out -- It came out some six weeks after I wrote the letter. I thought that once it was out, and once everyone read it, I’d be too embarrassed to go gamble again. But before the paper came out I got weak, and when so much time passed, I went there again and after about an hour I won “The Big One”. When the paper did come out everyone knew I’d gone back and won. I wasn’t prepared for the meanness of “my people” here on the rez, jealous of me and hating me, and for all the people who came to me asking for loans. Some I gave but was never paid back.
I did well at first, handled my money well and even managed to keep good my resolve not to gamble. I bought a good, late model car, among other things. I accepted a short residency at a university in Oregon and while there I attended a few GA meetings thinking that maybe the reason I wasn’t able to tolerate AA years before was because I was never an alcoholic, but I really am a compulsive gambler and might be able to “get it” this time. They weren’t bad, and I thought if I lived in Oregon I might be able to achieve what I wanted. They have an intensive outpatient gambling treatment program there, free to residents of Oregon. But I wouldn’t be able to live in Oregon or anywhere else for long. I did try to at least phone gambling counselors in Oregon on their 800 number but was told it was only for Oregon residents. There are no 800 gambling lines accessible from where I live, not even any crisis lines.
I’d begun a PhD program in a university sixty miles away shortly before winning The Big One, but soon found myself exhausted beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. Then one day I was seized with vertigo and fell to the ground on campus. My doctor, who had long suspected I had some kind of neurological ailment, sent me for an MRI, and lesions were found on my brain. I had Multiple Sclerosis and I had to quit the program that would have allowed me to write a novel for my PhD dissertation.
I had many setbacks in my life and began to gamble again, then did it full-throttle. It gave me energy when I had none otherwise, and it alleviated the isolating depression I suffered. I knew how bad my addiction was by then, how it was destroying my life. I hated myself for my inability to stop.
My relative, the casino CEO, told me that only one percent of one percent of gamblers were habitual gamblers, that for all the others it was just recreation, nothing more, that they gambled normally and never caused themselves any problems. I don’t know whether he really believes this lie or not. He works for a percentage of the profits, not a salary, and he has made our casino a huge Vegas sort of place, built a huge resort hotel that is always filled up, built a golf course that is a great success (in this area where summers are short and the cold winters long), and there are plans for a shopping mall and an amusement park. It behooves him and the rest of the tribe to believe that problem gamblers are only one percent of one percent of people who gamble. I am the only tribal member I know who admits she’s an addict, the only one who wishes she weren’t and cannot find a way of getting away.
I watched television programs on compulsive gambling. There were a lot of heart-wrenching cases, including that of a married couple who lived somewhere in the south and lost their baby when the woman, a compulsive gambler, left the baby alone in the car on a hot day while she ducked into a casino to gamble. She left the little newborn in the car in the terrible heat for six hours while she gambled and the baby was dead now from heat exhaustion and the mother was in prison for manslaughter. The husband was holding some little baby clothes and as he was talking about how his poor little daughter never even had a chance to live he broke up in tears.
I tried to take all these things to heart and keep the gambling urge at bay. I was so sick now with MS, diabetes, and other serious conditions there was just no hope of my ever escaping the life I had then and still have now. There was only one way I knew of to blot out the reality of my life, to feel, for as long as my money lasted, not even good anymore, but just all right. I’d had myself banned from the casino as part of my “closure” after the big win and was kicked out twice when I went there, but the third time I had the ban lifted and went back to my gambling.
Finally, less than nine months after the big win, I had just six hundred dollars left to my name. I had had such good luck, though, I “knew” I could take that money to the casino and at least triple it, maybe even win another jackpot worth many tens of thousands of dollars. I went there and five hours later lost everything I had except for a few coins, which the machines will not take.
Now I was seized with an overwhelming urge to kill myself, and all the ways I could do this crowded my mind. It would be so easy. There are so many way! And what good was I to myself, to anyone? And I was getting sicker and sicker, too, would probably be in a wheelchair, like my mother had been and like one of my sisters is, in just a few years. And I’d lived more than fifty years. Why not just die? I’d never be free of this horrible affliction. There was no way I could be.
I drove myself fifty miles to the nearest hospital and went to the ER and said I had a bad abdominal pain, but admitted to the nurse who saw me first that I was suicidal and wanted to be admitted to the psych ward for the night, maybe for another day, until the urge passed. I ended up being held for six days against my will because I was considered a high risk patient.
A few months after that I was able to get another “counselor”, so-called, this time at the substance-abuse program, not mental health. When I was again overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness and began to feel like suicide, my counselor arranged for me to go to treatment through the substance-abuse program.
I know now, from reading up on it on the internet, that compulsive gamblers commit suicide ten times more often than do any other kind of addict.
Shortly after I began gambling a young man, a tribal member, in his early twenties committed suicide after losing everything he had at our casino. His wife had kicked him out of the house a month before, after he gambled his paycheck away again. He was the father of three little children. He brought a cot to the warehouse where he worked and was sleeping there. After he lost all his money one night -- casino workers said he seemed in high spirits and was laughing and joking around with them before he left -- he went to the warehouse and hung himself from the rafter where a co-worker found him that morning.
And there was one case that was well-publicized because the widow wrote to the editor of the paper in the nearest big city, accusing the tribal casino of murder and demanding that something be done to close them down before more lives were lost. Her husband, an old man, sitting at his desk in his study, had taken a gun and put the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger, blowing his brains out. On the desk in front of his body was a letter to his wife. He had gambled away all of their retirement money and could not face her.
And I am sure that there have been many more suicides I don’t know about.
The second time I went away for treatment was to Minnesota, to a facility that had large alcohol and drug treatment components, but, when I arrived, only fourteen people in the gambling treatment section. And this facility did use the twelve-step program, and was worse, much worse, than anything I ever heard of. I managed to stay for three weeks of the four-week long program.
The first morning I was there the director interrupted “group” to tell us about a sad event. She wanted us to know the truth before we heard rumors. She said that a thirty-two year old man had gotten a “tech” (the night attendants who sometimes also do janitorial work) to take him outside to smoke a cigarette. He ran away into the dark, cold night. The tech got some others and together they searched for the escapee with their flashlights but couldn’t find him, so they gave up for the night. They resumed the search at daybreak and found the escaped alcoholic lying on the ground. He’d tripped and fallen in the dark, hitting his head on a rock. That killed him. Most unfortunate.
That incident did not arouse suspicion at the time but it did when I looked back later. Before I left home I had stubbed my toe. When I went for the physical that was included as part of the treatment fee, I told the doctor I’d hurt my toe. It was pretty bad. He said “Oh?” and nothing more. But within a few days I developed a respiratory infection. This worried me. For the last three winters I had had bronchitis that became pneumonia. What had worried me before I left home had come true. I’d gotten sick and was not able to get help.
My counselor refused to permit me even to ask the director to let me see a doctor. She said people always maximize whatever it is and that was what I was doing now. Lots of people had colds. It was that time of year, but there I was whining around and saying I had pneumonia. I told her I had an awful sore throat and was prone to respiratory infections, had often had strep. She sent me to the nurse’s station that was staffed around the clock, and served the whole treatment center, not just us gamblers. The nurse told me to gargle salt.
As the days passed I became sicker and sicker. I had a fever and I lost my voice. I begged to see a doctor. My counselor told me I wasn’t sick. “It’s just your addiction trying to make you think you’re sick. It knows you’re in treatment and it feels threatened so it’s fighting for its life. It will do anything to try to get you to leave.”
I had an assignment to write an analysis of my gambling throughout my lifetime and total up how much money I believed I ‘d lost. Everyone did this and put it on a board in front of the whole group ( seven in a group), and the group would comment on it. I worked diligently and had it all ready to go on the day it was assigned, but they were behind schedule so I wouldn’t be able to present for more than a week.
Once again I was the only one in treatment of my own accord. One woman had come directly from the hospital after she’d almost killed herself with a drug overdose. All but one young man, a girl who was only eighteen or nineteen, and myself had made at least one serious attempt on their lives. All had messy legal problems that included credit card fraud, theft of money and check books, embezzlement, and so forth. The courts had compelled one woman to go to treatment as a condition of reducing her credit card fraud repayments to manageable monthly amounts. She had already spent a lot of time in jail.
I found out from one of the other inmates, though, that I could claim the large sum of money the IRS took out of my big win by stating I’d lost that much money before getting to the jackpot. Later my counselor told me he already knew this but it hadn’t occurred to him to tell me, though I’d told him that I hadn’t filed taxes in nine years, and that fear of the IRS drove me out of my mind.
That was the only useful thing I got from Minnesota.
I kept my own counsel by reading and re-reading a book I brought with me entitled Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, a distinguished Jewish psychiatrist-neurologist. The book was mainly about his experiences surviving Nazi concentration camps. I resolved to use a piece of advice he gave for people who engaged in behavior they regretted.
Next time you are about to commit a “bad act”, he said, imagine you have been transported back in time and you now have the opportunity to reverse the deed you wish you hadn’t done. When I got home, if I started out for the casino, that’s what I’d do. I’d just turn around and not go, and it would be like I’d gone back to the past and undid the gambling I’d regretted. I did it only twice. I tried to do it more than that but could not manage it.
A woman came in, who was a triple addict and had had to go through the other two programs before arriving here, and who had been through it all once before. I told her how sick I’d been and how they kept saying it was just my addiction making me think I was. She said, “They always say that, no matter how sick someone is. When I was here before a woman kept pleading with them to see a doctor and they kept telling her it was just her addiction. Finally, when she went into convulsions they called an ambulance and let her have medical help.
I remembered the “unfortunate incident” at the beginning of my stay. It sounded fishy to me now. I’ve seen enough cop shows to know that murderers will often try to make detectives think the corpse had died when it tripped and fell and hit its head. That was it. I was getting out of there.
And that was how my second attempt at getting treatment for my gambling addiction went. Later they sent documents to my counselor on the reservation telling him how bad I’d been. My discharge papers said not that I decided to leave, but that “members of my staff and I all agreed that her stay here should be terminated”. They also claimed I said I’d “used cannabis for about a year” which I never have and never said I had. And the psychologist who gave me a questionnaire to fill out the first day, “diagnosed her as being ‘borderline’”. Oh dear.
When I got home from treatment in Minnesota I still had severe bronchitis, and x-rays showed my toe was broken and had begun to heal crookedly. It had to be pulled and reset. I felt lucky to have escaped that one with my life.
I told my counselor that I wanted, wanted with all my heart, to stop gambling. I said I didn’t know exactly why but it had something to do with that crazy treatment center I’d escaped in Minnesota. They had that self-righteous notion that, since I didn’t do their program, I was doomed to a lifetime of compulsive gambling that would most likely end in suicide. Sort of like the AA people who believe if you quit AA and quit drinking you are only “dry”, not really sober. How egocentric of them.
My counselor said, “You want to prove them wrong!” That wasn’t exactly it. But close. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stop gambling while keeping my integrity, without turning my life and my will over to some crazy “program”, without having to become a member of what they referred to as “the recovery community”. I wanted to lay my burden down, to be free of it.
I went to a general membership meeting at which the assembly of tribal members could address the tribal council. I took the floor at one point, after the director of social services had spoken and asked for some money to support the establishment of a “GA” program for gamblers. That is so disheartening to me, that the only way to help gamblers is through a twelve-step program I cannot and will not accept. It has to do with respecting myself and maintaining my integrity.
But gambling reminded me and I raised my hand and was recognized and I said I became a compulsive gambler after coming back to the reservation and gambling for the first time in our casino. And it is a horrible thing, as bad as, I’m sure, heroin addiction. I suffered for a long time. And I know I am not alone, that there are many compulsive gamblers among our tribal members.
Four months ago, I said, I had gone to Minnesota and undertaken treatment and now, for four months, I have not gambled which is a record. They had put eight slot machines in the one and only supermarket on the reservation, the next nearest supermarket being forty miles away from where I lived. They had them in the tribally owned service station, too.
Now, I can avoid going into the service station, because I can buy gas at any of the seven other stations on the rez. But I cannot avoid going into our supermarket. Having to go in there and just see those machines standing there has gotten to be a little difficult for me. Having to see all those people gambling away, sometimes with a lot of people standing around watching, is hard. It arouses that gambling urge. It didn’t bother me at first, when my resolve was strong, but now it’s begun to.
I am not asking for money or anything, I said. I am only asking that the council agree to support those of us in what is called “early recovery” to the extent of removing the slot machines from the market. The casino earned seven million dollars more in 2004 than it did in 2003, and judging by the business it does, it just takes in more and more and more. They could afford to sacrifice the comparatively small revenue the supermarket slots provide.
They had to think about it, they said. A month later I went to a council meeting and repeated my request, and they again they said they’d have to “think about it”. I know they never will remove those machines. They never will even think about it.
I applied for and got a sizeable income tax refund in late December. I didn’t even try not to gamble this time. I felt I needed to, because all the fears and anxieties had built up in me. I needed that release and I got it. On my birthday, six months after treatment, I succumbed to the urges and began gambling again.
I went gambling soon after receiving my check, before I’d had a chance to buy auto insurance and pay my tickets and fees to have my driver’s license reinstated. I had lost my license because I could not afford to buy auto insurance and ended up getting arrested and having to spend over twenty-four hours in jail.
But I did a few things right: I paid my rent, my utilities, my satellite service (no television here without satellite) ahead of time. And I bought a lot of food, and could go on buying the rather expensive food to follow the Atkins diet. I could also now drive into town to swim and work out with weights. This enabled me to manage my diabetes to the point where I was actually able to stop injecting myself with insulin and stop taking oral diabetes meds.
I tried to get the tribally-owned gas station to allow me to put some money on account in case I lost a great deal of money at the casino. The white manager would not let me do that. It was “too much trouble”, he said. I wanted to try to put some money on account in the supermarket, too, but felt too embarrassed. They’d know it was because I feared gambling away all my money and wanted to have fresh food available in case.
It’s been just three months now since I received that money from the IRS. I went broke three weeks ago.
So here I am in hell with no way to get out. I don’t know what I am going to do but struggle to survive. The last book I wrote was in 1999. This is the first piece I’ve written since then. I do have a small income now -- very, very, small, well below the poverty level. It’s my social security disability money.
Maybe now, after ten years as a compulsive gambler, I understand why some don’t want casinos around, although I still don’t understand the state’s desire to control people’s morals. But that’s what they do isn’t it -- why they make prostitution illegal, for instance, even though they don’t have a chance in the world of stopping it.
The state has tried, time and time again, to shut our casino down. They did prevent the tribe’s lotto from happening, by forbidding any telephone company to sell service to lotto. The tribe can and still just might start their own telephone company. Our tribe has benefited from the income the casino provides; though the members receive just $2400 annually, we also receive benefits in the form of medical and dental care and social programs and education.
And the state benefits too. My state is one of the poorest states in the nation, with inadequately equipped schools. The tribe donates millions of dollars to the public schools and to all kinds of state endeavors. And it does other things that are not for public relations, such as sending a lot of money to the Asian tsunami survivors. For sure the tribe does a lot of good things with its money -- and before the casino we were a poor, downtrodden people.
I don’t know how I’d feel about the casino and other gaming enterprises now in the works if I had somehow managed to find out what gambling is about without having become a hopelessly addicted gambler. I think I would feel uncomfortable about raking in all this dough, benefiting from the losses of people who look as though they can ill afford to lose. Maybe I am just a casualty of my tribe’s war against poverty, of their struggle to carry on as a people into the future. And what is the loss of one life compared to the betterment of so many others?
Anonymous is a novelist who, after decades away writing, teaching and lecturing, returned to live on her tribe’s reservation.
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