The addictive side of gambling


I would like to address an area of concern that touches on several areas: pastoral theology, morality, and politics. Very simply, I anticipate a movement toward legalization of various forms of gambling in South Carolina. It is not my role to address the politics of legalized gambling, but pastoral and moral concerns are certainly proper to any pastor.

Catholic moral theology has never expressed great difficulty with games of chance. Raffles, paddle wheels, and even dear old bingo are all forms of entertainment and fund raising based on an uncertain outcome and in which one stands to win or lose. Many people engage in these activities with enjoyment and with social interaction while raising money for good causes. There is no moral problem with this. Most people can enjoy these activities socially with no regrets.

There are, however, people for whom gambling is not a social pleasure, but an addiction with terrible effects on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Please do not think for a moment that this is something that happens somewhere else or only to certain socioeconomic or ethnic groups. As a pastor, I can tell you it can happen to anyone and is a problem within our own community.

As I began to encounter the problem in pastoral ministry, I made efforts to learn more about the disorder of compulsive gambling and the treatments available. Not long into my inquiry, I was told that Charleston has a truly expert doctor in the area, John R. Cusack. It was encouraging to hear this as Dr. Cusack is a member of Stella Maris Parish and has shared information with me in the form of an article he wrote on the subject as well as personal observations from his practice.

Another person who works in this field told me about the many forms of gambling, but referred to video poker as a common problem. As he put it, “what crack is to the drug addict, video poker is to the gambler. The difference is,” he said, “you can tell when someone has just done crack; you would never know that someone you see on the street has just lost $600 in a video poker machine.” People “hooked” on video poker live with the rather grandiose idea that they are going to beat a microchip.

In my early student days in Washington, D.C., I could not understand why people would walk up to me, a priest, and ask about my birth date or license number. Then, it came to me: they were playing the numbers. Seeing a priest, they thought maybe God was giving them a number or good luck was coming their way. Sadly, these people were obviously poor and could not afford to lose whatever money they gambled.

Our cook at the religious house in Washington was also hooked into the gambling racket. For days she would be excited about the weekend when she would take a free bus to visit the casinos, have a free lunch, and even be given a little cash to gamble. Of course, she would take her own money as well. There were many Mondays when I sat in the kitchen to talk and saw her sadness and fear at having lost her money.

Dr. Cusack tells me that presently the average person from our socioeconomic group who comes to him for help is in debt for anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000. I think this particularly applies to video poker. In addition to the debts, the person must face the lies, the sneaking around and the sense of betrayal to family and loved ones.

With his kind permission, I would like to share a few items from Dr. Cusack’s article “Insights about Pathological Gamblers.” While the prevalence of pathological gambling is about 2 to 3 percent in our adult population, Dr. Cusack asserts the number is increasing as more states legalize different forms of gambling.

Just about anything that is good of itself can become dangerous when it becomes the object of an addiction. Gambling addicts experience many of the phenomena experienced by those addicted to other activities or substances. They become preoccupied with the activity and need to engage in it. Like other addictions, they experience “tolerance, loss of control, and withdrawal symptoms.” As seen in other addictions, the gambling addict will continue the activity despite many negative consequences.

Also, like other forms of addiction, those caught up in gambling do not notice the “slide” into pathological gambling from social gambling. Denial is essential to maintain the addiction. There is denial to family as well as friends. In my opinion, the deadliest form of denial is to self. People deceive themselves and lose a handle on reality. They become so invested in maintaining the web of denial that their perceptions become terribly altered even in areas that have nothing to do with the addition.

The article examines different personality types and proclivities towards gambling addiction. There is an instrument available that is useful for testing for pathological gambling. It is also important for gamblers to examine the possibility of other addictions working in tandem with gambling. A significant percentage of gamblers also experience difficulties with alcohol or drugs.

“Pathological gambling is a chronic and progressive disorder,” Dr. Cusack states. There are discernible phases: winning, losing, and desperation. As in the case of so many addictive behaviors, denial of the problem is a major obstacle to recovery. One counselor told me that until the gambler can begin to discuss his losses (as well as his wins), he cannot be helped.

There is hope for those who struggle with compulsion to gamble. Gamblers Anonymous was founded in 1957 and utilizes a 12-step program of recovery like Alcoholics Anonymous. There are other helpful programs in addition to individual counseling, but Dr. Cusack writes very positively of Gamblers’ Anonymous. He refers to it as, “the primary aftercare resource for most recovering gamblers and the mainstay of successful treatment.” There is a Gamblers’ Anonymous chapter in Charleston.

While the percentage of our population that experiences difficulty with gambling impulse is small, it is growing. Despite this small percentage of people, the effects are often devastating to the individual and the people who are closest to the gambler.

These thoughts have been with me for a while. I share them, not as any extended treatment of the subject, but only as an introduction. My hope is that people will be aware of the dangers that threaten some who gamble. For those who have experienced these dangers, it is important to know there are others who share this difficulty and that there is help available.

For all of us in South Carolina, it is also important to have a full picture of gambling and its effects. You can be sure we will be asked to vote on questions about legalized gambling. It is not my business to suggest how you vote; I do urge you, however, to have as much information as you can before you vote. In my personal opinion, any proposal that links legalized gambling with funds for education is a poor way to break the cycles of ignorance and poverty.

As individuals, a solid spiritual life is a sure defense against the various addictive behaviors. Solid spirituality requires honest examinations of conscience before confession and at the start of every Mass. If we honestly call to mind our faults, we will see the areas where we must be cautious. Also, spend prayerful time before the Blessed Sacrament. If there are areas of life that need to change, we will know about them during this time. Then, either we will make the changes or stop the visits to the Blessed Sacrament.

May our Easter celebrations be truly blessed.

Msgr. Lawrence McInerny is pastor of Stella Maris Church on Sullivans Island. This column first appeared in the Lent/Easter edition of The Star, the parish’s quarterly newsletter.