“My Gambling Client’s Family Is Desperate”

November 29, 2006 at 2:11 pm  •  Posted in Addictions by  •  0 Comments

By Heiko Ganzer, MSW, LCSW, CASAC

Gambling’s Effect on the Family
Tom’s Story
The Desperation Zone
Commitment and Recovery

[Note: Mr. Ganzer is social worker and gambling addiction expert practicing in the state of New York.]


During the past several years, more researchers have studied gambling in our society. Although statistics vary, research indicates that 328,000 gamblers live in New York State, of which only a handful are in treatment.

Compulsive gambling is not a new phenomenon.  Freud wrote an essay about problem gambling in 1926 concerning the Russian novelist and problem gambler, Fyodor Dostoyesky.

Few therapists know how to treat gambling addiction, or even recognize when it influences their clients. Traditional mental health therapists and addiction specialists may be unaware of its presence in relation to the other addictions they treat.

Problem gamblers, who are victims themselves, adversely affect their employers, relatives, friends, and families. Many productive work hours are lost because of absenteeism and inefficiency due to compulsive gambling. Relatives and friends are manipulated into concealing the problem from outsiders. They believe the gamblers’ promises to change, and, as a result, unknowingly become part of the denial pattern.

Gambling’s Effect on the Family

Often, those who are closest to compulsive gamblers suffer most of all. The family is adversely affected financially when the problem gamblers are fired from their job. Problem gamblers also experience loss when relatives and friends who no longer consent to the consequences of problem gambling withdraw from them. Unable to remedy the compulsive gambling without help, family members become ensnared in the consequences of the problem and may become emotionally ill.

While popular interest has focused mainly on problem gambling, gambling abuse, and illegal gambling activities, less attention has been paid to the family, and more specifically, to children living with problem gamblers. Mental health professionals are treating this population of compulsive gamblers and their families, but they seriously lack proper training and education to adequately attend to this problem. More information and education is needed since problem gambling is grossly misunderstood. Tom’s story that follows provides insight into the characteristics of a pathological gambler’s world and addiction recovery.

Tom’s Story


About six months ago, Tom and his brother came to me for help with his “severe gambling problem.” They asked me not to inform their parents, so we agreed to report to Tom’s brother regularly regarding Tom’s attendance and consistency in treatment and treatment outcomes. I also strongly recommended that Tom attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings while seeing me once a week. Tom agreed, provided that his brother would cover his debt of $120,000.

We ended the session with a plan: Tom would attend Gamblers Anonymous at least three times a week and attend one-on-one sessions with me at least once a week. Once Tom refrained from gambling for a period of time, he would tell his family about his addiction that, once again, had gotten out of control. Like other gamblers I treat, Tom always meant to pay back his debt once he won, but a surprising thing happened to him again: he didn’t win.

The Desperation Zone


Tom unconsciously dropped into the desperation zone (the final of three zones), and hit his rock bottom. How could this happen again? Tom knew from treatment that the odds of winning when you’re a pathological gambler are zero. Compulsive gamblers can’t stop, so the house always wins. Gamblers complete two stages before dropping to the desperation zone:

  1. Winning (you win big and feel you can do it again)
  2. Chasing (because you feel you can win, you chase your losses)
  3. Desperation (you steal, cheat, lie, forge checks, and so on to get money for gambling)

His parents called, and Tom visited my office for the third time. They found out about the gambling problem and that his brother was withholding information, apparently trying to protect them. Gamblers Anonymous, therapy, and the brother’s intervention were not working. The only thing working for Tom was the bookie who placed Tom’s illegal sports bets.

Tom’s problem was that he never really committed to overcoming his addiction. Gambling is an impulse control disorder that can humble the smartest of people. When pathological gamblers gamble, they believe that money has no value other than to play the game. This lack of awareness apparently occurs only when gambling, since most of my clients are highly sensitive to spending when they are not gambling.

Tom became engrossed in his addiction and lost touch with reality. He essentially escaped from his family, his girlfriend, and everything else he didn’t like about his life. During his developmental years, Tom was protected for so long that he couldn’t cope in adulthood. So he gambled, and since he didn’t want to deal with his real issues, he chronically relapsed. Now that his parents were aware of his relapse, they came back to me wanting to know what to do.

Commitment and Recovery

So we talked about the commitment to treatment, family feelings, and trust issues. Tom’s parents didn’t want to see Tom relapse, so they would do anything to help him. I asked Tom and his family to draw up a written contract with three action items:

  1. Attend Gamblers Anonymous and Gamanon meetings;
  2. Attend therapy with me; and
  3. Conduct family sessions on a regular basis.

But most of all, I needed to know that Tom would fully commit to recovery. Tom agreed to do what we asked, and his family consented to communicate openly and attend family sessions and Gamanon. Tom also agreed to have his Gamblers Anonymous sponsor attend some of his therapy sessions. Tom conceded to pay his debt over a set period of time in amounts that he could afford based on his income. Tom also contracted to work with me and Gamblers Anonymous on his financial budget. If this treatment plan didn’t work, Tom would spend 30 days at an inpatient treatment facility.

I am happy to report that Tom has not gambled for eight months and is working on the underlying issues of his gambling problem. Tom has had poor coping skills because he never learned how to deal with important issues. In his affluent family, money was always readily available and doled out to him without the responsibility of working for it.

Tom is more independent today and does not have to rely on others to bail him out of trouble. He recently reunited with his girlfriend who was impressed by his ability for intimacy (gamblers are only intimate with gambling, not people). Tom attends Gamblers Anonymous and has made friends with many other men who do not gamble. He actually looks forward to meeting with his sponsor and working on the 12 steps of recovery. Tom appears to be remorseful about how his gambling has affected his family and is rebuilding relationships with family members due to their support and openness in discussing family problems.

In conclusion, pathological gambling is a family disease, and family members must acknowledge its power over them, as did Tom’s family. It is true that in addiction, we are only as sick as our deepest secrets. Talking about addiction and facing the truth is the beginning of the long journey toward recovery.


Mr. Heiko Ganzer is the co-author of the book I Am Your Disease: The Many Faces of Addiction with Ms. Sheryl Leztgus McGinnis. To learn more about Mr. Ganzer, please click here.

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