You gotta know when to fold ’em

Compulsive gambling increasingly recognized as illness


One evening 20 years ago, Kiyomi Takahashi (not her real name) happened to stop at a coffee shop on her way home from work. She found a computer poker game machine in the corner of the shop, and started playing it just for fun. Little did she know this would be the beginning of a decade-long nightmare.

Takahashi was experiencing stressful domestic problems at that time, but the excitement of the game, which she had never played before, helped her forget her troubles. The next day she visited the coffee shop again, and continued to do so with increasing frequency.

The losses soon began accumulating. Takahashi spent 8 million yen within six months. Her husband noticed and tried to get her to stop, but she was obsessed with the delusion that she could win back her losses.

Even after losing all of her own money, she continued gambling. She stole cash from family members’ wallets, borrowed money from relatives and consumer finance companies and even begged money from other gamblers.

“In the back of my mind I felt guilty, but nothing could stop the urge,” she says. “I was scared of myself.”

Takahashi sought help from a telephone hotline. She snuck into a church in the middle of the night and prayed. She underwent medical treatment at a mental hospital. She even called police and asked them to restrain her.

Nothing worked. In her despair, she considered suicide.

What finally helped Takahashi was Alcoholics Anonymous, a self-support group for alcoholics. At the meetings she met many fellow sufferers from compulsive behavior who were able to share similar experiences. For the first time she felt accepted. It helped her find the courage to stop the gambling that had permeated her life.

It has been more than 10 years since then, and she has stayed “clean.” In the end, gambling cost her 20 million yen and two marriages, but now she is enjoying a peaceful life with her third husband and 8-year-old child.

Hidden sickness

There has long been a strong social prejudice against those who indulge in habitual gambling, causing severe family problems and financial breakdowns which often lead to crime. They are labeled as “weak-willed” or “morally ruined.” The World Health Organization, however, recognizes compulsive gambling as an illness, and this view of the problem is beginning to gain ground.

In Japan pathological gambling first drew public attention in 1996, after a number of accidents involving small children occurred while their parents were playing pachinko. Some disappeared from pachinko parlors, and others died from dehydration, trapped in parked cars outside pachinko parlors in summer.

Though the exact number of compulsive gamblers is unknown, among pachinko enthusiasts alone, about 20 percent, or more than 5 million people, are estimated to be “heavy users” who risk large amounts of money.

Masando Iwasaki, a psychiatrist and author of “Heisei Pachinko Shokogun (Heisei Pachinko Syndrome),” defines pathological gamblers as those who cannot stop gambling, even though their habit is disruptive economically, socially and mentally.

The cause for this behavior is not known, but Iwasaki points out that it may be related to family problems they were brought up with. He says many compulsive gamblers were raised in dysfunctional families and often had relatives who suffered from compulsive behavior such as alcoholism and workaholism.

Iwasaki notes that when parents are fond of gambling, even if they are not addicted themselves, their children are more at risk for compulsive gambling behavior because “their [psychological] barriers to gambling are lower.”

In treating pathological gambling, some psychiatrists prescribe sleeping pills and tranquilizers for depressed patients, or, if the patients wish, hospitalize them.

However, Iwasaki says, this approach doesn’t solve gamblers’ fundamental problems. He feels counseling with professionals and attendance at Gamblers Anonymous meetings would be more effective.

Kindred souls

Gamblers Anonymous, a nonprofit organization, is a worldwide fellowship of compulsive gamblers. It was established in Japan in 1989, and today open and closed meetings are regularly held at 17 locations around the country. Meetings usually take place once a week or every two weeks. Since anonymity is important for the fellowship, attendants do not have to give personal information such as their full names, addresses and occupations.

At the meeting a chairperson chosen from among the members calls on individuals to talk about their gambling experiences, while others just listen. Those unwilling to talk can pass.

A session usually lasts 90 minutes. There are no fees or dues for membership, but donations are accepted.

Since discussion at GA is not intended to reach a conclusion or agreement, questions or comments on other people’s stories are not permitted. There are no psychiatrists or other specialists present.

“It is important for compulsive gamblers to be in the meeting room for a certain period of time, because they have to control the urge to gamble at least for the duration of the meeting,” says a GA representative.

Most gamblers go through several phases of recovery. At first they don’t listen to others’ stories, but gradually they begin to realize other people’s problems are similar to their own. Eventually they start speaking out about their own experience. Being able to share their experience relieves their solitude, and seeing other members going through the recovery process encourages them.

Takahashi still often attends GA meetings. “Listening to others reminds me of my own experience and keeps me away from gambling,” she says with a smile.