Problem drinking and problem gambling. How do we solve the problem? Both fields have recently been subjects of keen interest and there is much debate on whether restricting availability of either or both products mean that fewer of us might potentially develop problems with them. An article which I read today from the BBC said that Alcohol Concern Cymru and the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RC Psych) claim that alcohol and gambling can be dealt with side by side as they are actually quite similar issues, that they should be taken equally seriously and that clinicians puzzled by problem gambling should take a leaf out of the book of those treating alcohol misuse.
I think that problem gambling puzzles almost everyone who has not had some sort of direct experience with the issue and I can understand that. It is hard to understand how someone can experience cravings to do something. We understand cravings to take something because we understand that to ingest alcohol or drugs will alter the way in which we feel and so we crave more of whatever it is that we took which made us feel that way. It is hard to understand that when it comes to gambling there is the potential again for it to alter our emotional experience in a way that at that time feels so positive that we crave more and more of it. Perhaps the confusion is not helped by the fact that we shy away from speaking of gambling “addiction” and so doing unintentionally down play the addictive element which is only too powerfully real for anyone caught up in that world of spiralling anxiety and chaos.
So, to take us back to where I started when I began to write today, if we for a moment and for arguments sake agree that both problem drinking and problem gambling are addictions, will restricting sales and marketing and in the case of alcohol increasing prices make a difference to numbers becoming addicted? I think certainly for young people it may prevent a problem beginning, however, if that young person is driven to either drink or gamble to escape from a troubled reality it is likely they may just make their escape into something else. Gaming for example cost little or nothing beyond the technology itself and can be just as costly as gambling in terms of hours and days of a life lost through disengagement with the real world.
For those already caught up in the world of addiction, my experience is that I am told by my clients raising prices, restricting availability would make very little difference. Addiction is not aboutmaking consciously thought through decisions. The part of us which becomes addicted is the part that is driven by strong emotions. The money spent on our drug of choice is not counted in logical terms, like budgeting for a weekend away. We do not ask “can I afford it” because it feels like we cannot afford not to buy that bottle, or that time focussed on gambling. Time and again I hear from clients reflecting on their time in addiction, the words “there was nothing anyone could have said or done to stop me…” “I didn’t care how much I spent, the money meant nothing…”
On Saturday I went to the cinema to watch “Oz the Great and Powerful”. One incredibly powerful and moving scene involved learning how the wicked witch became wicked. In this version a sweet, naive young woman has her heart broken. We see her agonising emotional pain,her hot tears falling, literally burning scars into her cheeks and it is at this moment that she is offered a bite from a magical apple. She knows that she will never again be the same, that she will after that bite become evil.Greater than her fear of the transformation is her desire for what she is promised – that just one bite and her intolerable pain will stop. She will feel nothing.We see her snatch the apple, she takes that bite
Is there any one of us that having lived a bit has not at some point experienced emotional pain so great that let alone one bite we would have eaten the whole barrel load of apples to feel nothing? The above paragraph might be based on a fairy tale but in real life there are many who make those kind of bargains every day. In desperation they take a bite from the apple, a drink from the bottle, place another bet just to feel nothing for a while. Experience has shown me that help is needed to heal that pain in other ways, or it is so tempting to keep self-medicating. At all costs.