Whether they considered themselves to gamble for fun or were negotiating the obstacle strew path of recovery from gambling addiction the 10th -13th March 2014 was a week likely to be highlighted in the physical or mental calendar every gambler; it was of course the four immotive days of the Cheltenham Festival.
Without exception those that I have worked with over the years of my practice who have got into trouble with betting, speak of Cheltenham as being undoubtedly the hardest of events to erase from their racing calendar. When they speak often sadly and with longing of sacrificing participation in the Cheltenham festival they speak not just of the missed opportunity of a bet, but of missing every sense of the meeting, which is described as indeed a whole sensory experience; the smells and sights of the stunning countryside, the thrill of witnessing the beauty and power of magnificent horses pounding towards the finish. They miss at the very least equally, meeting with friends with whom they might have attended the event for year after year. The strong sense of sacrifice is often that of belonging to a particular social group membership to which was bought through their badge of ‘gambler’. Of course, they may have things in common with their gambling buddies outside of the arena of racing, but in order to insure a continued sound recovery, most know in their heart of hearts that to continue to associate with those who regularly attend race meetings, even those among their friends who are able to get pleasure from recreational gambling and not experience the highs and lows as a trigger for the excruciating pain of addiction, they must remove themselves from the risk of what for them would be negative influence. We are after all, just like the horses who are key to the festival in as much as we are social animals and our natural tendency is to run in the direction of the herd. It is always easier to maintain our resolve to do, or not to do, something if we are in a group of those who support our decisions with their own words and behaviour.
I spent a lot of time in the build up to Cheltenham week, as I do each year, strongly encouraging clients in my practice to spend time with those who would support and not challenge their gambling free decision. For some this is very hard and involves some sadness and perhaps a time of loneliness as the destruction of an established social network might be necessary in order to restructure a new one. For some, such as one young man I worked with who had gambled since the age of sixteen to twenty five, it meant scraping together the courage to permanently sever contact with an entire social group whom he had known all his adult life and before. All the time they had spent together, being for him every moment he had available after school and work, was in the betting shop or placing bets together online. There was for him absolutely no possibility of continued belonging to this social circle and still squaring things with himself in terms of remaining gambling free.
For some who maybe had friends who did not have an addiction to gambling, but liked a regular recreational bet there is often too some loss, loneliness and sacrifice. That same old problem of lack of understanding of what a gambling addiction truly is means that frequently gambling talk and placing of bets continued around the person trying so desperately hard to remain strong and gambling free. This meaning that they faced a choice; let go of the friendships or risk letting go of what may be at first only a very tenuous grip on precious recovery through being influenced by the talk and behaviour of their unwitting friendship group.
The groups with whom we mix undoubtedly influence our thoughts and feelings about even our strongest decisions. We reprimand and lecture in individual responsibility the child who says whilst trying to justify behaving badly “Well they were all doing it too” yet it is very hard even as an adult to be the odd one out in any group and to behave in a way that makes us seem different to our group. It brings up for any of us all of those childhood experiences of school when it felt so important to belong that we did whatever someone dared us to do to be liked, to fit in. It can feel so hard to hang on to what we believe is true and right for us if everyone in our group is saying or doing something quite different. We can end up questioning even our strongest beliefs, the things that we absolutely know with glaring clarity are right can become overshadowed with doubts if those around us contradict what we think, what we feel, what we want to do. Especially in the early stages of recovery from addiction to gambling when the rational part of oneself knows that a gambling free track is the healthiest one, but the feeling part still can crave the thrill of chasing the high, it is crucial to keep company with those who have the same gambling free aim and who believe that for someone with a gambling problem the only way to truly win is to stay out well out of that race to win.