Part I of two-part series
Why do some people become addicts and others not? Does trauma play a role in the development of addiction? Or is it genetic predisposition and the environment of the person brings it out? When, how does it begin? Does it ever end? What are "activities of addiction"?
"Daniel" sat down to talk about his life, his challenges, his addictions. He patiently answered every question. But something he said stands out, "If you haven't experienced it you aren't going to understand."
Daniel's problems began early in his life. His mother had mental health issues and alcoholism in her side of the family. His father was the family's stabilizer.
"He was my hero," Daniel says of his father. "When he went to the woods, he took me with him," Daniel said. His father was all about nature. "My daughters knew as much about nature as a guy would have," he added, smiling. While he didn't spend as much time with his children as he should have, he always made it clear to them that he loved them, and that they were in no way responsible for his addictions.
"I would say, 'I can't stay home with you tonight. I have to go to the track tonight.' It wasn't 'I want to go, it was I have to go,'" he emphasized.
Addiction, he said, is compulsive. In fact, gambling is one of the "activities of addiction," like compulsive shopping or sex or love addiction. And addicts, he says, are those who have more than one addiction, even if they don't realize that. Action is a distraction from reality that the addict just can't control, he says.
"Addiction is all about pleasure. It's about making the world go away, making reality go away." For Daniel, it was the only relief he could get from the psychological war that was going on inside him from all the conflict he lived in his life. "The high [of his gambling addiction] is the same as with crack cocaine," he said.
And for an addict, life is not a pleasurable experience. At a young age a man approached him and taught him about sex with another male. Being raised Irish Catholic, Daniel went to confession, related to the priest his sins. But there was no one to protect him from the sexual abuse. There was no one to take the abuser to task. He had sinned. That's all he knew. And he knew he would go back and do it again. He could never be forgiven or go to heaven.
One morning his father took him to school, dropped him off at the door and drove on down the street. "My dad was my hero," Daniel says. Later that morning, he was pulled from class and told that his father was dead.
"That's impossible," he'd said. "Dad just dropped me off at school." But it was true.
His mother was incapable of taking care of the family because of her own mental health problems. His sister, 12 years older than him and his twin brother, had to take on the responsibilities of caring for her brothers. At 17, she married to get out of the position of responsibility that had been thrown on her. There was no one else to take Daniel and his brother under their wing.
"But my brother took after our dad's side of the family," he says. His twin never had any of the addiction problems he and his sister did. They were more like their mother's side of the family.
Two of his drinking friends, brothers, had a sister. That's how he met the woman he married. She stayed with him for 23 years. He didn't think she would ever leave him because he was such a good catch. What he learned after she was gone was that he couldn't do anything to take care of himself. "Women did what I couldn't do for myself," he said. His wife, his daughters, they all took care of him, took care of everything. The term for this is 'codependency'.
Daniel worries that he didn't do right by his daughters. Both of them have told him, though, that through it all, they knew they were loved. He likes to spoil his grandchildren. He remembers when his grandson was just little. He was helping the boy to tie his shoes. "Don't do that, Dad. He knows how to tie his shoes. Let him."
"The codependency thing, you know," he says now.
Daniel goes to meetings every day, at least one. Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the best group, he says because it is loving and kind, spiritual in nature. But all of them-and there are many, as many as there are addictions-all of them use the 12-Step Program for Recovery. Adult Children Anonymous is another one. OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and impulse control are two of Daniel's problems. There are others. He tends to isolate himself. Going to a meeting gets him out of the house, out of his isolation and out of his depression. His self-esteem is better, he says, because he has a "God of my own understanding."
Addiction, Daniel says, is primary, progressive, chronic and fatal. It's objective is not to think, not to feel, to escape. But there's no getting away from the fact that the addict is powerless, out of control and can't stop it.
It's been 20 years since Daniel took that first step to recover from gambling addiction. He relates the story. A family nearby had gotten a new basketball hoop. One of his daughters met him when he was coming home. He had just gambled away $500.
"Dad, can you get me a new basketball?" his daughter asked.
He felt humiliation when he had to tell her he didn't have any money to buy her a basketball. He went into the house and called Gamblers Anonymous.
Daniel says he tends to be codependent still today, as he approaches his 70th birthday. He has sponsored a number of addicts in the recovery programs. At one point a friend said to him, "You can't save them all." The codependency issue again. But he genuinely does care that others get the help they need to recover from addiction: narcotics, gambling, alcohol, love/sex.
"Addiction affects every aspect of your life," Daniel says. "It can take you only one of three places: prison, insanity or death." To recover the addict has to admit they have no control over their life, accept it and surrender to it. Daniel can recite the steps and how important spirituality is to recovery. That spirituality is found in the God of your own understanding, he says. A loving, accepting, forgiving God.
Part 2: Recovery Resources looks at Gambling Addiction will appear next week in the Salem News