What you need to know:
- Now a member of Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a fellowship of male and female gamblers in Nairobi, Wainaina says you can never really understand the addiction unless you have gone through it
- According to Jackson Okoth, the founder of GA and the author of Not A Chance, a personal account about his gambling addiction, the government should limit the time people spend at casinos
- Dr Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist at Moi University in Eldoret, says gambling has the same effect on the brain as taking alcohol or other addictive substances
George Wainaina gambled away 23 years of his life, including a Sh600,000 retrenchment package, in casinos. Now he doesn’t like what he remembers, but it is too late. All he needed to keep in his mind was that nobody rents prime space, puts in millions of shillings in décor, slot machines and labour in order to make losses.
Had somebody told this former personnel officer with an insurance firm when he made his first trip to a casino that he would sell his land and home and lead a life of pain and desperation, he would have told him to get a life.
“It is a dangerous addiction; I did things that no rational person would do, things I never thought I could ever do in my life,” says the recovering gambler in measured words.
Rebuilding his life
It has been over three years since his last bet. He has turned his life around, slowly getting out of debt and rebuilding broken relationships.
But before then he never thought he was addicted until he realised that he was about to be fired for absconding duty in favour of the casino. To forestall that eventuality, he jumped at the opportunity when his employers announced that they were cutting down their workforce.
“I have heard people compare gambling to a cocaine addiction, but I think it’s worse,” he says before rolling out a fairly complex explanation on how the brain gets addicted to the thrill of betting.
At one time during his gambling days, Wainaina won Sh1 million. You would think that was enough. But not really. It just whetted his appetite even more. He wagered the tidy sum and raked in Sh4 million. Then he went on until he was penniless.
When he ran out of cash, he took loans from friends, promising that he would repay after winning. What followed is predictable.
He lost the money and the friends, and started avoiding the latter like the plague. But the nature of gambling addiction is such that there comes a time when winning or losing don’t matter. At this stage, all a gambler needs is the thrill of risking whatever money one has.
“Of course I lost a great deal more than I won, so I had to fuel the addiction with money, and addicts will do anything to get their fix. I did anything and everything to perpetuate my fantasy life. Winning or losing didn’t matter so much to me; it just set me up to bet again.”
Wainaina lived a life full of false optimism. He was totally unmoved by his experience. His belief in ultimate success could not be shattered by financial loss, however great. He did not win this time? So what? Next time he will be lucky. He’s lost again? It doesn’t prove a thing; someday he was bound to win. But within no time, hope spiralled out of his control and he separated from his wife.
When he had no money to bet, he got all stressed up, developed mood swings and even suicidal thoughts. These emotional signs, coupled with his inability to pay bills or manage his money and excessive borrowing, trapped him in debt, nearly costing him his sanity.
“I had to sell my TV set, radio, gas cooker and all my electronics stuff to get the money to gamble. Soon the house was empty. My wife was evicted by the landlord after about four months of unpaid rent,” he explains.
Before Wainaina was sacked, he used to gamble away all his month’s salary in a couple of minutes. By then the vice was a top secret and his family was in the dark for years. Even marriage didn’t distract him from his casino life, and neither did the arrival of his two children bring him back to his senses.
“I would wake up, dress well, go to town and sit at the casino. My wife was convinced that I was going to the office. I would then go back home very late and lie to her that I was working late. There are times I spent the whole night at the casino and lied to her that I had travelled to our rural home”.
Now a member of Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a fellowship of male and female gamblers in Nairobi, Wainaina says you can never really understand the addiction unless you have gone through it.
“It gets to a stage where the gambler uses the vice as a relief from stressful episodes in his life. The problem is that gambling is much more of a stress than the stress you think you are fighting off,” he says.
Although he has quit, he admits that it is hard for an obsessive gambler to give up completely. “Every time I pass near a casino, I am always tempted to get inside and gamble. However, I started going to church, trusting in God and rebuilding my life. I prayed a lot and eventually I got healed and now I am doing a personal business,” says the father of three.
According to Jackson Okoth, the founder of GA and the author of Not A Chance, a personal account about his gambling addiction, the government should limit the time people spend at casinos.
“The problem is that there are no time limits. A gambler can walk inside a casino any time he wishes,” he says.
It is said that, at the casino, the trick is to keep the gamblers playing and coming back every time; the longer they play, the more they lose.
According to Chris Omollo, a behavioural psychologist, gambling addiction is not about the money, but the action. The thrill of the bet and the possibility of the payout is what stimulate the “high”.
“When they lose, gamblers become depressed, but not just because they’ve lost money. They need to recover from the depression and therefore crave more action. Though any type of gambling can create an addiction, video poker and slot machines are believed to be the most addicting forms.”
According to Mr Omollo, signs that a person may be addicted to gambling include depression, mood swings, and suicidal thoughts.
“Gambling addicts need to seek help from both health professionals and financial advisers. They need to address the mental aspects of their addiction as well as recover from the financial strain they’ve created for themselves. The treatment typically involves heavy intervention from friends or family members as well.”
Statistics indicate that, compared to other forms of addiction, gambling can ruin multiple lives, create unmanageable financial burdens, and even lead to suicide.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist at Moi University in Eldoret, says gambling has the same effect on the brain as taking alcohol or other addictive substances.
“Naturally, the more one wins, the more one gambles, and often the end result is total loss for the gambler. The thrill of anticipation gets one hooked, and there are changes in the brain that correlate with this in the same way alcohol and other drugs change brain structure and functioning,” explains Dr Atwoli, who suggests that, to get out of addiction, a gambler should avoid getting involved in the first place.
“I think there are certain groups of people who are vulnerable to addiction-forming behaviours such as gambling and substance use. It is not possible to tell who these are in advance, but once they start, you will notice that they have difficulties stopping themselves despite clear evidence of physical, psychological or social harm. If such individuals are identified early, they may be helped to kick the habit and develop other more fulfilling activities.”
Of course the gambler never wins.
“When you consider the amount of time, money and energy invested by gamblers before they benefit, you will realise that the investment is heavier than any subsequent gain. Casinos rarely lose their money, its gamblers who often gamble away much more than they will ever gain, the old gambling advice is ‘don’t risk more than you can afford to lose’,” says Kevin Odongo, a financial adviser.