When fun and games are not fun

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    March was Problem Gambling Awareness Month across the country, and since we have a casino in Cherokee County, I wanted to chat with an expert about how folks can have fun playing the games without hurting themselves in the process. However, just days before I was going to publish that column, the COVID-19 pandemic hit – and Harrah’s Casinos subsequently closed their doors for next two months.
    On Monday, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in Murphy reopened by invitation only, with employees coming back to work as more people are allowed inside. This is a good sign for our county, which has only had three positive test results for the coronavirus over the last two weeks.
    Unfortunately, even if they can’t afford it, some people will spend too much anyway at the gaming tables, perhaps crossing their fingers that their $1,000 federal stimulus becomes a $100,000 miracle. Sadly, that sort of thing rarely – if ever – pays off, which is why Problem Gambling Awareness Month exists in the first place.
    For its part, the local casino has excellent programs available to help keep customers from overdrawing their bank accounts, which you can check out online under the “Responsible Gaming” section at caesars.com. In fact, Harrah’s Entertainment in 1995 helped fund the creation of the first national helpline – 1-800-522-4700 – for problem gambling, providing callers with counseling and direction to local assistance in any state.
    Gambling has remained a hidden addiction. About 2 million adults in the United States meet the criteria for having a gambling disorder, while another 6 million people are identified as being a problem gambler, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
    I was fortunate to chat with Kimberly McGrady, a psychotherapist with MindPath Care Centers in Asheville, about the behavioral, emotional, financial and relational problems that often accompany gambling addiction. She had plenty of helpful information to share.
    “A person with addiction makes it harder to see it in themselves,” McGrady said. “They will rationalize, minimize and justify their behavior in order to keep doing it. Even when they know something’s wrong, they typically want to hide and deny it.”
    Here are some things she said to look for, in yourself or someone you care about, to help determine if they have developed a gambling problem:

  •     Disappearing for hours or days.
  •     Large and frequent withdrawals from bank.
  •     Always short on money despite good job.
  •     Items around the house sold to fund debt.
  •     Taking out additional credit cards and loans.
  •     Emotional withdrawal, shame, fear and anxiety.
  •     Missing work and engagements.
  •     On computer way too much.
  •     Stories make little to no sense.

    “They are not happy with themselves but can’t stop, owe money and get angry, depressed and irritated,” McGrady said. “Seeking a high from gambling is like an alcoholic or drug addict. It becomes even more important than food or anything else.”
    What can be done to help people stop unhealthy behavior before it becomes an even bigger problem?
    “If your gut tells you that your friend or family member continues to engage in gambling, don’t ignore it,” McGrady said. “Talk with them. Tell them what you are seeing.”
    What you should not do is aid them in their addiction by loaning them money or rewarding them for gambling, like applauding if they win some cash, she added. Reinforce their positive behavior by noticing when they make good choices with money.
    “One of the biggest telltale signs of addiction is when a person continues to engage in the behavior despite negative consequences,” McGrady said. “If you see even one of these things because of their gambling, and they keep doing it, assume the person has a problem.”
    Before recovery can begin, the person has to admit they have a problem. That isn’t easy.
    “Encourage them to not think they can do it alone to go and get support,” McGrady said. “They may not want to talk in groups, but tell them to keep an open mind since it has worked well for so many people. Support is the biggest influence in staying sober.”
    An important thing she said people need to remember is addiction, like a gambling disorder, can happen to anyone. While it’s often seen as a morals failure by a bad human being, we must not be so judgmental that people will get defensive and not seek help.
    “Be honest with yourself and avoid potentially bad situations,” McGrady said directly to those who have wondered if they have a problem. “Ignoring it is not the answer.”
    David Brown is publisher & editor of the Cherokee Scout. You can reach him by phone, 837-5122; fax, 837-5832; email, dbrown@cherokeescout.com; or message him on Twitter @daviddBstroh.