PHOENIX – Another football game hadn’t gone Joe Schiller’s way, and the thousands of dollars of debt he had accumulated from betting was about to bury him. With his life spinning out of control, he hopped in his car with his then-pregnant wife’s paycheck in his pocket and went into hiding for two months.
Mo (Maureen) Michael’s boyfriend maneuvered through a haze of cigarette smoke at Cliff Castle Casino in Camp Verde, looking for her. He found her, on the tail end of a two-day gambling binge, stuffing her last dollar bill into a video poker machine.
Haunted by suicidal thoughts, Joe Watson had blown every cent playing cards and felt like he was running out of options. The clean-shaven, well-spoken writer pushed a hand in his jacket pocket to make it look like he was carrying a gun. He burst through the doors of a gas station in Scottsdale, demanding the cashier open the register.
The bright lights, cheap drinks and heart-pounding rush of a winning bet have fueled an industry that generates more than $100 billion a year in this country, according to the American Gaming Association. But to the estimated 9 million Americans (3 percent of the population, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling) who suffer from gambling addiction, it’s the big losses, the desperation and the hopelessness that linger in their hearts and minds.
On May 18, 2018, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classified problem gambling as a disease for the first time. However, approval of and excitement for gambling across the country has never been more fervent.
A 2016 report from the American Gaming Association shows that 40 states have some type of legalized casinos. According to a Gallup poll, 69 percent of Americans view gambling as morally acceptable, an all-time high. And since the Supreme Court’s recent ruling to lift the federal ban on sports gambling, the majority of the country now supports its legalization.
In Arizona, tribal casinos, horse racing and the state lottery are already legal forms of gambling. Recently, Gov. Doug Ducey voiced support for new legislation that would legalize sports gambling, and tribal leaders have expressed willingness to renegotiate the gaming compact with lawmakers so that new policies could be implemented.
Meanwhile, Schiller, Michael and Watson still are trying to rectify the shattered relationships, crushing debts and criminal charges left in the wake of their addiction.
None of the recovering problem gamblers interviewed for this story are calling for the prohibition of gambling, but each said their illness set them on a dark path, which had life-ruining and nearly life-ending consequences.
The birth of addiction
On a warm night about 25 years ago, a woman slurring her words and reeking of booze walked into Charter Hospital in Phoenix, where Bobbe McGinley was the addictions program director. She assumed the woman was an alcoholic but asked her what the problem was. The answer surprised McGinley.
“She drank so much because she had lost a lot of money at a casino in Fort McDowell,” McGinley recalled. “I realized that the story she was telling me was not unlike what I hear from other patients about drugs and alcohol, only she was talking about gambling.”
That’s when McGinley realized not enough attention was being given to those seeking the thrill of winning big, only to lose it all. She became an expert in problem gambling.
McGinley is now the clinical director at ACT Counseling and Education. Over the years, she’s learned that the allure of gambling is often dangled in front of problem gamblers at a young age.
“If your parents present something that looks like fun, you’re going to adapt to that as a child and think it’s fun as you’re growing up, until consequences happen,” she said.
Watson, 46, who grew up near Kingman and later moved with his family to Las Vegas, was born and raised around gambling.
“My family’s main source of recreation came from going to the casinos,” Watson said. “I’d tag along. I became comfortable in that environment. I’ve been playing poker almost my whole life. I played my first game of blackjack when I was 5 years old.”
Along with playing cards, Watson remembers growing up in a stressful home. His parents wanted their son to be a high achiever. They demanded excellence.
“As a child, I was always expected to get everything right. And if I didn’t get things right, there was shame and punishment,” he said. “I think some of us have those experiences growing up, and fixate on things, so I think from an early age I didn’t have any room for mistakes.”
As an adult, Watson treated himself the way his parents treated him as a kid. He became his own biggest critic. A respected reporter for the Phoenix New Times, he strove for perfection. When his prose didn’t match his impossible expectations, the personal shame mounted, and he’d turn to a familiar vice to numb the pain.
“I was really comfortable with games of chance,” Watson said. “That became my escape, my coping mechanism.”
Michael, 51, came from a similar background.
“Both of my parents loved to gamble. All of our family vacations were to Las Vegas,” Michael said. “My first memory of gambling was at a young age. My mom let me put the silver dollar into the slot machine and pull the handle.”
Her pathway to gambling may have started even before she was born. Michael was adopted at a young age. Recently, she discovered that her birth mother was an avid card player and ran up some debts of her own.
Schiller, too, started at an early age.
“I can remember when I was 10 years old, playing penny poker with my friends,” Schiller said. “It snowballed from there to betting on horse races to having a bookie. … It just progressed.”
The winning phase
The innocent adrenaline rush of raking a small mound of pennies over to his side of the coffee table led Schiller to become an avid card player. Years later, he and a group of friends took a weekend trip to Las Vegas. They hit the table games hard. As the cards were dealt and the dice were thrown, his stack of chips piled higher. When the dust settled, Schiller walked out a winner, up $10,000.
“Looking back now, I wish I never gambled again after that day,” he said. “Everything leading up to that was good. From there, it just got worse because you get the big win and you think you can do it again. Sometimes you do, but it gets outweighed by all the losses and all the lying.”
In her late teens, Michael got a fake ID and headed straight to the poker table. A Harley-Davidson-rider with voluminous hair and a competitive streak, she found early success.
“No matter what game I was playing, I seemed to be winning,” Michael said. “I was winning, and I was able to walk out of the casino with my money.”
McGinley says Michael, Schiller and Watson fit the profile of an “action gambler,” the type who bets on card games, horse races and sports because they believe those games offer a level of control and require a level of skill to win.
When an action gambler first starts gambling, they go through what is known as the “winning phase.” This is a period of time when a player experiences wins – sometimes big wins – that make them believe they possess a natural talent for whatever their preferred game may be.
“It’s exciting, if you win,” McGinley said. “They kind of feel like they’re on top of the world, and that’s what keeps them going.”
During the winning phase, gamblers are able to leave the table and cash their chips. Then they start going to the casino more often, gambling larger amounts of money. Soon, the hobby becomes a habit, and the losses pile up.
“With the action gamblers, the pleasure center in the brain, the excitement in the brain they get from gambling, is the same as what a sex addict, or someone on cocaine or meth would experience,” McGinley said.
The losing phase
For Watson, he collided with addiction like a speeding car hitting a brick wall.
“It started out with poker games at home,” he said. “All my friends were just interested in having a good time. I was just interested in winning everybody’s money.”
Watson decided that the jovial conversations and low stakes of poker nights with his buddies couldn’t give him the dopamine rush he craved. Turning to casinos for the fix, he would go three to four days straight playing cards, fueled not by drugs or alcohol but the rush of winning a hand. He’d play blackjack, looking for a big win until his chips dwindled down into small stack. Then, he’d go play poker to rebuild his wealth, so that he could go back in on a big hand at blackjack. It was a cycle that would repeat itself until Watson ran out of money.
As the losses topped $50,000, Watson, who said he battled depression early in life, started in a 12-step program and attended Gamblers Anonymous meetings, but neither took. Before long, he’d be back at the tables, where he was a regular.
“I would see the same people there all the time. I’d even see people from my Gamblers Anonymous group,” he said. “We’d both look at each other, ashamed, embarrassed. We were just at the meeting the day before, and here we are, relapsing.”
Watson experienced what’s known as the “losing phase,” which occurs when gamblers bet on long shots and wager on hands when they should be folding. During the losing phase, the action gambler starts “chasing loses,” thinking they can make back every dollar with a single good hand. Habit becomes addiction. The gambler can’t get up and leave the table, slot machine or race track.
“I’ve had loved ones in the casino literally begging me to come away from the table and I told them ‘No,’” Watson said.
Eventually, problem gamblers start borrowing or stealing money, and they make every effort to hide their illness from others.
Michael also experienced a devastating losing phase.
“It was a high. I could get high just thinking about a casino,” Michael said. “I could get as high driving to the casino as I could from sitting at a table.”
Casinos gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling. She compared it to the “Cheers” bar, a place where everybody knew her name. But while Michael was chumming it up with the other players and escaping the stresses of the day, her life was a gunned-down fighter jet, spiraling toward the ground.
“It started as binge gambling. Then I started stealing,” she said. “I was just gambling all the time, casinos, online, all that. I lost tens of thousands of dollars. I couldn’t pay bills. I couldn’t pay rent. All my money was going into gambling.”
Schiller, 53, loved playing poker, but it was his love of sports that took over his life, plummeting him into more than $20,000 of debt. Eighteen years ago, he contacted a sports bookie. Unlike gambling at a casino, this type of betting doesn’t require an up-front wager.
“Betting with a bookie is done with ‘phantom dollars,’” Schiller said. “You’re just betting money on a weekly basis and hoping to come out on the positive side, but it can just get out of control.”
In a matter of mere months, Schiller’s finances and marriage had been tanked by sports gambling.
It wasn’t until the burly, scruffy-faced Schiller returned to his pregnant wife, after leaving her and his problem behind for two months, that he received the ultimatum, which served as his wake-up call, his rock bottom.
“My wife more or less told me to get help or else she’d leave,” Schiller said. “Everybody has to have a reason to get help and to stay on the road to recovery. Mine was my family.”
That’s when Schiller met McGinley and started on the long, difficult road of rehabilitation.
Michael and Watson hit their own versions of rock bottom. Unfortunately, the bottom didn’t arrive until after they ran afoul of the law.
In 2007, the stealing caught up to Michael. She was charged with embezzling from the company where she worked in human relations. Staring down a future behind bars, without her three children, she knew a change had to be made.
After a year in prison, she entered a 12-step program, which had yielded no results in previous attempts. This time, however, she was willing to do whatever she was asked.
That same year, Watson robbed a gas station, but his crime spree didn’t stop there. He went on to commit five more robberies in 2007, court documents show. Watson’s streak ultimately came to an end, and in a place where just about all his hot streaks had ended: a poker table.
As reported by the Phoenix New Times, police tracked Watson to a casino and arrested him. He later was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Behind bars, Watson created a strong bond with two lawyers who helped mitigate his sentence down from 25 to 12 years. Their love and comfort helped him understand why his life took such a dark turn. He was too demanding of himself and too unforgiving of others.
He would never credit the prison system for helping him come to this realization, but while he was incarcerated, he matured and turned an old trick into a new outlet for stress and frustration: writing poetry.
But for many problem gamblers, rock bottom doesn’t mean a moment of clarity. It means the end. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that one in five problem gamblers will attempt suicide, which is about twice the rate of other addictions.
“The financial devastation alone just makes it seem like there is no way out,” Michael said. “I think that’s why the suicide rates are so high for those who suffer from gambling addiction. Sometimes it’s not just the person who is gambling’s money. They often take the family’s money, kids’ money and college funds.”
Paths to recovery
Now a free man, Watson says he hasn’t gambled in almost a decade. Along with writing poetry, he has found new ways to cope.
“I meditate. I spend a lot of time with my family, my wife, my stepson. I play guitar,” he said. “I keep things in perspective now. I enjoy everyday life. I don’t worry so much about rejection anymore.”
Watson has put his writing to use as a media consultant for the American Friends Service Committee office in Tucson. The nonprofit organization advocates for criminal-justice reform.
He found a new purpose in life and an understanding of why he made past mistakes.
“I think that I felt an obligation to present myself a certain way,” Watson said. “It required a certain level of prosperity. I think I put too much pressure on myself to move in society a certain way.”
Counseling didn’t work for Watson, but it did for Michael. Her second crack at the 12-step program was a success. She has reached out to make emotional amends with the people she hurt and financial amends with the people from whom she stole. That was the most difficult part of the program, she said.
Separate from her own ongoing recovery, Michael helps run Compass Recovery, a out-patient rehabilitation center in Prescott.
She has turned to softball to stimulate her competitive edge; motorcycle rides for an adrenaline rush; and time with her husband, three boys and five stepchildren to occupy her free time. It was an aberration Michael experienced during recovery that helped her get to where she is now: She found the “real Mo.”
“She’s a gentle, funny, kind, caring human being, and she’s not the person who stole all that money,” Michael said. “I’m a good mom. I’m a good wife. I masked the real Mo because I wanted to hide an addiction that started when I was a teenager.”
Schiller enjoys watching sports even more now that he doesn’t have any skin in the game.
“When I was watching and betting, I was a nervous wreck,” he said. “Now, I just enjoy the game for the game. I love sports and love watching.”
But his recovery has been hard-fought. About three years ago, his addiction came roaring back. This time, it drove him back to the poker tables. Before his illness could chew him up and spit him out again, he called McGinley.
“You can’t get complacent. Your addiction is waiting for you in another room doing pushups,” Schiller said. “I try to remember that the lows are always worse than the highs, that’s for sure. I’ve lost so many friends over this addiction.”
The next step
The lows will always feel worse than the highs because the money isn’t what problem gamblers are chasing.
According to McGinley, no wins – no matter how big – will give addicts enough satisfaction.
“The thing about gambling that people don’t understand is that money is the drug. It has no value. It’s just what they need to stay in the game,” McGinley said. “The stakes, the high, is the excitement of winning.”
Watson agrees. That excitement, more than money, was what kept him awake during those 70-hour binges he’d go on nearly a decade ago. It was his lack of self-control that landed him behind bars, he acknowledged. But he also said those who profit from gambling need to be held accountable.
“If you buy a pack of smokes, there’s a message on the label that says, ‘If you smoke too much of these, you’ll die,’” Watson said. “Well, if you spend too much time in a casino, it’s going to ruin your life.”
Both McGinley and Michael have worked with the casinos, and they are encouraged by training provided to staff members and the programs in place to turn away problem gamblers.
However, they both worry that there simply isn’t enough awareness about the disease.
They said that legalizing sports gambling would “absolutely” increase the number of problem gamblers they treat.
“It’s not about the money,” Michael said. “It’s not a moral issue. It’s a disease, and some insurance companies don’t even consider it a disease. I think this field is going to be way different, way bigger, in 10 years.”
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