CARLSBAD — Most Thursday nights the parking lot of St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church is dotted with cars.
Inside the parish hall a door is propped open to welcome new and veteran members of Gamblers Anonymous.
The Jan. 17 session started with introductions.
“Hi, my name is —”
First names are used during introductions to honor members’ anonymity followed by the number of days, weeks and years since each member last gambled.
Applause is given for each member’s honest admission of his or her addiction and recent struggles.
A new member introduced herself. She is asked a set of 20 questions listed in the Gamblers Anonymous guidebook. Seven yes answers indicate you have a problem with gambling. She answers yes to 13 questions.
After welcoming her, the group reads aloud step one of the 12 steps to recovery. It teaches surrender.
The self-help group meets at the church weekly. Most members said they attend three different Gamblers Anonymous meetings a week.
They said their gambling addiction is worse than alcohol or drug addiction.
“It’s a disease that will take everything you have,” Richard said.
“I would get in my car to go shopping,” Karen said. “My car had an automatic pilot (I would head to the casino). I crossed that fine line. I was always chasing the money.”
Karen added that it was not the amount of money, but the feeling of winning. She said she felt special being treated to free casino dinners, shows and hotel rooms, even if she continued gambling and did not use them.
She said she would go to any length to get the gambling high.
“I did illegal things. I’m not proud of them.”
“Gamblers Anonymous saved my life,” she added.
Joel shared a similar story.
“I thought I was smarter than the system,” he said. “I studied the game. I analyzed the game. I had my success.”
He also found himself in trouble.
“I was disappearing for two to three days, maxing out credit cards, selling possessions.”
“My free room might have cost me $10,000,” Joel said.
For those struggling with impulsive gambling there is the added challenge that gambling addiction is not widely socially recognized as a disease.
Members shared the statistics that only 5 percent of those with a gambling addiction seek help, and that impulsive gambling is the addiction with the highest suicide rate.
Gamblers Anonymous members said they rely on group meetings and literature to keep them on track.
A few members added that when they stopped going to meetings their problem with gambling continued right where they left off.
“There’s no life for me outside this program,” Richard said.
“The reason why I’m here is I went back to gambling and it got worse,” Barbara said. “For two to three days I was not eating, not sleeping, hitting all the casinos. I lost all my money and savings.”
Down the hall a meeting to support family and friends of gamblers was also in session.
The Gam-Anon group also functions as a self-help group that is run and funded by members.
Members of the Gam-Anon group have a different set of guidebooks to initiate their discussions. Self-help topics include guidance on how to stop enabling, how to set healthy boundaries, and how to separate themselves from the gambler’s problems.
For more information call Gamblers Anonymous at (888) 233-8547.