An Australian MP bravely writes about her gambling addiction

carolyn writes about her gambling addiction

Relief floods through me as I arrive at the venue. The pleasurable feeling is triggered by a combination of dopamine and opioids in my brain, lighting the well-worn path of the synapses that addiction has created. The bright doorway is enough. Horror and dread dissipate. I have two $50 notes in my wallet, enough pleasure for the evening, and of course I may win. The colours and music that engulf my senses as I enter the venue contrast with the silent patrons, each alone on a stool in front of a poker machine. The aloneness has been increased by grouping machines in circles, facing outwards, instead of rows. Gamblers can't even see each other.

How did I become addicted to pokies? How could this have happened to me, an intelligent woman, a psychologist and a former Member of Parliament? When I taught learning theory to psychology students I would use poker machines as an example of classical conditioning, just as Pavlov had taught his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, by pairing it with food, until they salivated when they heard the bell, without waiting for the food.

The pokies are a good example of operant conditioning too, with a reward appearing intermittently when a lever or button is pressed, mirroring psychologist B.F. Skinner's demonstration in the 1950s and '60s that rewarding a behaviour increases it. Skinner's rats learnt that if they pressed a lever they would be rewarded with food – not every time though. The greatest increase in lever pressing took place when the rats couldn't predict when the reward would come, because anticipation is just as effective in stimulating the release of dopamine and opioids in the brain as is the actual reward. That's how poker machines work.

Why do we do it? We are all escaping from something. The bent old woman with the walking frame stays at one machine until her pension is gone, then limps home to her lonely one-bedroom flat and eats two-minute noodles until next pension day. She vows that next fortnight she'll keep some money aside for food as well as rent.

The sad-faced tradie blows his pay packet in one sitting, having originally sat down with the intention of fluttering five bucks over a beer after work. He doesn't want to go home, because home now is in a lonely caravan park down the road.

The furtive man in an expensive-looking suit plays $5 a spin, hoping to win back the $1000 he blew yesterday. His business is going under and he can't get any more credit. No one knows yet, but he is desperate. The lid is about to blow.

There is the woman in thongs who moves from machine to machine, placing a "reserved" sign on each one as she tries another, instead of doing the week's shopping. After tonight she will have to get vouchers from the Salvos again to feed the kids.

We are the same, those of us addicted to pokies, and carry the same burdens of loneliness, grief and pain that led us there in the first place, and exacerbated by more loss and shame as a result of our compulsion to keep going. But we are all known simply as "problem gamblers", because Australian governments place the responsibility for addiction to poker machines entirely on the shoulders of the gambler. We are taught our addiction is our own fault, and we believe it because of the rhetoric used to describe it.

Poker machine gambling is officially known as "gaming", the machines are called "electronic gaming machines" and poker machine venues are part of the "entertainment industry", like theatres. Users "play" the pokies. It's all fun. Most people who visit poker machine venues engage in "responsible gambling". The language acknowledges that some people spend too much time and money on pokies, but not with the word "addiction". The term is "problem gamblers", and counselling services are available to assist them with their problem. Even information about counselling services is placed in the toilets of pokie venues. Why the toilets? A reflection of the government's view that it is shameful to be a problem gambler? Even the government organisation, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the body that helps people who can't stop gambling, does not use the word addiction on its website. The terms "problem gambling" and "responsible gambling" proliferate.

Perhaps Australian governments' reluctance to change their approach is due to the receipt in Victoria, for example, of nearly $2 billion from gambling, about 3.8 per cent of total revenue in 2013-14, and the fact that 40 per cent of this revenue is estimated to come from problem gamblers. Perhaps their reluctance is also due to the number of class actions that are taking place in the US and Canada against governments who provide poker machines.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, produced by the American Psychiatric Association in 2014, lists "pathological gambling" in a category called Addiction and Related Disorders. According to the Macquarie Dictionary, "pathological" means "due to or involving physical or mental disease" – a very different term from Australia's "problem gambling."

Biological evidence supporting the American Psychiatric Association's classification is growing. Gambling, in particular on poker machines, the most insidious form, changes the brain in the same way drugs change the brain – dopamine and opioids, excitement and peace. Changes to the brain of a person addicted to poker machines are similar to those of a cocaine addict or an alcoholic.

With help, over time, the "tickle" in my brain telling me I must go to the pokies is fading at last. Occasionally when I see a blue sign with "Pokies" written in white outside a venue I will feel a tiny nudge, but I shake my head firmly and remind myself that I am planting a garden to bury that path through my brain. I no longer want to be that person.


Original Source:

Carolyn Hirsh' book Politics, Death and Addiction can be found at Pan