Liam's story - Gambling addiction at 17

LIAM placed his first bet when he was just 10 years old: $5 on the Broncos at a TAB with his dad.

The Sydney schoolboy didn't gamble again until he was 15, but before long, he was placing bets every chance he got.

"It was bigger and bigger each week," he said. "I wanted a bigger rush. I kept increasing the number of bets and the amount of money."

Liam's parents had split years earlier because his father was a gambler, and his stepfather, a barrister, had died, leaving his mother struggling to afford school fees for him and his brother.

"When I first started, it was to make money," said Liam. "I had this grand idea it would help Mum. But even if I made money, I'd just place more bets. It turned into an obsession. If I wanted to pass the time, if I had a bad day, I'd go gamble. If I had a good day, I'd go gamble."

Classmates would ask him for advice on placing bets, while senior students on many occasions encouraged him to seek help. "I used to take it as a badge of honour," he said. "Finally, something I was good at."

Laim no longer believes it was about the cash, but about "going into a fantasy" and escaping his normal worries. "It wasn't about money, that was just an enabler," he said. "If they accepted rocks, I would have gone around looking for rocks."

Every cent from his part-time job was gone within a couple of days each week. At his lowest point, he took some cash from another student's wallet to fund his habit. "Anything I could do to prolong the gambling binge."

He cut himself off from friends and lied to his family to cover up where he was spending all his time. It was a vicious cycle. "I wasn't going out so I didn't see my friends," he said. "I had nothing to do, so I'd go gamble. That was my whole life."

He even walked out of a HSC exam to head to a TAB, rushing to place a bet and relieve his "anger, guilt and remorse".

His family still in the dark, Liam went to university, dropping out three times and working for six months so he had the money for gambling, before finally completing a Bachelor of Social Sciences, majoring in criminal justice.

By this point, his mother had found out what was going on. Susan was horrified to see her son struggling. "There was no one more shattered by this than me," she said. "He was so young and veering out of control, he agreed he couldn't do it on his own. I said, whatever he needed, I would help." She told Liam to go to seek help. He agreed, but went straight to a TAB.

"That was the scheming nature of my head," he said. "As soon as I got in, I saw the lights, the horses, I went crazy and started betting. I lost all my money in half an hour."

"I was fed up with the course my life was taking. There was nothing good in my life. I finally had clarity. There were way too many negatives," he said. The rush, the escapism, the fantasy world, it wasn't enough."

Having made the decision to get help for himself, Liam met others with similar stories and for the first time, had hope things could be better.

"Quitting isn't easy," he says. "Every time I lost all my money, I wanted to stop, but I couldn't. I found people who had. The behaviour becomes habitual, just who you are."

Laim hasn't gambled in four years, and has now started a gambling awareness program called Wandering Punter, working in schools and with professional sporting bodies. Liam remains mindful that he has to be aware of recognising the symptoms should they re-occur in the future.

Liam worries that gambling is even more accessible than when he was 15, and able to walk into a TAB in his grey school uniform — he believes because staff are paid by turnover.

There are adverts for gambling everywhere, online betting and everything in sport is tied to the odds.

"There's no separation between gambling and everything else," he said. "It's just normality now."