"Brass Rings, Bologna, and Other Gamblers’ Delights, Delusions, and Legacies"
The summer before my father died, I traveled Upstate to visit him. After lunch in our town’s arts district, we drove to Lake Ontario to watch the waves roll in. It was warm and pleasant, so out the pier we walked, Dad chatting on about all the fun we used to have, barbequing and playing badminton there. I couldn’t remember those happy outings. But, hey, Dad grinned and spoke with such conviction, his recollections must have been true. Right?
Back on land, we headed for the carousel, one of the city’s finest treasures. Created in 1905 and recently restored, it’s a magical wonder boasting fifty hand-carved, intricately painted horses, cats, ostriches, pigs, rabbits, deer, giraffes, lions and tigers, but no bears. (Oh my!)
It was early in the season. No one around but us. We couldn’t resist: we had to ride the carousel!
My first thought, risk-averse as I am, was to avoid “the painted ponies” going “up and down,” as Joni Mitchell sang a few decades ago. I am, after all, a woman of a certain age. I couldn’t ride a giraffe, or a zebra, or a lion, could I? No, I would take one of the stable, immobile bench seats. But when Dad, aged ninety-five, hopped on a horse on the carousel’s outer perimeter, I climbed up on a tiger, giggling like a six-year-old.
Once the cranky calliope music came on, we started spinning, spinning, spinning. When I looked ahead a couple rows, there was Dad, hiking out from his palomino, trying to grab the brass ring from the dispenser, just out of reach from the carousel’s circumference.
“Dad, stop!” I shouted. “Careful, sir,” the attendants called, though their smiles hinted that they, like almost everyone who first met Dad, were taken in by his joie de vivre, his confidence that the next time a brass ring was held out, he would grab it. Then everything would be fine forever after.
But . . .
A tarnished underbelly belied Dad’s charm. It was his absolute certainty that, this time, despite past evidence to the contrary, his gambling, his overreaching, his chasing would pay off. This time he’d hit the big one.
When I was growing up, this meant that, as he promised, our family would move from our declining, inner-city neighborhood to a four-bedroom colonial in the ‘burbs. When he “borrowed” money I earned from babysitting or lawnmowing, he would pay it back. When my mother challenged him for coming in late, smelling of stale cigar smoke from the gambling joints he frequented, he would refrain from threatening to “put her out on the street.”
In other words, I was as delusional as he was.
I was in my forties before I could confront him about the effects of his gambling. That was long after I walked away from that house, that neighborhood, that city, though I was, and sometimes still am, hobbled by the shifting financial and emotional sands on which I was raised.
“I just hope you can forgive me,” he said. The crack in his voice told me, for the first time—the only time, really—that he acknowledged there was something wrong with his gambling. I did forgive him, of course, at least enough so that, eventually, I was able to ask him how his gambling started. He was a kid, he said. A paper boy, with his first money of his own. What did he bet on back then? “Anything. Stickball. Cards. Dice. Anything.”
His memories sounded innocent, recollections of simpler times. He was a boy, around age twelve, hanging out with his buddies, rolling dice and playing twenty-one on safe, tree-lined streets. Except that, as the stakes grew higher, he got stuck in a web of broken promises, fragmented relationships, and eventual destitution, all the while remaining confident that the next time the carousel spun around, he would reach out and, yes, that life-changing brass ring would be his.
“Get help.” I didn’t ask; I implored. “Go to Gamblers Anonymous.”
He scoffed. “The fellas I know who go there? A few weeks later, they’re back on the streets.”
I remembered those streets, and the suspect storefronts on them, the ones in shady neighborhoods, with men in sunglasses out front, chomping on cigars, on the lookout left and right. Not unlike the “fellas” on The Sopranos. I also remember how, after telling my mother he was taking me to lunch on Saturday afternoons, Dad parked me in our unreliable Ford, alone, across the street from those places. (Don’t tell your mother!”) “I
was a little girl when you took me there. I was scared! You made me lie for you.” There. I said it. Even though it took four decades, all those years of anger stuck in my throat spilled out. “I just hope you can forgive me.”
For a time, releasing that anger—being honest—set me free. But sometimes that scared little girl inside still searches for, and wants to be protected by, her Daddy.
A couple years ago, I went to a spiritual study group that planned to reflect on what’s known as The Lord’s Prayer. The first week, the first clause, was simply “Our Father.” I sat in my chair, perplexed when each of the women before me talked about the bountiful provision of a loving God and how their earthly fathers (their Daddys) were proxies for that divine reliability and protection. When it came time for me to speak, I couldn’t. I left the group and never went back.
Now I sometimes find myself wondering if the gambling and its effects really were that bad. After all, thanks to Mom, there was always nourishing food on the table. My sisters and I each went to college, something no one else on our street did. Am I grateful for those gifts? Yes! Still there are those nagging suspicions: there isn’t enough; you’re not safe; you’re not cared for; you’re vulnerable, unprotected. Am I the only one, even as an
adult, who still sometimes limps around after being raised by a gambling addict? Am I crazy?
I asked a friend whose father was a lawyer, but whose repeated gambling losses caused him to move his family (without furniture) into “the projects” in a large northeastern city. “My mother,” he told me, “used to send me to the corner deli to beg for food. I’d come home with enough bologna for her to fry for dinner, our one meal of the day.” He remembered looking out his apartment window one day, seeing a man driving off with the family car. “Dad!” When he yelled out, his father’s response was, “Don’t tell your mother.” Another secret and more shame, both of which contributed to
my friend’s eventual addictions to alcohol and cocaine.
He said he only gambled once, in a casino, on vacation. “I played 24, then 10. I won both times.” He eventually lost all the money; but that brief brush with winning kicked off addiction’s siren song: I want more, more, more. “I felt the same rush I used to get from coke.”
That taught him two things. For the first time, he empathized with his father. “If he felt the way I did from gambling, I couldn’t judge him anymore. We were both addicts. Same disease, different ‘drugs’.” Second, he learned he could never gamble again. “I can’t go there,” he said. “Not if I want to stay alive.” Still, those realizations didn’t take away the shame of being bullied on the playground because his family didn’t have enough to eat; nor did it tamp down the fear that things (like cars or furniture or hope) could literally disappear at any time.
I understood the shame and secrecy he lived with as a kid. As the paint on our house peeled and it went unrepaired, I no longer invited friends over. And because I learned I couldn’t tell my mother about my Saturday “lunches” with my father, I certainly couldn’t tell anyone outside the house that what was going on inside was even more shameful.
Psychotherapist Alexandra Lonc, LCSW, MAC, CGAC, NBCCH, practices in Deerfield Beach, FL. She isn’t surprised that my friend and I were similarly affected as children by our fathers’ gambling, and that, as adults, vestiges of our experiences continue to influence us.
The only thing certain about life with a gambler, she says, is that it’s “predictably unpredictable.” That unreliability often fosters Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and potentially a host of fear-driven behaviors and attitudes. “It’s not uncommon for those affected by another’s gambling to doubt themselves and to ask questions like: What did I do wrong? Am I crazy? Why didn’t I see this coming?”
In regard to that last question, Lonc says, gambling is often more difficult to diagnose than other addictions. Unlike with, say, alcoholism, no glassy eyes, or word-slurring, or stumbling down stairs signals a problem. It’s often not until drained savings accounts or missed mortgage payments or over-extended credit card statements arrive in the mail that the addiction becomes apparent. By then it’s often not just a simple matter of recognizing the issue and changing behavior on one’s own; it’s time to get help.
Dr. Ann Crawford, Professor of Psychology at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, agrees that those suffering from gambling addiction experience the same shame and guilt as those with alcohol or drug addictions. “Living with the fear of loss and need for secrecy,” she says, “can further lead the gambler to states of depression and anxiety; loss of trust of family and friends; and the additional stress of income and monetary loss.”
So why do gamblers continue to risk losing life savings, college tuition, home equity, not to mention love and respect? The science that underlies gambling addiction, Crawford says, tells us that, “The human brain produces several neurotransmitters such as endorphins, epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin when a person experiences either pain or pleasure. As the gambler’s heart rate and blood pressure increase, alertness and wellbeing do too. The physical sensation as these chemicals course through the body can replicate the experience of a cocaine rush, or the calming effect of alcohol or sedatives.”
In other words, Crawford says, “the gambler, through the continual experience of winning and losing, will eventually become addicted to the sensations produced by his own brain chemicals.”
What types of help work best for addicted gamblers and those affected by them? Alexandra Lonc requests that all her patients who are gamblers go to Gamblers Anonymous. She encourages their significant others to try Gam-Anon. In conjunction with Twelve Step work, she frequently utilizes narrative therapy, which requires clients to write their histories in five-year increments, allowing them to see behavior and circumstantial changes over time. She also finds a combination Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Neuro Linguistic Programming and other trauma modalities to be helpful.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment plan. The important thing is to provide a safe place for honest dialogue to begin and continue,” she says.
Family members, as well as gamblers, may need to learn that access to money is the same thing as access to gambling. This means learning new ways of thinking about and spending money. “Most gamblers suffer from extreme cases of narcissistic ‘big-shot-ism.’ They balk at first at being given, say, a weekly allowance of twenty or fifty dollars. But over time, as their behavior changes, they learn the value of money and how to use it.”
One day, not long after my experience with my spiritual studies group, I had a conversation with my father that didn’t go the way I wanted. Despite his pension and social security, he was once again waiting for the first of the month to come so he could buy groceries. I spun into silent rage, dumbfounded that a man as smart and with-it as he was, even in his nineties, could end up in such a fix. When I hung up, still shaking, I
prayed a few minutes to center myself. Then I turned from the phone to go to the kitchen. In that brief moment, I heard The Voice. The one deep inside. The one I heard on the day I was granted my own reprieve from addiction. “He’s not your father,” The Voice said. Of course, he’s my father, I thought, until I realized that the messenger was the same provident father the women in my spiritual studies had spoken of, trusted, and relied on.
I knew that, as Dr. Crawford says, my father’s addiction resulted from brain chemicals gone awry. But I hadn’t yet surrendered to the fact that I continued to rely on my own ill-founded attitudes, behaviors and fears. Finally, I accepted that I couldn’t change my father or our past, but I could change our present, my present, by listening to and putting faith in The Voice of truth, forgiveness and provision.
Getting back to Joni Mitchell. She wrote that “we’re captive on the carousel of time,” that we can’t return to the past, “. . .we can only look behind from where we came/And go round and round and round” in the circle game.
It’s true that, even if we experience PTSD as a result of our reactions to gambling addiction, whether our own or someone else’s, and feel as if we’ve fallen back in time, we can’t actually return to and alter our childhoods, no matter how intensely our early experiences influence our adult perceptions and behavior. But we can get off the merry-go-round, memories that can spin thoughts like am I crazy? What did I do wrong? There isn’t enough.
Indeed, to move ahead, we must look back—maybe using a form of narrative therapy Ms. Lonc employs, maybe sharing with a friend, as I did with mine. But we can’t stay stuck there. And that means, for me at least, looking beyond the disease and reaching, stretching, confident that, yes, this time everything will be fine, in fact everything is fine, right here, right now, whatever distractions or delusions may try to shake that belief. That faith, though, comes not from chasing seductive brass rings, but from claiming and maintaining connection to the Higher Father, the one who speaks in moments I least expect.
* First appeared in The Phoenix Spirit, March 2020
Madeleine Parish is a writer, editor and writing coach. In both fiction and creative nonfiction, she writes about relationship challenges and the sometimes rocky roads to healing. She is a graduate of Cornell University and a member of the Women's National Book Association.