Friday, February 8, 2013
How I Quit Gambling
Projectile vomiting can be your friend.
I never should have found myself inside casinos in the first place. As a former alcoholic, cigarette smoker, and drug abuser, taking up gambling does not, in retrospect, sound like a solid life plan. But in my addictive heyday, gambling was definitely a part of my life. I would go the casino, stand inside the entrance, gaze out across the dark, jangling world of the slot machine floor, populated by solitary figures seated on stools, busily drinking and smoking cigarettes, and mutter: “My kinda people.”
And they were. Lurking out there were a significant number of fellow addicts, as I now understand. They weren’t there to have fun, to play games, to be entertained, or to quit while they were ahead. They were there to experience the act of risking more money than they intended to—more money than they wanted to lose. They were self-medicating with machines, as I had learned to do. The money bought you time on the machine, and the time on the machine was the medicine. The money had less to do with it than you might think. The money was only the means.
My spell as a compulsive gambler was nasty, brutish, and short. The extent of my losses is classified. It’s not a well-known fact, but addicted individuals who compulsively gamble tend to prefer the machines to the tables these days. Table gambling—blackjack, roulette, poker—requires a level of social interaction that is the opposite of what the pathological gambler is seeking: total immersion in a null state marked by regularity and the absence of human interactions. Give a cursory glance around any major casino’s slot room, and you will quickly notice that slot and machine poker players don’t talk to each other. They don’t even sit next to each other, if they can help it. Like an alcoholic on a secret binge, they DO NOT WISH TO BE DISTURBED. Even the periodic interchange with a cocktail server can feel like an unwarranted intrusion into the gambler’s zone.
I used to say, only partly in jest, that there is nothing quite like the sick thrill of wagering money you can’t afford to lose. The traditional trajectory has the gambler setting a limit on what she’s willing to lose, then going past that limit and resetting it, repeatedly, until her money is gone. Slot machine players know they are going to lose. They aren’t brain-damaged. (Well, in a way, they are, but that’s another story). They know perfectly well what the house percentage is. Sure, they hope to hit a jackpot against all odds—but they are also playing for time. One of the sacred casino industry metrics is “time on device,” and addicts put up some impressive numbers, since they are known to do things like pee their pants or ignore a medical emergency, rather than give up their machine.
In the old days, a roulette wheel was more likely to lead to the same result. In the words of the stricken protagonist in Dostoevsky’s The Gambler:
I had lost everything then, everything. I was going out of the Casino, I looked, there was still one gulden in my waistcoat pocket: ‘Then I shall have something for dinner,’ I thought. But after I had gone a hundred paces I changed my mind and went back… there really is something peculiar in the feeling when, alone in a strange land, far from home and from friends, not knowing whether you will have anything to eat that day—you stake your last gulden, your very last! I won, and twenty minutes later I went out of the Casino, having a hundred and seventy guldens in my pocket. That’s a fact! That’s what the last gulden can sometimes do! And what if I had lost heart then? What if I had not dared to risk it?...
I once won a $900 jackpot, and remember being irritated that it took the attendants so long to show up and pay out. Or maybe “pay” is not really the right word. What was that money, exactly? First, it wasn’t $900, it was really $500, since I was down $400 for the evening when I hit. The night before, I was down $250 when I quit. Not big numbers by any means, for a weekend in Vegas, but illustrative of how the numbers work. My $900 payday added up to a net of $250, drinks and room not included. This is an example of the “false jackpot,” a cousin to the “near miss.” A false jackpot occurs when the winnings are less than the wager. A near miss is a design technique where the reels frequently stop so that high-paying symbols appear just above or below the pay line—meaningless from a statistical point of view, but oh-so-close from the gambler’s perspective.
I have serious tinnitus, the intrusive ringing-in-the-ear condition that can be brought on by a variety of causes, both environmental and neurobiological. Years ago I came down with a version of the condition, called cochlear hydrops, which often evolves into a set of additional symptoms including dizziness, nausea, complete loss of balance, vertigo, and vomiting. Remember that ears are essential for balance and navigation through space, so when things go wrong, it can be very debilitating indeed. But other than hearing loss and that constant roaring in one ear, I had none of the vestibular symptoms.
One weekend at Bally’s, after several hours planted in front of a single slot machine, the old kind, with three reels and cherries and 7s, I uncharacteristically felt like I’d had enough. In fact, I didn’t feel very good at all. And when I finally looked up from the machine, the curving lines of other machines and the swirling pattern of the casino carpet weren’t helping me feel any better. I decided to go to my room and rest for a while. On the way to the elevators, I lurched into a cocktail waitress, spilling drinks off her tray. In my room, I flung myself on the bed just in time to watch the walls beginning to spin. An interesting experience, when you haven’t had any alcohol to drink in years. This was nothing like seasickness, or a hangover. This was an express ride to hell without moving a muscle. Full-on vertigo. Faster and faster went the walls. And when I finally got up and staggered to the bathroom for a glass of water, I made it just inside the bathroom door before an episode of projectile vomiting (my first) convinced me that my gambling days were over.
I have no idea what happened, exactly, or how I have managed so far to have only one major vertigo event due to ear problems. I’m pretty sure that the spinning reels on the hit-the-button-and-go slots set me up for it. I haven’t been back to repeat the experiment. If there’s any better aversive training than vertigo and projectile vomiting, I don’t want to hear about it. Call it serendipity, a not-so-gentle push in the direction of recognizing that casinos were not a healthy place for me to be. Impulse control, risk/reward, anticipation, long-term thinking: these systems are all malfunctioning during active addiction. For recovering addicts, all those buzzes and whistles on the slot machines are like Pavlov’s bells, recalling the old mindset, and priming you for a fall that costs more than money. They now have digital slot machines with 100 pay lines. So I’ve heard. I don’t go there any more.
Photo Credit: http://vancouvernotvegas.ca/Creative Commons