Over the past eleven years, I’ve been on a journey to better understand myself and the gambling addiction that consumed my twenties.
Along the way, I’ve come across many different stories or explanations for gambling disorder. Some make a lot of sense, while others seem a bit more unstable when placed under a microscope.
One story that I’ve been particularly fascinated with is the idea that gambling is clearly a behavioral disorder (as highlighted in the DSM-V) that stretches beyond the individual’s control.
“Think about it. Who would ever choose to become addicted? It’s not like people are saying ‘Gambling addiction, sign me up for that hell!’”
I’m not exactly sure when and where I first heard this logic, but it instantly clicked. The lightbulb went on in my head and my beaten heart and soul healed a bit.
Like other great stories, I began to share this one with others with the thought of “if it can help me, maybe it will help them as well.”
And I’m sure it has. It’s a comforting message that can remove some of the longstanding shame from our past poor decisions.
There’s only one problem with this tale.
It’s complete fiction.
While it can definitely help ease some of the pain and shame from a gambling addiction, it does so by providing short-term comfort. For the overwhelming majority of people I’ve met and chatted with, this use of a story to provide short-term comfort was exactly what got them into the predicament in the first place. And it’s most certainly what led me down the path.
Without changing how we identify and deal with uncomfortable truths, we may not be gambling, but we also aren’t growing and improving.
The fallacy in the story is in framing the gambler as someone who would never choose the pain and misery that comes with a gambling addiction. While true, pain and misery were never part of the consideration while gambling.
For the gambler moving across the spectrum of harm towards gambling disorder, the story they have in their head is very much like the “Choose Your Own Adventure” fiction novels I read as a kid.
No matter how precarious the circumstances might become, we were convinced that we would eventually make it to the section where the hero escapes triumphant (or at the very least unharmed).
Of course, we would never choose the hell and misery we ultimately experienced at the end of our gambling. But that wasn’t a conscious decision. We simply never considered or believed that was how the story would end.
We were solely focused on chasing the fantasy of a victorious ending. Nothing else was even on our radar.
So yes, the “no one would choose this outcome” sounds and feels right, but it ignores the agency we deployed in chasing an ending that we were convinced would someday be true. We were willing to climb into pits full of vipers, swim with the sharks, and travel the barren desert at midday, all for the shot at a prize we hoped would be waiting for us at the finish line.
We choose that path.
We choose to risk it all.
And ultimately, we choose to open ourselves up to an increased risk of developing a gambling disorder.
All the while, believing the story would have a happy and heroic ending.