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I’m Allowed to Feel Things: Living with a Gambling Addict

Guest Blogger
It was 2006, and I was 12 years old and in sixth grade the first time I heard Zac Brown Band’s song, “Toes.”

You know the one — ”I’ve got my toes in the water, ass in the sand…”

That line and the next few subsequent lines are what made it an instant hit. It’s 2022 and you still hear the song on the occasional radio rotation in the summer. But for me, this song took on a whole different meaning — one that would take me a few years to realize that I had completely misinterpreted the lyrics.

I remember the very first time I heard the line in the song that says:

“Adiós and vaya con Dios
Yeah I'm leaving GA”

Now, my sixth grade Spanish class had done very little for the interpretation of the first part of that line, outside of knowing someone was saying goodbye to something — but then the song, undeniably, says “Yeah I’m leaving GA.” Sitting in the backseat of my mom’s old, hand-me-down Saturn with 4 doors each sporting a different color, I sat up and began listening a little harder. A few moments later, there it was again:

“Yeah I’m leaving GA,
Gonna lay in the hot sun…”

“Why in the world are we celebrating leaving GA,” I began thinking.

The song continues with the catchy tune and endless references to drinking, the summer heat, and what can only be described as times of pure bliss, with “not a worry in the world”. But this just didn’t make sense to me. How could you not have a worry if you were leaving GA? 12-year-old me thought that was a bad thing?

As the song draws to a close, the structure of this memorable statement changes it’s phrasing. Zac Brown Band begins the conclusion to the song with the line:

“Adiós and vaya con Dios
A long way from GA”

Well, that did it for me. I hated this song. And would continue to hate it for years to come. Not only are they leaving GA but now they are characterizing themselves as being far from it!? Nope, not okay.

Listen, in my defense, all I heard were the 2 letters — once I realized my mistake, I cursed Zac Brown Band for not providing some clarity in the song; instead, choosing to simply say GA (“Gee-Ay”), resulting in a weird mix and range of emotions within the small, highly conflicted, and now highly aggravated 12 year old.

For as far back as my memories allow, GA did not stand for the state of Georgia. How often do you truly hear state abbreviations spoken aloud like that? For me, GA meant one thing and one thing only:
Gamblers Anonymous.

Years worth of hearing this song, I thought the Zac Brown Band quit the 12-step program, moved to somewhere with a beach, and flaunted their addiction to gambling by associating it with drinking, beautiful women, and no worries in sight. This presented me with two very conflicting emotions:
Absolute panic over the thought of anyone leaving Gamblers Anonymous; the program that works if you work it.
Contentment–something I could not process initially but later was able to identify. This feeling of contentment stemmed from a realization in my 12-year-old brain that it was not just me dealing with family members battling an addiction to gambling. If the Zac Brown Band is singing a popular song about quitting Gamblers Anonymous then that means there are many families–children, brothers, sisters, alike–who have experienced a family member walking away from GA; who have felt what I have felt.
Ironically enough, it was my mother, the one battling a gambling addiction, that revealed my misunderstanding to me. A few years after initially hearing this song, I garnished enough courage to ask my mom why this song would be so popular–and more importantly, why she, of all people, would sing along to it. After a short, albeit awkward, conversation, I understood the issue.

Here’s the thing, I am now 27 years old, and for as far back as my memory stretches, one constant has remained–my mother is a gambling addict. Growing up, this was an incredibly difficult concept for me to understand and an even more difficult concept to discuss. In the discussion of addicts and the impacts that they have on their families, one’s assumptions immediately land on those battling addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. But gambling? This is a far more complicated topic.

“Why doesn’t she just budget her money better?”
“Why won’t she just choose to not go to the casino?”
“If she’s gambling online, just don’t let her have a computer at home.”
“If she gives you the log-in information to her bank account, you can make sure she isn’t gambling.”
“At least it isn’t impacting her health like a drug or alcohol addiction.”
“Does it really matter that much to you? Once you start making your own money, her gambling won’t impact you.”

Understanding the impact that a gambling addiction has on a family is something not outwardly apparent initially. There aren’t nights in which a parent comes home stumbling drunk. There aren’t track marks on the arms of a person that reveal the actions of the previous days. Instead, manic episodes brought on by a particularly good run at the casino followed by dark and depressive episodes after they have lost as much money as they had remaining. Eviction notices on the door because they chose to spend the entirety of their last 2 paychecks attempting to double it in the online poker room. That is the reality and also the challenge.

As a child, we were evicted from 2 homes as a result of my mother’s addiction. There were nights when I would wake up during early morning hours to find that my mom had not come home yet. Panicked and calling her cell phone numerous times exacerbated already existing anxieties to which an outlandish story regarding her whereabouts and reasonings for leaving me home alone would inevitably follow. One night, in which she did not come home, I received a late night phone call in which she had no choice but to admit she had been on a gambling boat an hour away from our hometown. A truth that had to be told after she was involved in a car accident on the interstate driving home.

As I got older, I learned to equate her drinking habits with her gambling. It seemed to ease the guilt for her…until the next morning. My life went through a roller coaster of emotions with her gambling. Initially, for a young child, confusion surrounded the whole concept. As I got older (keep in mind, “older” meant during my middle school years for the child of a single mother whose life was consumed by her gambling), these emotions turned into frustration. Why couldn’t she just choose to stop. By the time I reached high school, there was a constant merry-go-round of feeling sorry for her and the addiction that I was learning to be an illness that could not be shaken, and anger for the consequences of her actions.

I was a freshman in high school when I got my first job–when your sole parent is a gambling addict, money for recreational activities comes far and few between, the exception being when she would hit a particularly good run at the casino (or horse track, or gambling websites once she discovered the convenience of these). I worked incessantly after school, at one point, working 2 jobs. Don’t get me wrong, I prided myself on my independence and my ability to support myself when my peers were still receiving an allowance from their parents. Perhaps that is why one particular day, sitting in my English class, when I received a notification from my bank that my account had dropped to $0.00, I no longer felt bad for my mother. I was enraged. My money was sacred to me–it was what was going to allow me to get to college and away from the stress, anxiety, and guilt (an emotion I had not yet come to terms with) that came with being the child of a gambling addict.

My bank account had been connected to my mother’s out of necessity because as a high school student, I was not able to open one on my own. So when my mother overdrafted for the umpteenth time, they covered her balance with the entirety of my savings. Was I devastated? Absolutely. Was she devastated for me? Absolutely.

And here is where the guilt comes in–something that I am still overcoming at 27 years old. Growing up with a gambling addict, you see the highs and lows of someone’s mental state–both of which are connected to money. You will be begged for money in a way that makes it appear as a life or death situation, leaving you feeling helpless to make a choice outside of “loaning” (knowing you will never receive it back) money to this person. You will see crocodile tears when you have caught them in a lie. You will be gutted by the hurt in their voice when you accuse them of feeding their addiction with little more than unaccounted for periods of time or a month in which the money is stretched thin worth of evidence. But this is the world they have created for you. A world which they have created for themselves.

As an adult, the guilt rears its ugly head during the holidays now more than ever. Birthdays and Christmas are the MOST dreaded time of year for me–a statement that perplexes most people. To the average person, this is supposed to be the “happiest time of the year.” Except for when depression and anger are the defining traits in your family. Holidays roll around and my mother is forced to confront her addiction and the consequences head-on. For the vast majority of my life, my mother has had to sit and watch family members dole out gifts to their children, their nieces and nephews, and their grandchildren. My mother sits passively in the corner, knowing that the only gift that she can afford is that having a roof over her head — one that has taken place with her sister for the last 10 years as a result of her addiction and financial woes. So how does she deal with this? By dealing out the gift of guilt to her children. By leaving me feeling sick to my stomach knowing that she has struggled but also feeling sick knowing that I should never have had to shoulder these emotions in the first place.

I have a laundry list of these examples in my life. Having to live with family members while my mom is sent to facilities to deal with her mental health that has been ravaged by the consequences of her actions. Facing substantial legal consequences because she chose to not pay car insurance costs–a fact I was kept in the dark about until standing in front of a police officer after I had been t-boned by another driver. Dealing with crippling anxiety and relationship struggles that have developed from a lifetime of inability to trust others, their words, or their actions–assuming there is always an ulterior motive or lies being told right to my face.

It took me many years and even more tears and heartache to realize the toll that this has taken on my mental health. I felt incredibly selfish for a long time thinking that I was allowed to be mentally, physically, or emotionally affected by this. This was not about me. This struggle of acceptance of the impact has had a lot of consequences in and of itself. I have struggled with recognizing that my feelings are valid in a lot of arenas — relationships that were mentally devastating, an ability to recognize jobs that were taking advantage of me, and ultimately an understanding that I am entitled to my own feelings and emotions, regardless of the scenario. An understanding that it is not my job to exclusively emotionally support others at the expense of my own mental health.

I write this blog in the hopes that someone understands that while explaining the consequences and challenges and impact of loving someone with a gambling addiction is incredibly challenging and frustrating, there are people that live this battle every day alongside you. It is heart wrenching to watch the consequences, and to feel the wave pool effect that radiates to those in that person’s wake. It is a punch in the gut when you watch them struggle, when you see weeks, months or even years of success battling their addiction, and then watch when the relapse occurs. It is difficult to process the emotions.

Even as I sit here today and write this blog, I have an overwhelming sense of guilt, a pit in my stomach, a heart rate that is increasing ever so slightly. I feel sick that I have made this about myself — it should be about the struggles that my mom faces. HER emotions. HER struggles. HER pain. Not MINE. I have asked that this be posted in anonymity, a request that seems laced with cowardice because I am afraid of the consequences of my mother finding out how I feel and how I have been impacted because of the way it will make HER feel.

As I am getting older, I am learning the value of acceptance of my own feelings. I am learning that this guilt is not something that I have to process and shoulder on my own. That my mental health does not have to take a beating because someone else makes me feel bad. In October of 2021, the WhiteFlag app launched. As the weeks passed from the initial launch, we creeped closer to the holidays, an impending dread settling within me. This year though, I had an additional set of armor for the first time. This year I had a community of peers waiting to listen. A community of people who let me voice my stress, my guilt, and my anxieties without hesitation of what they would think or if I was doing too much worrying about myself. A community who would LISTEN. WhiteFlag allowed me, for the first time, to process my emotions as I was confronted with them, and to realize that I am not alone in my struggles nor do I have to try to face them alone. I am forever thankful for the community of peers that has been built by WhiteFlag and the support that they have provided me.


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