Alchemy of Gambling

Issue 35 by Catherine O'Neill

Alchemy of Gambling

Ayn Rand once wrote, “You can avoid reality, but you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.”

July 2019, I attended my first International Women’s Writing Guild Conference at Muhlenberg College, Allentown, Pennsylvania. One of the workshops was called, “Alchemy of Writing: Nonfiction Forays into the Dark,” presented by Susan Tiberghien. By definition, alchemy is a natural science which tries to understand the mystery of nature, and there are three basic stages:

—Nigredo: the blackening, the firing and melting out, descending into the unknown.

—Albedo: the whitening, washing, constant distilling, bringing darkness to the light.

—Rubedo: the reddening, polishing, crystallizing into the golden flower, new consciousness.

The whole process threw me for a loop. I spent over forty years of my life in Nigredo, living in the darkness of the disease of gambling. Gambling is in my blood; I carry the ancestral glow of an epigenetic behavior which goes down to the bedrock of my DNA. If you didn’t gamble in my family, there was something radically wrong with you. I grew up in Ireland in a subculture of relaxed gaming laws. My siblings and I trawled the local beach for bottles to cash in their deposit and play the slots. My memories bask in the highs and lows of my father leaving the house for the track and returning with colorful stories from the wide skies of Irish horse racing. They seemed refreshing after the day before, Friday— payday when he brought home a brown envelope which contained his wages. The mood of my mother’s yellow kitchen changed as they frisbee’d the envelope across the table. Wimbledon—but no love in this game. Hooked on the action—the drama was steadfast until the envelope fell through the air and landed in his boiled haddock and milk. My dad, Mr. Cool, fished out two soggy large bills and ceremoniously laid them across the sugar bowl to dry.

“That’s it, that’s all there is,” he said. My mother ran upstairs, I on her tailwind. I spent so many Fridays watching my mother having a tantrum about money, disappearing to her bedroom and watch her pound her proud head into the pillow. I knew she was crying and wouldn’t face me. I promised myself I’d never cry. Sissies cried.

Memory is expansive when shared with a natural storyteller like my father. The times he sat me on his lap as a child and shared stories of Gowran, the Curragh, Fairyhouse, and the Tramore racecourse. There was always the story and the situation; the story moved forward and the situation lingered for deep thought. I have rich memories of us at the paddock cheek to cheek watching the beauty of thoroughbreds, the clip-clop of hooves as horses strut confidently before each race. Oftentimes my memory is of us near the finish line at the local races. I smell the waft of Old Spice on his overcoat, coated with the dampness of yesterday’s rain. He is whispering: “Watch the horse’s gait, are the hind legs coming down faster than the front legs? A foal born between January and March has stronger legs.” I am seven years old again, and convinced he is a genius, because he knows who sired who. Why the Agha Khan had the best stud farms. How and why Lester Piggott and Tommy Carberry were the best jockeys. Who the prized trainers are who could bring home the winner, the long shot. “See that fella with blinkers,” he leans in and points, “can’t be trusted, easily distracted, might even be a bloody nuisance and throw off the favorite.”

During my Nigredo, I experienced the invisibility of the disease of gambling. I became the quiet middle child, cosy in the complacency of giving up my wages and comfortable with running away from the chaos. I ran into the green fields as a child, showed up for school on Saturday, became a teenager who self-abused or self-medicated. A destructive pattern followed in college before I skipped town on a J1 visa to America with $50.00 in my back pocket.

The hardest part about growing up in a subculture of gambling is not the loss of money, but the loss of emotion and the distorted reality shaped by the disease of gambling.

Luck of the Irish, I married a non-gambler in Vegas and spent another twenty years in full meltdown Nigredo. I relaxed into a marriage with a problem gambler —my ritual avoidance of my mother’s anger. Money became the last thing I would argue or cry about. Blinkered by denial, I occasionally gambled into the dizzy hours with my spouse.

The disease of gambling also has three phases:

Recreational: The disease of gambling presents as social and fun— a day or night out.

Progression: The urgency to place the bet grows and supersedes all other life choices.

Recklessness: The gambler will lie, cheat, steal, kill and is at high risk to commit suicide.

Gambling presents as a social event, a time to meet old friends and make new ones. My early days of casino gambling were disguised in the glamour and glitter of being social and having a good time in lavish hotels, designer stores, fine dining and celebrity entertainment. I was on a hot date with my husband when we had shared our first win at Foxwoods casino in 1994. I call it his kindergarten $5.00 minimum bet at the blackjack table. Over a thirteen-year span of our marriage, I watched him graduate to a private room, one on one with a dealer at a $1000 table. Like most problem gamblers, it is the rush, the action. I never once questioned his casino trips. In his absence, I worked harder desperately trying to hold his admiration, his love, his invitation to gamble at the same blackjack table. I shared his denial believing I was playing with his casino winnings.

The casinos saw us coming in those early days. We arrived as winners with all the chat, wide smiles and the brightest eyes our faces could carry into muffled voices, shuffling cards, tinkling glasses in the plush landscape of velvet drapes, oil paintings, busy patterned carpet and dangling crystal chandeliers and blackjack tables. We sat upright as winners like yoga gurus, our bodies noticeably poised over other players, bantering and nodding in karmic confidence, not to be confused with the sloppy body language of the loser who slouched over his cards like a saloon drunk in a spaghetti western. Even as an introvert, a room full of strangers invigorated me on some autonomous level. I was addicted to the human expression which permeated a casino hall. I don’t believe there’s anywhere on earth where facial features teeter from euphoric highs to suicidal lows amid dealers and pit bosses who survey wagers, assess impulsiveness and conformity to gambling etiquette. I loved the rush of conflicting emotion, the drama, the tension. Maybe unknowingly, the chaos was all normal after growing up in the home of a compulsive gambler.

Gambling is never about the money; most gamblers lose their minds, their jobs, their families before they lose their shirts. It is estimated that at least seven people are adversely affected emotionally, socially, physically and financially by the gambler.

Gambling is multilayered and no two gamblers are alike. Some gamble for the action, others for escape. Many gamblers have a connection between gambling disorders and substance use disorders, and most studies indicate comorbidity extends to other obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as sex, tobacco, food and shopping. What most people don’t know about the dis-ease of gambling is that it is an emotional disease. One person cannot become a gambler without the help of another. Compulsive gambling can neither appear, progress nor maintain itself in isolation. Gambling can be arrested but never stopped. It would take me years to understand my mother and I were part of the problem. Gambling is a disease of denial and holdouts; one party reacts to the action, setting up a merry-go-round of denial and counter-denial associated with compulsive gambling. Similarly, no two persons exposed to gambling as a child are ever the same.

The hardest part about growing up in a subculture of gambling is not the loss of money, but the emotions I forfeited as a child which served to distort my reality. I became the cool teenager playing the slots with the adults in a shared cloud of smoke. I was my mother’s wild child, the runaway, defined by the wanderlust of being the middle child. I hitched all over Ireland to music concerts, ran off to France on the Magic Bus at age seventeen, worked in Dublin at eighteen, gallivanted around the country selling stuff nobody wanted, almost got arrested for singing Irish Rebel Songs on New Year’s Eve in Trafalgar Square. I thought I had settled down when I lived on the side of a mountain in County Kerry on a staple of Guinness and sex—that order too, I call this my organic phase. I played pontoon, the European name for blackjack, with the local bikers in my hometown Shamrock bar. My bets were based on the probability of the dealer showing a ten or a colored card. I won most times.

My Albedo began when I learned of my husband’s affair. I lived on a full tank of rage with a blend of psycho-anger for years. Wimbledon revisited— reminiscent of my mother’s tantrums when my Dad brought home his wages. Penniless and broken, I found Gam-Anon, a twelve-step recovery program for persons affected by another’s gambling. I slowly recognized an unsealed brown envelope meant my father had dipped into his wages to gamble. More memories flashed of my mother have me make the sign of cross on my lips not to speak as I studied stew stains across her apron and we listened to the rent man, the loan shark bang at the front door, long after my Dad had gone to the racetrack.

I attended many Gam-Anon meetings. With recovery came hope and an awareness of my warped emotions which helped shape my distorted reality. Writing a fourth-step narrative reshaped a fearless and moral inventory of the highs and lows of the winners and the losers across time and culture. His affair had unraveled a silence that sat like a submarine couched at ease in dark waters tugging. I knew those ropes so well, like a fearless trapeze artist. The familiarity of risk, the danger of teetering the high wire in American casinos and romancing the wide skies of Irish race meetings. Complacency. I loved the shadowed silence of my gamblers. I know now that silence is sometimes bridled to fear. Fear by default is the most disintegrating of all human emotions. I acted and reacted to scoop up fear in a shell-proof armor. Without the news of my husband’s affair, I may never have gone off the rails, never suspected gambling to be a disease, never understood how it travels in families and is progressive in nature. It prompted me to write— I needed to know how and why I had been affected.

The reality shaped after growing up with a compulsive gambler is masked by the inability to identify needs. It is the perfect storm to enable. I went to work at age thirteen with my mother. We worked hard for small money in hotels. I gave her my wages to make her happy, to stop the Friday tears. I gave my husband my paycheck in a family business to validate my love. It was easier to not deal with the money to avoid having to identify my needs. Without an emotional identity, I could help, but never ask for help. I either learned to live without or worked harder to give it all away. Eyes wide shut—I couldn’t fathom the progression of problem gambling in my marriage anymore than I could understand my unhealthy behaviors with money were related to the episodic moments of my parents’ marriage.

Research has revealed that if one of your parents is addicted to gambling, the odds are high that you will be as well. I had never seen myself as being at risk.

After a slow emotional burn of being replaced in the marriage and casino, I grappled to strip down this disease to its bareness and look at the raw seed without any husk of complacency or hardened shell of anger. I wanted to know if the disease of gambling is a form of cheating or a mental illness. Born into gambling, I felt a backdraft of lost emotions after I had played like a foghorn into a silence. There had to be a reason behind the isolation that silence brought. I wanted to know if one person could become a compulsive gambler alone without the help of another, and if the disease of gambling could survive, progress and maintain itself in isolation. I had spent over ten years writing a narrative about my Nigredo to trace a visible outline of the invisibility of the disease of gambling.

My Rubedo was my new consciousness of becoming self-aware. Gam-Anon helped to reshape my reality of who I was as a child and spouse. It taught me how to let go of my gamblers, the men in my life I had loved. I was flat broke when I decided to separate from my emotionally and financially abusive husband in 2008. I started looking for a job in the local tab and saw an ad for a letter writer. I talked myself into calling. The man’s voice on the phone was dignified when he said he could only pay $10.00 an hour. “If that’s okay, let’s meet,” he said and shared his address. I hung up and drove there that same day, pulling up outside an elderly housing complex. I thought it had to be a hoax. My life was so shitty at the time, I didn’t care. The only thing I hadn’t lost was my mind, and that only seemed like a matter of time. I buzzed the doorbell. Three stout blue-haired ladies who were knitting on white wicker chairs smiled without budging to open the door. I scowled back and pushed forward when the door buzzed to give access. I walked towards unit nineteen as previously instructed. A white cane with a red tip poked out of the unit door,

“Is that you, Catherine?” a man inquired. I stepped back to avoid his tapping cane. “It’s me okay,” I said, thinking this has to be a scam.

“C’mon in, I’m Fred, Fred Craver,” he said and rerouted his cane taps back inside. I followed and sat down next to the computer. He pinched up his tweed pants at the thigh and made himself comfortable on the chair beside me. The room carried a strong odor of Corn Husker’s lotion. He showed off his braille computer.

“That’s lovely,” I said and then corrected myself. “That’s great technology.”

“Do you mind if I put my hands on your face?” he said. He had to be totally blind. I panned his facial features with my hand just to be sure. Legally blind man in his early sixties with high IQ— I saw Ph.D. written behind his name on the coffee table book, Courageous Healing.

“Ah ah, okay,” I said, confirming I could easily take him. Fred patted his big hands around my face for a few minutes paying most attention to my cheekbones and jawline. “What the f.? I thought staring off at his blank walls.

“When can you start?” he gasped.

“Ah, Ah, is that your book?” I pointed and quickly withdrew my finger.

“Yes, I self-published, take that copy. How about tomorrow? I need to get letters out to Emily Rooney and Callie Crossley.” They were some hotshot radio hosts.

“Sure,” I said, “but I want to buy your book, how much?”

“Twenty dollars,” he said and I reached into my bag and slipped him my last twenty.

“So that’s a yes, you’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.

“Yes, you’ll see me tomorrow,” I said and palm-slapped my head. I visited Fred bi-weekly and earned $160 for groceries to feed me and our two children. The real perk was his tips to fully recover from traumatic experiences or feelings of anger and resentment. Tears were the cure-all according to Fred’s book.

I’d held back tears my whole life holding out for some non-sissy strength. After I read Fred’s book, I’d cry on long meditative walks. I showed up to work with tear-swollen eyes. I needed those tears to grieve the loss of my marriage. The healing power of tears, prayer and meditation empowered me to dispel my fears. It gave me the strength to stay separated from my gambling spouse, leave a family business and take responsibility for my finances—my future. I would spend my forties waking up to go to my first job before I went to my second job before I hustled to my third job and winding down to my fourth job. Over time, I wrote a narrative of my behaviors as the child who grew up with a gambler and married a problem gambler. I was nose- to-nose with the disease of gambling—the runaway who had run out of places to hide.

There are three different types of gamblers: the recreational gambler, the problem gambler and the compulsive gambler. All gamblers present as a recreational gambler—the progression of the illness is different for everyone. I had tagged along with my problem gambler husband and my compulsive gambler father, thinking I was a recreational gambler. There is no way of knowing who the recreational gambler will become. Winning that first bet is the worst thing that can happen for gamblers because it triggers that high—that dopamine rush scientists speak of. I may never fully understand gambling as an illness even after years in recovery. I had identified with my gamblers out of a fear of becoming my angry mother. She passed away in 2015. The woman who raised me in anger and put my father down every day of my childhood spent her last ten years sending him to the bookies to place her bets. This is the insidious nature of gambling—the Nigredo. I continue to go to recovery meetings because even after her death, the looming fear of becoming my mother pervades.

I disconnected from my gamblers in 2012. I was powerless over gambling. I feared society after the years of isolation with gamblers and as a workaholic. I had shared parallel traits and had similar weaknesses with my gamblers. Like them, I could seldom take care of money— it petrified me. I only knew the currency of ritual avoidance. Today, I am an outsider reshaping a distorted reality out of those warped emotions and the darkness of avoiding reality, my Nigredo. I have good and bad days, even though I know now that gambling is merely incidental. I lost the men I loved to the disease of gambling. There are no winners—only choices. On a clear-headed day, I keep my head in the clouds and think positive thoughts. I continue to go to Gam-Anon meetings to chip away at my Albedo. It is an ongoing reclamation and the consequences of avoiding reality, but I’m sure it’s all part of my spiritual hike—my Rubedo.

About the Author

Catherine O'Neill

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Catherine O’ Neill is a debut author working on her memoir, Zero Balance, about the effects of gambling and losing the men she loved to this disease. Catherine returned to her love of writing in her forties, graduating Grub Street Incubator program 2017, attending Bread Loaf Conference 2017. She recently received an honorable mention in an IWWG (International Women’s Writing Guild) literary contest, is published at CoveyClub and Write Angles Journal, was a guest reader at Tell-All Boston, January 2019 and guest speaker at Massachusetts Council for Compulsive Gambling 2019 Conference. She will attend Bread Loaf Sicily 2020.