Most gamblers play the odds to feel something, but Anna Bardsley did it to feel nothing. DANIEL TRAN investigates the hypnotic effects of problem gambling.
THE grief and frustration that normally demanded Anna Bardsley's attention faded to a dull ache as the poker machine whirred to life. The bright lights and wordless tunes had an almost hypnotic affect, and soon the aching reminders that her daughter was dead and her husband was consumed with anger were gone.
In the world of ex-gamblers, Bardsley is different. Unlike those who gambled for the rush, she played to escape.
"It was a way to cope with a lot of tragedy and trauma and aftermath of all of that which had gone on for years," she remembers. " I was trying to get away from something that was painful and when I went there, I wasn't feeling anything, [I] literally zoned out."
Playing the pokies was recreational family fun until Bardsley had a fight with her husband one night. Walking out to cool off, she opened the door to addiction.
"I went for a drive and the lights beckoned from the side of the road. Literally. I saw the flashing lights of the venue and thought I could go in there," she said. "And that was the beginning of the end."
Bardsley doesn't know how long her addiction persisted, but she does remember carrying around a Gambler's Help card.
"I used to just take it out and look at it. And I'd put it back in my purse and think, 'No, won't do it now'," she recalls.
But as she continued to suppress her doubts and to put off seeking help, other feelings emerged.
"The shame that you feel covers up any sense of self worth that you have. It's like a blanket that sits over everything."
Bardsley has written about her battle with gambling, and her account forms part of a collection of short stories in From Ruin to Recovery. The book, released by MonashLink Community Health Service, is a compilation of literary work from eleven ex-gamblers on their struggles with addiction. The book was the product of three writing workshops held at MonashLink by author and social advocate Arnold Zable.
Similar workshops have also been held for asylum seekers and Black Saturday survivors as a form of rehabilitation. "I'd come to see the power of story in creating self understanding," Zable says. "So there's the art of story and there's also, I guess, the healing power of story."
The first workshop was held at MonashLink Chadstone in 2011. The group comprised people from all walks of life — students to tradesmen and professionals.
"You begin from the premise that any one of us can be in this predicament, any one of us can become gamblers," Zable says.
The success of the program brought in extra funding to secure another two workshops that were run late last year.
Zable says writing about their struggles empowered former addicts.
"Once you get the techniques for storytelling, once you develop the skill, you're empowered to tell your story and you're empowered, I guess, perhaps to take more control of your own life.
"Instead of it being locked up inside, you're getting it out there. Once you start getting it out and expressing it, you begin to work it out."
For Bardsley, dealing with the shame through writing has been therapeutic. But she is one of only two authors who were brave enough to put a name on their story. The others used first names or pseudonyms.
"Shame lives in dark places. Shame can't live when you put light on it and that was why I decided to use my name," she says.
About $10 billion is lost on poker machines every year, according to the productivity commission. This is down from $12 billion.
But despite fewer losses, the Victorian InterChurch Gambling Taskforce says there are now more opportunities for addicts to take a punt.
"It's a great concern that we're seeing gambling appearing on Facebook, on phone apps, on all sorts of online applications. We're seeing aggressive marketing of gambling through sporting events," said taskforce chairman Mark Zirnsak.
"It's really been pushed on people and really seeking to penetrate into their lives. I think that's the gambling industry responding to the drop in traditional forms of gambling."
Dr Zirnsak said pokies venues were struggling to make themselves more appealing. " The data on losses suggests that less people — well, we know less people are gambling on the pokies. So in actual fact I think for a lot of people they have lost their appeal. But the disturbing part is you've still got I think a crusted-on group of people with gambling problems who are doing themselves a lot of harm. I definitely think that's still an issue."
While the length of her addiction still remains undetermined — the whole period is a blur and Bardsley continues to sort through her memories — she does remember eventually calling the Gambler's Help number. She had decided that she deserved to be happy.
"And I haven't looked back," she says. "It's been a difficult journey of unpacking all that stuff, but it was worth it."
Her advice to other gamblers is to take the leap and call the help line.
"Do what you can to reclaim your life because it belongs to you — it doesn't belong to gambling."