A Hidden Addiction: Arnie Wexler

pexels-photoMillions of people like to gamble, whether it be casino-style games or lotteries. For some gambling is an addiction, a sickness just like alcoholism or cancer, that can destroy lives.

It is hard to cure a compulsive gambler, but there are doctors and counselors who work with people whose lives have been turned inside out by their quest to win the big one.

Arnie Wexler is a reformed compulsive gambler who now runs a hot line for addicted gamblers. He says gambling nearly destroyed his life.

“I was running around at that time of my life wishing and praying I had enough guts to kill myself. I thought that if I killed myself and left my wife with $5,000 of insurance money and two kids in the house, it was the only way out of this mess,” Wexler says.

Experts say compulsive gambling is a real illness.

“The addiction to gambling is different in that it’s purely a behavior. It’s not an addiction to a chemical or substance, but it involves a similar process, in that it’s a compulsive behavior that the person has no control over,” says Maimonides Medical Center clinical psychiatrist David Yamins.

Because there is no chemical or substance, gambling is an invisible addiction. There are no telltale physical signs, no track marks, no smell of alcohol. Wexler says that is what makes the compulsive gambler so elusive.

“I’m gonna tell you that I’m recovered 31 years, and you don’t know I just didn’t come from buying 1,000 lottery tickets or calling my bookmaker before you walked in here, or I just didn’t get back from Atlantic City an hour ago,” says Wexler.

What drives the compulsion to gamble? Yamins says it is the thrill. “They’re holding onto the myth, the idea that they’re gonna hit it with one big turn of the wheel, or one big play of the slot, that they’re gonna correct all the trouble with their life.”

Many compulsive gamblers do occasionally have large paydays. Wexler had a few, but that only made his problem worse. “I chased that big win every day of my life, figuring that I can do this again,” he says.

Even though compulsive gambling is a legitimate medical diagnosis, treatment is not covered by insurance. Society views gambling as a behavioral problem that people should be able to control. Experts say this policy is unlikely to change until society accepts compulsive gambling as a real disease.

Source: CNN News, “Gambling Addiction as Real as Alcoholism.” June 18, 1999.