“It was just a vicious cycle. I was paying for the things I needed, but then blowing all my money within a couple of days of being paid.”
So for me, it started when I was pretty young. I was 18, had finished Year 12 and I was doing pizza delivery in between finishing school and full-time employment. I had a mate that was running the pizza shop and when we finished our shifts at 11 or 12pm, we’d take our tips and go to the club after work and play the pokies.
I didn’t really drink. It wasn’t really my thing.
But this was something that I was interested in. I just liked the idea of going out with mates and having a bit of a flutter and trying to win more money.
I know one of the things that was a factor early on, was that when I was about 18, I won $1,000 on a poker machine and I was only doing a 60 cent bet. And I think that led me down a bad path in terms of me thinking it was better than it actually was. I had a couple of mates I would gamble with. Eventually, it wouldn’t be uncommon to put $300-$500 through in a few hours. For me, pokies was the start. It became a bit of everything for me.
I’d lose money on the pokies but I ended up putting big amounts on sports, and I’d go to the Casino as well. So I’d be down $500 and that would start the chasing – I’d go put $500 on roulette to try and get it back. And if you don’t, you might go again.
Over that next five years it was just a vicious cycle. On paydays I was paying for the things I needed to like bills and rent, but then blowing all the rest of my money within a couple of days of being paid. Then you have to wait a couple of weeks to get more money. That’s how you start to get yourself into a bit of a cycle because you’re always playing catch up.
“When you’re in the moment of gambling you’re like a different person. I could be so rational in some parts of my life, but in that situation I was a completely different person.”
I learnt about credit cards and that’s how I got into a lot of debt. I didn’t really like asking people to borrow money. But the banks gave me a credit card because I had proof of a reasonable income. You can get $9,000-$10,000 credit cards without even batting an eyelid.
My wage would pay the bills and if I blew all my money, the credit card was the fall back. Eventually, I started withdrawing cash from the credit card to fund the gambling. With a credit card you can quite easily withdraw cash at a high interest rate.
So my debt would have been upwards of $50,000 by the time those 6 or 7 years had come up. So that’s a lot of money to just be pissing up the walls gambling, for anyone but especially a young adult.
When I started to get a bit older and I was well aware that it had got a hold of me, I was calling up the banks and I didn’t say I had a gambling problem, but I said “Can you not let me do this, I don’t want to be offered credit cards, and I don’t want to be approved over the internet,” and they said “No, we can’t do it.”
I think that’s pretty wrong. During times when you’re not feeling strong, that can take advantage of you.
I didn’t have a specific moment where I realised it was a problem, but once I was around 23-24, I started to think – “This has been going on for a while now and I don’t really have a grip on it.”
The big thing that made me regretful was that I’d had full-time employment for 5-6 years and didn’t really have anything to show for it financially. I had debt as a result of gambling and that started to weigh on me. I thought, “Imagine what I could do if I didn’t have this negative thing in the back of my mind all the time?”
My Mum eventually found out about my gambling by chance. After that, she became much more interested in what I was doing. She was a big reason I ended up going and getting counselling and help.
As a single bloke, it was always hard for me to talk about. The counselling definitely helped. It was a place where any thoughts I had, I could get that off my chest.
When you’ve been so wasteful with money for a long time, you can see what good things you can do with money, like simply buying food and rent. It’s not money wasted, it’s a much better cause. Now I have a young family. I have young children. For me that changes everything. I didn’t have a purpose with my money before, whereas now I have to provide for my family.
I don’t know what the data shows, but pretty much all young blokes gamble. It’s rampant through young men. In school, you don’t get any education about the damage you can do as a problem gambler. It’s not really put on your radar at all, unless you have someone in the family. So, if you fall into that trap, you can get caught up in it pretty badly. It wasn’t like
I was a minority. I think it’s an epidemic. I don’t think it’s well known, how much of a problem it is.
Now I know that the pokies are designed to catch you and take your money. They make you feel like you’re winning or you’re going to win but you don’t; they always win.
If someone came up to you in the street today and said there was this thing called
a pokie machine and explained to you the concept of it, you’d tell them to bugger off. I still can’t believe they’ve gathered so much traction but it’s because they make so much money. They are the bottom line for a lot of clubs and governments so they’re not going to get rid of them anytime soon.
Slogans like “set a limit” or “gamble responsibly” – they‘re just words on posters and every pokie machine. They never really resonated with me.
When the clubs talk about their contributions to the community, that means nothing to a gambling addict. If you’ve lost thousands and thousands of dollars, what does that mean to you?
There’s not enough done in a venue to identify problem gamblers and then do something about it. I never once, in my whole 7-8 years of bad gambling, had someone come up to me and say, “I think you should stop” or “Do you have a problem?” or “Do you want to talk to someone?”
Yes, it does come down to the individual, but more could be done to prevent people from losing so much money in one night.
You could have 24-48 hour periods where you can’t withdraw money. Also, having limits on ATMs and you shouldn’t be able to get more money out over a teller if you’ve exceeded the set ATM limit in a club.
$1 bets sound like a good idea to me. For example, the most money I ever won on a pokie machine was about $3,500 and that was on a feature – on a $4.50 hit. Also, maybe removing the functionality to be able to bet your wins on the pokies. If you couldn’t gamble your wins, I don’t think I would have gambled as much. Those big wins or the chance of having a big win gave you a rush.
If I was speaking to the decision makers responsible for gambling, I would say, “What if this was your kid or someone you know?”. The long-term damage problem gambling can cause and the impact it can have on an individual, their family and friends is profound. It can ruin your life and be the start of other problems like substance abuse, violence, crime or even homelessness.
Mitch’s Story was first published in ‘Stories of Chance’ by the ACT Council of Social Services Inc.