Gambling isn't all Vision

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Meet my friend Joey. She's a young, north-west Iowa mother with three bright children, a good job, a devoted husband and a nice rural home.

She had it all - including a compulsive gambling problem that she hid from everyone for more than two years, including herself.

People like Joey are the driving force behind programs like "Vision Iowa." Their losses will ultimately fuel Iowa's new millennium-style development strategy.

For the legislature, it's pennies from heaven - money to hand out to build a massive sports arena and other things to keep constituents happy, without raising taxes to do it.

There's nothing terribly wrong with that concept, of course. If Iowa doesn't provide gambling, they will find it elsewhere. The revenue has helped the state immensely.

The philosophy in Iowa has been that if the money is put to good use, it erases any morality soil it carries with it.

But let's be honest with ourselves. Our state's "Vision" is built on lost grocery money, strained families and personal pain as much as on the joyous fun that the casinos show in their glitzy ads.

Joey finally found some help for her addiction. Now she's lobbying for the state to wean itself off the take from legalized gambling. Our local Senator, Mary Lou Freeman, also goes against the happy flow, suggesting to us that the legislature is "addicted" to gambling as much as is any problem gambler.

Officials of Northwest Iowa Alcohol and Drug Treatment Unit here say they see gambling addiction on the increase, although it's a problem you seldom hear about. For obvious reasons, it's one state officials don't particularly care to see brought up.

Joey knows, though. "I had lived here for about 10 years, and I had a wonderful family - I guess I'm not the stereotypical high roller. Living in the country, I sometimes felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. When a casino opened not too far away, I felt like I finally had someplace to go."

The employees were so nice, calling her by name, thrusting a drink into her hands the moment she got in the door. She didn't feel lonely any more.

Her visits became more and more compulsive, expensive, and common - eventually up to four late-night excursions a week. She left when it was dark and the kids had been put to bed, got back in time to make it to work. No one suspected.

"At first, the casinos make the payouts big. But that wasn't really why I gambled - I wasn't desperate for the money. The excitement was part of it, but it was really becoming my escape, my way of dealing with stress. I usually went while the kids were asleep, but sometimes I would start going in the daytime too if my day had been particularly tough. And I was going back again and again - alone."

Joey won a few jackpots - once as large as $5,000 - but she lost countless times for every chip she won. It was common for her to drop $500 a day, and the family's financial condition slowly deteriorated.

"You don't think that you are gambling away your children's college money. You don't think about anything but yourself when you are compulsive," she said. Joey reflects that when she was a regular at the casino, she never recognized problem gambling in any of the people around her. Only now does she look back at the people she knew in what seems like another life, and feel sad about what price they must be paying.

On Christmas Eve, Joey was watching television between gambling jags, and saw a show on "Women and Gambling." She was shocked to find that the show was about her - every symptom of compulsive gambling the show illustrated, she said, was as if they were describing her own life.

The show flashed a number, 1-800-BETS-OFF. She called.

Cured? There's no such thing. "You have to work every day at it. At first it was real hard, even resisting the pull-tabs and lottery stuff. I was angry a lot. Late at night, it was hard.

"People around you ask, 'Well, why don't you just quit?' They don't recognize it as an addiction."

Family helped Joey through the tough times. "I was one of the lucky ones. I realized that I had a problem, and that's half of it. I had three children, and I had to look myself in the mirror and admit I hadn't been a very good mother for them. I hadn't been a very good wife for my husband. I needed help to be Momma again.

"The old urges are still there, but I feel proud that I'm learning to deal with them instead of running away and hiding in the gambling. My husband told me one day that I'm the nice person again that he married 10 years ago."

Gambling revenue is doing a lot for us. Yet we should not lose sight, as my friend Joey says, of who will be paying the "toll."