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pokies Addicted to the pokies at age 18.

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When I think of gambling addicts, the images in my mind are of decrepit old men with fistfuls of slips at the races or pensioners in dated gaming rooms at soulless, suburban pubs.

I never thought for a second that I could become one… a gambling addict… at the ripe old age of eighteen.

Only six years ago I turned eighteen. I was never much of a gambler, save for footy tipping competitions with small stakes, but once I was of age this changed. It wasn’t exclusively booze that was legally at my finger tips, the bright lights of the casino beckoned.

My addiction cultivated itself from a combination of drinking, partying long hours and using the casino as a final destination in the wee hours of the morning – the 24/7 liquor license ensured we always had somewhere to keep drinking.

I’m certain I have an addictive personality which  combined with binge-drinking and party fatigue would culminate in a time out at a poker machine. The first time I lost a few dollars, but each time I would go back. Sometimes the casino, sometimes the gaming rooms at pubs, always the denominations increasing. The worst nights involved visiting the ATM more than once.

Poker machines are notoriously referred to as “one armed bandits”. Their returns are not great. There is no skill involved and you have to bet big to win big – they are there to take your money. I would mostly chase my losses until finally snapping out of the daze, realising what I had done and that all of my friends had long deserted me by the neon lights of the spinning imagery.

I knew there was a problem afoot when I would lie to my friends as to my whereabouts or wander between pubs for the sole purpose of popping into a gaming room and having a punt. Even writing this makes me feel embarrassed by my anti-social behaviour. I took a while to admit to myself that what I was doing classified as addiction. Leading up to the weekend I would stand in the shower, full of shame, and drill into my head that I would not gamble that weekend. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

There is no one incident that jerked me out of the gambling spiral, but I think I woke up one day feeling anxious with guilt and decided enough was enough.

I’m not kidding myself or anyone else thinking that my form of “gambling addiction” falls on the extreme side of the line. I was a single guy, no mouths to feed, parents who supported me, no rent, and no thousand dollar losses and my livelihood intact. However, there were many Sunday afternoons that the shame and guilt of losing money the night before grew in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford these losses, at that age I had a disposable income, it was more the loss of control I felt when reflecting on the hows and whys of my actions. I see myself as a level-headed and reasonable guy, these decisions I was making were neither.

In the early stages there was a lot of confusion. Did I have a problem? Could I tell anyone? What do I do about it? No one really warned me of the dangers that gambling brings. At school the message was always “Don’t drink!”, “Safe sex!”, “Don’t do drugs!”…. nothing about gambling. You can see how easy it is to fall into the gambling trap with no support network for someone my age. Additionally, turning on the television didn’t help. Every sporting telecast openly conveys the message that gambling is OK. The commentators give live odds, the constant betting advertisements… you can’t avoid them. At the pub poker machines are readily accessible. They combine one vice, alcohol, with the lure of gambling. How have we let this happen? When did gambling become so readily mainstream and acceptable?

On May 1, GetUp! launched an awareness campaign, targeting Coles and Woolworths, to inform their customers that by shopping at the big two supermarkets you are directly supporting their continued investment into life destroying poker machines. Who would have thought that these two companies own more poker machines than the five biggest casinos in Las Vegas combined. Scary stuff.

Good on GetUp! for standing up to the supermarket duopoly in Australia. The $1 bet maximum they are proposing is a good start but in a perfect world I would have all poker machines eradicated from pubs and sporting clubs. Of course they would cry poor, “we’ll never survive”, etc. But wouldn’t this put them all on the same playing field? Take away all the poker machines and see how venues evolve to survive. Maybe they could even invest in a live music scene? Shocking, I know.

I’m no wowser. People should be able to gamble, but why can’t we limit entertainment venues to one or the other – alcohol or gambling? My gambling problem stemmed from the fact that I would start losing whilst drunk and, by the time I sobered up, the damage was done.

We are at a cross roads with poker machines in Australia. Everyone knows they are bad news, but nothing drastic has been done. Here’s hoping that GetUp! can start a discourse in this country that leads to change, starting with $1 maximum bets and an increased focus on diminishing the number of machines in venues.

Now that I’m twenty five I am heavily against the idea of gambling, even having a cheeky punt on the Melbourne Cup makes me feel uneasy. But I can’t lie and say I will never gamble again. I have faulted and I will fault again. But that is OK. I guess admitting that I had and still do have a problem is part of overcoming the problem.

For advice and help, visit Gambling Help Online or phone 1800 858 858.

Mike Nicholson is a 25 year-old freelance media graduate from Adelaide. Check out his innermost thoughts on twitter here.

As MM publisher Mia Freedman tweeted this morning: “The coalition is worried that the schoolkids bonus will be spent on gambling yet they won’t support pokie reform.”

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