‘My partner is a gambling addict. And we’re only 21 years old.’

It was little things, small behaviours, that piqued Olivia’s suspicion about her partner.

When they’d go to bed, he’d angle his body away from her, shielding his phone screen from her view.

“That’s not like him at all,” the 21-year-old told Mamamia. “I’m actually the unaffectionate one in the relationship; he normally wants to be touching a lot, and so that sudden desire for distance kind of made me a bit concerned about what he was doing.”

It was nothing, he told her. Just Instagram. But one evening the Brisbane woman caught a glimpse of the truth; a betting app.

The deception struck a nerve.

“I’ve grown up in a household where lying is probably one of the worst things you can do to each other,” she said. “My parents have always had strict rules – we don’t lie. It’s just not right.”

The lie he told that evening was only the beginning.

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Australians are among the world’s most prolific gamblers. According to the most recent data, the average Aussie adult shelled out $1,272.81 in the year 2015-16, and our nationwide spend was $23.648 billion.

While all expenditure on all the main types of gambling increased compared to the previous year, the fastest-growing segment is interactive (ie. online) gambling – think app-based sports and race betting, for example.

Far from the stereotypical TAB-haunting retiree, interactive gamblers are more likely to be young men, and according to the Australian Gambling Research Centre, more likely to experience gambling problems than “traditional” gamblers.

Dr Kate Fennessy, Coordinator of the Gambling Treatment Program at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, said she’s observed a marked increase in young men seeking treatment over last five years. Part of it is access (largely driven by smartphones and ubiquitous advertising), but part of it is more ingrained.

“What makes it more difficult for young men is that they’re geared to have more risk-taking tendencies,” she told Mamamia. “The way that their brains are built makes them more prone to boredom and impulsivity, and those types of things can make them more vulnerable.”

Author Elizabeth Gilbert has four questions you should ask yourself before you let anyone into your inner circle. (Post continues below.)

For Olivia’s partner, it started with friends. A mate put him onto a sports-betting app, and together they’d wager on horse races, the results and occasional winnings fed instantly into the palms of their hands.

He’d never had any trouble walking away from a pokie machine or casino table, but with the apps it was different, Olivia said. There was no cash to withdraw, no card to pull from his wallet. Nothing tangible to reinforce what he was risking and losing.

The gambling intensified with the death of a close relative in mid 2017. “I think the betting became a escape from reality, from grief,” Olivia said. “He could pull out his phone and for a few minutes wouldn’t have to think about what’s just happened.”

When one credit card was maxed out, he moved on to a second. All over the course of six months. It wasn’t until January this year that Olivia finally learned the extent of it all. After multiple assurances he wasn’t betting, relapses, promises and remorseful tears, she discovered he’d taken out a personal loan from the bank to fund his habit.

“It’s caused a lot of hurt, and also disappointment. It’s disappointing that he lied to me for so long,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of fear. Fear of what he could have done to himself.”

Olivia’s partner lost $50,000 all up. After a complete confession to his family, his parents paid off his cards and loans, meaning he will spend the foreseeable future indebted to them – a slice will be taken from each and every paycheck until he’s square.

He’s also working on treating his gambling problem via an eight-week counselling program and is receiving grief therapy. He and Olivia will then undergo a couple’s course, so she can learn how best to help him in the future. But for now, she’s focused on helping herself, on grappling with the emotional fallout.

“The thing that would come into my head was that maybe I’m not good enough, or that he loved gambling more than me,” she said. “There’s no there’s no denying that it’s one thing that I’m constantly struggling with.”

Trust is another.

“We used to always talk about when we’d get a house and what suburbs we want to buy in and stuff like that. He kept talking about it after everything. But for me, I struggle to talk about the future now,” she said.

It’s not that she doesn’t think there’ll be one for them as a couple, just that she’s intent on taking things day by day.

“I have to remind myself that he did this because he has a disease; it’s no different to someone having a drug addiction or being an alcoholic. They’re not trying to hurt you. They haven’t got malicious intent.

“In the end, I genuinely think this will make us stronger,” she added. “I can’t imagine waking up without him. That actually would be worse for me than going through all this. I’d go through all of this again rather than lose him.”

Dr Kate Fennessy’s advice for loved ones of problem gamblers.

Warning signs: “Partners end up beating themselves up when [gambling problems] come to light, thinking they should have seen it, but it’s actually quite hard to detect.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint specific signs, but coming home late is one or, if it’s online gambling, always being on their laptop or phone. Also not being able to account for where their money is gone, always being distracted. Sometimes when people are trying down to cut down on gambling themselves they withdraw from it – almost like it’s a drug – so they become quite irritable and have difficulty sleeping.”

How helping can hurt: “Sometimes we see families or partners who have tried to patch up and fix that person’s problems again and again, and yet that person still has a gambling problem… They end up trying to kind of colluding with it because they’re financially assisting the person.
“So look at your finances make sure that you’re taking control of that sort of thing, because money is the lifeblood of gambling, and that person is showing you that they’re not able to manage theirs. Making an agreement around that is sometimes helpful.”

You can’t force help on someone, but you can give them information: “Treatment is very effective for people who seek it and stick through it, so making sure they have that information is important. But so is realising that you can’t make that happen for that person – it’s up to them.

“It’s a really difficult position to be in, because it’s that fine line between what you can control and what, at the end of the day, you can’t.”

Look out for yourself first: “Seeking your own advice and getting your own support around your partners gambling problem is really helpful. At the end of the day it’s about making sure that you also protecting yourself and relying on your own support and your own coping skills, because it’s a very stressful thing.”

For 24-hour confidential counselling, information and support for problem gambling please call 1800 858 858 or visit the Gambling Help website.

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