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"Mummy, can't Daddy buy you a poker machine?"

Gabriela Byrne

Gabriela Byrne is a community worker, a wife and a mother to two wonderful children.

I met Gabriela yesterday, when she spoke at a community forum about what she used to be – a woman addicted to gambling on poker machines.

For four years, the pokies came before her family, her children and her career. She describes her addiction as a ‘love affair’ — endless lies, constant guilt, wanting to stop but not knowing how.

“I would have done anything to stop, but when the beast talked to me I just wasn’t strong enough. I switched from Jekyll into Hyde and all I wanted was to feed the beast.”

It started innocently enough – lunch with a few friends, a quick spin on the pokies afterwards. She had never played before and found it quite boring.

A week later, after a fight with her boss, she slipped into her local and put a few dollars in. It took her away from her troubles and gave her some breathing space.

A few days later, she went back again. Within a few weeks, she was there every day – sometimes up to five times a day – whenever she had money in her pocket and a spare minute.

“While I was there my issues didn’t matter,” she says, “It was just me and the machine.”

Gabriela went from being a successful professional, loving mother and devoted friend to a shadow of herself – someone whose young daughter caught her stealing money out of her piggy bank.

That night, she sat slumped on her daughter’s bed, tears running down her face as her daughter asked her, “Mummy, can’t daddy buy you a poker machine so you and the money just stay at home?”

Gabriela’s story is one repeated all over the nation. The story of her children – and their desperation to get their mum back – is too.

A mother is trying to work out how she’ll get dinner after spending the week’s grocery budget. A mate is missing footy training after getting into ‘the zone’ and staying at the pub until closing. A colleague is distracted at work, knowing no amount of overtime can pay this month’s rent and last’s.

It’s often assumed that problem gamblers are a certain kind of person. They aren’t. They are doctors, nurses and teachers. They work with you. They make small-talk with you at your daughter’s netball game. They sit across from you at the dinner table.

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They certainly aren’t destitute, weak or stupid. Gabriela is none of these. She simply got stuck in a trap that thousands of Australians have found themselves in. Gabriella told herself, “I’ll just spend ten dollars tonight”, but it didn’t matter. She got in the zone and couldn’t get out, spending whatever was in her wallet, and then her bank account.

Now that Gabriela has recovered from her addiction, she helps others do the same. But she still lives with the damage her addiction caused – to her and her family. “They’ve all forgiven me, and I have forgiven myself,” she says. ”But nobody can give me the time back.”

Gabriela wants to see changes made to poker machines so that recreational gamblers don’t fall into the same trap she did. She knows counselling is helpful because it helped her. For Gabriela, counseling was helpful when she identified her problem – but after she had a problem, and after she was forced to confront it.

The Government is introducing pre-commitment technology to poker machines so that people have a tool, before they start gambling, to think about how much they are willing to lose, to set a limit and stick to it.

The research shows that people, including problem gamblers, do generally set realistic limits for themselves. But once they are in the zone, their limits go out the window. That’s what mandatory pre-commitment is about – helping people stick to a limit they set themselves.

For Gabriela, the affair with pokies has well and truly ended.

“When I look at a gaming machine now, it’s like looking at an old flame and thinking, ‘God, what on earth did I ever see in them?’”

But in pubs and clubs across Australia – venues that for most of us are a place to get together with friends and have a good time – some people are losing money they don’t really have and this is having big consequences for them and for their families.

We want to support those with a problem – but as Gabriela says, they will never get back this time. So we’d like to do what we can to make sure they don’t lose it.

To hear more stories like Gabriela’s visit Problem Gambling.

Do you know someone who has been affected by problem gambling? What do you think of the Government’s proposed reforms?

Jenny Macklin is the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs