real life

For 12 years, mum-of-six Kate had a secret gambling addiction. She lost $500,000.

Content warning: This story deals with gambling addiction and suicide could be triggering for some readers.

Nineteen years ago, Kate Seselja rang a crisis support service for the first time. She was deep in the throes of a gambling addiction, and did not know where else to turn.

But since gambling harm was relatively unknown back then, the advice she received was shocking.

"I was told, 'Just don't wear shoes. If you don't wear shoes, you won't be able to get [into the club or casino]. So you won't be able to gamble.' I was feeling so overwhelmed," Kate tells Mamamia.

"I felt like I needed rehab. If I was addicted to drugs, I could go, 'Please, I need help. I need rehab.' But I was told, 'No, there is no rehab [for gambling addiction]. And if there was, it would just be for men. So that made me feel like so I'm the only female that struggles with this.

"And it just made me not want to keep seeking help."

Listen: The Quicky, Mamamia's daily news podcast, delves into addiction to pokies. Story continues below. 


According to a 2021 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Australians lost $25 billion on legal forms of gambling in 2018-2019, representing the largest per capita losses in the world.

The social costs of gambling - including adverse financial impacts, emotional and psychological costs, relationship and family impacts, and productivity loss and work impacts - have been estimated at around $7 billion in the state of Victoria alone.

A staggering 7.2 per cent of Australians - that's around 1.33 million people - were classified as being at some risk of experiencing gambling-related problems in 2018.

Kate, who is now a mother of six and in her 40s, vividly remembers the very first time she played pokies. She was 18 years old and at a local club with her boyfriend.

"I remember hitting the buttons and the reels went around. And it was maybe two or three presses, and I won. I can't remember whether it was $100 or $1,000. It was significant. And I was just like, 'Whoa, that was unexpected'. And it made me curious to want to do it again," she recalls.

"My radar was then alerted to just how accessible gambling was around me. It wasn't even on my radar before that point. I suddenly noticed when I'd go to nightclubs, pubs, clubs - they were everywhere. And it's only gotten worse since the late '90s. I just think about kids these days. It's so accessible, but yet so profoundly misunderstood."

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The addiction to gambling came at breakneck speed. While Kate didn't seek out poker machines, they were conveniently at all the social spaces she hung at with her friends.

"The rate at which you lose money is $200 a minute, with you playing at a $10 maximum bet. I didn't start like that. It just slowly increased. And you're like, 'Oh, so if I bet more, maybe I'll win more'," she explains.

At that stage in her life, Kate was on a pretty basic income and would quite easily gamble her whole wage away in an hour. To feed her addiction - and hide it at the same time - she would borrow money from her parents and siblings under the guise of movies and dinners with friends. Her family was totally unaware of what she was really spending the money on.

After she met her husband, Phil, and the couple moved from Sydney to Canberra, the gambling seemed to stop.

"It felt like I was starting a new chapter in my life, like I left that in Sydney," Kate says. "But I really hadn't addressed it at all; I just kind of moved away from it."

Only one or two people knew at that point about her addiction, but they thought because she had moved on with her life, it wasn't ever going to be an issue.

"I think the basic social understanding of gambling and gambling harm then was... even as a user, there was no awareness. So as a concerned other, there were absolutely no pathways that people were aware of. It was just not part of the landscape at that time," she explains.

Kate and Phil on their wedding day. Image: Supplied.

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One day, while pregnant with her second child and at a mother's group in a recreational club, she heard it - the familiar sounds of the poker machines. It was a siren's call, and she fell back under its spell.

"I had money that we had in our account to build a house. It was from a loan... I ended up losing around $30,000 in a month," Kate says.

"I was sucked back into it. Thinking I would be able to control it. It's so hard to put into words; what happens when you're sitting behind the machine. The way it messes with you is something a lot of people underestimate. It's like, 'Oh, just don't do it' or 'Just move away from it'.

"But it's a mental hijack. There's no other way of describing it."

At every opportunity, Kate would feed money through the pokies. Every time she and her husband would refinance their mortgage, the banks would give them a credit card and she would spend the money on the pokies. This was usually around $4,000 at a time. The banks kept on supplying credit cards, knowing she was gambling the money away. Kate says one credit card went all the way up to $50,000 because the bank kept on topping it up by $5,000 every six months.

"Initially, I thought it was just me. But what I've learned since recovering is just how many people are impacted by gambling harm on a day-to-day basis... it's something the [poker machine] creators knew in the design - that it had power. They said, 'I've made the ultimate mousetrap'. It's diabolical. As the user, you're not aware of that. You think it's just a game. It's a trap," she says.

"The addiction is induced by two very intentionally designed ways: one by losses disguised as wins. So when you bet $10, the lights and sounds will go off like you'd won, but it's only $4. It celebrates you losing $6, but it's registered in your brain as a win. Now, that's an intentional design feature.

"The other intentional design feature is near misses. So the psychologists who create these machines worked out that a person will get the same, if not a bigger rush of an expectant win, rather than actually rewarding the person with a win. So the algorithm is designed with a massively high number of near misses to keep you thinking: it's the next press, it's the next press, it's the next press. Inducing that hypnotic state."

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Watch: Kate Seselja's TEDx talk about gambling harm. Story continues after video.


Video via TEDx.

In 2008, Kate saw a counsellor for the first time.

"She just tried to counsel me out of my marriage because she was divorced. And she was like, 'It's clear there's some dysfunction here'. I was just, 'Oh my gosh, this is not helpful'," Kate says.

"All of the gambling support that I had received was all about how much have you lost. No one offered any kind of understanding because the counsellors that I was speaking to had never experienced it."

By January 2012, she had put $500,000 through the poker machines. All that money was through credit cards and the mortgage, meaning her family was essentially half a million dollars in debt.

With this knowledge, and after a day of heavy losses on the poker machines, she decided to take her own life.

It's been 10 years since then, but it's still not an easy thing to talk about. Ultimately, Kate's hand was stayed by the life of the child growing inside her.

"It just comes down to me, fortunately, being pregnant," she tells Mamamia.

She begins to cry. "I was so grateful. And I will continue to be so grateful. Because I couldn't figure out how to take my life and not hers."

Kate, Phil, and their children. Image: Supplied.

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One of the most insidious aspects of gambling harm is that it is not only the addict who suffers - those closest to the person suffer tremendously as well.

"My husband was aware of [the addiction] throughout most of it, but he felt equally as overwhelmed in not knowing how to deal with it. I also hamstrung his ability to help me because I was feeling so much shame that I said to him, 'If you ever talk to anybody about this, I will kill myself'. So he felt like he was trying to help me by keeping my secret," Kate says.

"Eventually, when I almost took my life, he really supported me... No-one gets off unscathed. And that's the power of learning through the adversity that we faced and not defining ourselves by it. That's something that we've taught our children; that there's nothing in life that you can't overcome.

"And that was something that I really didn't believe was possible when I was going through it. I thought they would all be better off without me because I couldn't figure out how."

With the help of an understanding new counsellor, the future started looking brighter.

"The first step was me connecting with a face-to-face counsellor and her asking me incredible questions like, 'What do you like about you?' Things like that helped me to understand that there was a whole bigger picture then just 'Stop gambling'. She said, 'Do you know that there's free financial advice? That you can go to a financial counsellor?' And I was, 'Oh, no, I didn't know that'," Kate says.

"That was just such a game changer at helping us to feel that support around our financial situation, and come up with solutions and negotiate debt settlements, and have some of the debt forgiven because it was irresponsibly lent. And just to not feel alone in that side of things."

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After going through the lows of addiction, Kate now works as a recovery coach. She shares advice and tools on how to deal with gambling harm through public speaking and advocacy via her not-for-profit organisation, The Hope Project.

"I've found in the work that I've done and explored in understanding the relationship of trauma and addiction - this gambling addiction is unique in that it creates trauma. Because you have no idea of the danger that you're putting yourself in when playing, when engaging with gambling products," she says.

"So when you start experiencing it, you think, 'What's wrong with me?' And no one thinks to question the environment that's been created and socially accepted.

"I spent a decade wishing I'd never ever walked into a club. Hating that that had come into my life. As an 18-year-old, I knew full well if I bought a bottle of vodka from the Bottle-O and tried to drink it all by myself in one sitting, I would be violently ill or die. But to think I'm just putting money in a machine, who could know?

"One of the keys of stepping out of the shame that nearly killed me was to understand that as an 18-year-old young woman, I had absolutely no idea that all of that was at play."

Kate and Phil. Image: Supplied.

Telling her story is an important part of Kate's journey. That's why she is one of the people featured in an episode of SBS's Insight program. The episode is called 'Dealing with Debt: How do people get into debt, and how are they getting out of it?' and will air today.

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"This show around debt is focusing on the whole ecosystem that is feeding off of this exploitation of human vulnerability. Payday loans, the big banks, credit card companies, loan sharks, cash converters, it's a whole predatory system flowing on from this harm," she says.

"It just makes me so heartbroken that we continue to expose not only young people, but anybody can experience gambling harm. And it looks different for different people, and we need to not allow this kind of harm to continue without challenging its validity.

"It just breaks my heart that over 400 people a year take their life due to gambling harm. And I think that's a conservative number. So many families stay silent because they feel shame. And the shame was never the individual's to bear. It's never the families' to bear.

"The message 'Gamble responsibly' has come directly from the industry. And it's something that has changed in Canberra through the work that I've been doing in advocacy. We refer to it as gambling harm, not gambling responsibly, because the onus should never have been on the individual. We need to hold the industry and the regulatory landscape to account. Why are we allowing the harm to continue for the sake of profit?"

For Kate, there is an element of destiny to everything that has happened.

"I know that it's why I struggled to the extent that I did. So that I could know how to speak into the harm and help be that connector for people to seek help, to feel understood, to be met with compassion, and not judgement," she says.

"Because nobody ever intends for this to happen in their life."

The Insight episode on Dealing with Debt: How do people get into debt, and how are they getting out of it? airs tonight (Tuesday 28 June) at 8:30pm on SBS.

If you or someone you love is struggling with gambling addiction, help is available. For support, please call Gambling Help on 1800 858 858 or visit Gambling Help Online.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature image: Supplied.