real life

While pregnant with her sixth child and financially ruined, Kate fed her last note into a poker machine.

Kate Seselja doesn’t believe in the concept of ‘recovery’. The Canberra woman hasn’t touched a poker machine in over six years, but there’s something about the permanency of the word – the way it forever burdens a person with their addiction – that doesn’t sit well with her.

“I’m a human being and I’m fallible, and that doesn’t make me different from anybody else who is in fact human and fallible. So to operate under a label of any kind makes no sense to me,” the 39-year-old told Mamamia.

“And so I decided I was ‘restored’.”

***

Kate’s restoration began in 2012. Over the previous 15 years she’d surrendered more than $500k into the chiming, lurid devices, and once again she found her self sitting before one at a local club.

After eight hours of spinning, ignoring the missed calls on her phone, she’d fed her last note into the slot.

“I really had lost hope that there was any solution,” she said. “You know, I’m financially ruined, mentally ruined, emotionally, and I’m feeling like I just couldn’t keep breathing anymore.

“But I was pregnant with our sixth child at the time, and I didn’t know how to take my life and not hers. So I felt even angrier that I was trapped in this hell that I felt like I had created.”

She sat alone, crying, overwhelmed, afraid to go home and have to tell her husband that she had “screwed up” again. Her phone rang, and this time she answered.

“Thankfully he called me and said, ‘Please, please, just come home.’ I just had no words left, none. I was just done. If he hadn’t have yelled at me, I probably wouldn’t have come home that day,” she said. “At all.”

“I just wasn’t able to walk away.”

Australians are among the world’s most prolific pokie gamblers. We have roughly 200,000 machines around the country, which equates to one for every 114 people – that figure is outstripped only by gambling meccas Monaco and Macao.

Our losses are world-leading, too. According to government statistics, of the $24bn we lost gambling in 2015-6, $12bn was on pokies.

But what makes these devices so potent? As Charles Livingstone, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, explained via The Conversation, it’s a combination of ubiquity (ease of access), intensity (high stakes and speed of each ‘spin’) and the characteristics of the machines themselves.

“Poker machines cultivate addiction by teaching the brain to associate the sounds and flashing lights that are displayed when a punter ‘wins’ with pleasure,” he wrote. “And since the pattern of wins, or rewards, is random, the ‘reinforcement’ of the link between the stimuli and pleasure is much stronger than if it could be predicted.”

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And as Kate noted, these lights and sounds go off for any kind of return; “So say you give $5 and win back three, the lights still go off. So it actually celebrates you losing two dollars. It’s tricking your brain into a positive reinforcement of a win.”

The symptoms of poker machine addiction, Livingstone noted, are similar to those assosciated with cocaine use.

Kate and her family. Image: Supplied.

Kate first fed a poker machine when she was just 18 years old.

"I was at the club with my boyfriend, and he was playing them. I sat down next to him and put $20 in and won $100, and I was like, 'Oh my God, that was easy.' I didn't understand at that time that a pathway had formed in my brain about what that feels like when you have a rush or a win."

A few years later she began playing on her lunch breaks, after work, on weekends, lured in by the sound of another player scoring a feature, of the idea that it was her turn next.

"Once I started losing more and more or feeling like I just wasn't able to walk away from the machine, it overwhelmed me and distressed me, but I didn't have an understanding of what that was," she said.

"And it's not like drugs or alcohol where people can see [the addiction] and its effects on you. You are just struggling alone, mentally beating yourself up over the money that you've lost or worrying about how you're going to pay for something or or hearing the sound [of the machine] in your mind, thinking about that next time you can go."

Though Kate sought help several times over the years, nothing worked. Her addiction reached its depths when, at the age of 32, she withdrew $10,000 against her mortgage and put it all into a machine. It was gone in a matter of hours.

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"Everyone makes mistakes, mum."

Being a mother compounded the guilt for Kate and thickened the stigma around her addiction.

"There were a few cases that made the news of women leaving their children in cars [while gambling] and things like that, and there was such public judgement on these individuals that I would feel like, 'Wow, I can never tell anyone that I'm struggling with this,'" she said.

But ultimately, it was her son who helped make the first inroads through that guilt.

"That morning after I almost didn't come home, he said, 'Mum what was going on yesterday? Dad couldn't find you. What was happening?' I just burst into tears and I was like, 'I don't even know what to say. I've made so many mistakes.' And he just looked at me and said, 'Everyone makes mistakes.'

"It was absolutely when I realised that I had just disqualified from that human category. You know, I had felt like I'd made too many. I had felt like I couldn't ever be okay again."

She sought help that day. Therapy and a group program called 'Smart Recovery' helped guide Kate through rebuilding her self-esteem and daily self care. But it's information she's since learned about they way the machines, the industry and the policy are stacked against players that she's found particularly empowering during her 'restoration'.

She now shares these tools with others through public speaking and advocacy via her not-for-profit organisation, The Hope Project.

"The Hope Project has been largely about proactive resilience, proactive well-being. In sharing my journey and being vulnerable what it does is create a pathway for other human beings to be vulnerable within themselves," she said.

"[It's about] pushing aside the facades that we've been so conditioned to think that we have to maintain. I want to try and stop people from getting to that crisis point."

By telling her story, she also hopes to encourage people to push for broader change.

"If we don't come together and rise against this very powerful industry nothing changes, and more and more people fall victim to it because they simply don't understand what is happening until either all their money is gone or the person is dead," she said. "That is the outcome, right now, of this addiction."

For 24-hour, confidential counselling, information and support, please call the Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858.

For more information about Kate's work visit The Hope Project website

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