The Secret World Of Female Gamblers – Chatelaine

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GAIL ONLY WANTED a snack. On the nearly four-hour round trip from home in the Kootenays to visit her father in hospice care in Penticton, stopping partway at a gas station was a ritual, a break from the British Columbia backwoods racing by her. But while paying, the clerk had a question: Would you like to buy a Lotto 6/49?

About two decades ago, when she was in her 30s, Gail started gambling online on offshore sites. (Gail, as well as the other recovering gamblers in this story are identified by first name only to protect their privacy.) Her teenage daughter had been assaulted, and, with her husband emotionally guarded and working in another city, she felt alone navigating this crisis. “I slept with her every night for six weeks,” Gail recalls. “I walked her everywhere. I couldn’t leave her home by herself because she was scared.” Gail started playing online slots in an attempt to escape reality. Yet as her daughter’s life resumed some normalcy, Gail’s new habit persisted. Sometimes she conceded it was a problem and thought about trying to stop.

“But the fear of losing my family and my marriage froze me,” says Gail, now age 59. “And there was still that voice in my head that kept saying, ‘You can fix this.’”

Gail reigned over the household finances, and she could shuffle funds around to hide her habit—until one day she crunched the numbers and realized her family was in financial trouble. As she weighed telling her husband and children, she tallied the financial impact of her gambling at nearly $500,000. Home foreclosure and vehicle repossession seemed imminent. “Gambling had completely and totally taken over my life, my ability to make decisions, my every movement,” she says. In 2020, almost 20 years after she began gambling, she revealed her addiction to her family, including her husband who had recently retired early.

“I had to tell him that our house that he thought was paid off had three mortgages on it,” she says. As Gail expected, she was ejected from life as she knew it. Her 37-year relationship ended. Her son stopped speaking to her. Gail’s daughter—“my best friend,” she says—was supportive, letting her move in for a few months as she picked up the pieces and started anew. 

So on that weekend morning in May 2023, no, she did not want to buy a lottery ticket.

Gail complained about the ask to the British Columbia Lottery Corporation, though she says the representative downplayed what happened. It was probably an upsell for a large jackpot, nothing more. Gail countered that clerks do not know who they’re offering tickets to. Though the store also sold liquor, they weren’t upselling mickeys of vodka. “Why are they offering lottery tickets to me—that’s like offering an alcoholic alcohol?” she wondered.

About 2.6 percent, or about 416,000, adult Canadian women are either at-risk or problem gamblers, according to the 2018 Canadian Community Health Survey—nearly equivalent to the most recent census population of Halifax. Once viewed dismissively as a bad habit, gambling has now been enshrined as an addiction disorder in the fifth edition of the DSM published in 2013, the leading global diagnostic manual for mental health issues. 

Though gambling has been considered a male affliction for most of history, that’s no longer the case. In 2019, Swedish health authorities announced women, at 64 percent, represented a majority of gambling addicts in the country, compared to only 18 percent in 2015. They attribute the rise to online gambling. In recent years the legalization of single sports betting in Canada, as well as Ontario approving privately owned but government-regulated online casinos has led to billions of dollars in wagers for the newly expanding industry. This surge in legalized online gambling opportunities is already affecting women: In March, a group of researchers from Quebec published a paper that revealed an uptick in Canadian women gambling online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And gambling addiction afflicts women differently than men—in everything from how and why they gamble, to stigma and challenges that may impede recovery if not addressed. As provincial governments double down on profit-making online gambling ventures, paying attention to the impact gambling has on Canadian women is not only overdue, but more critical than ever.

IN 1988, MARY Lou Strachan, then a criminal justice student, attended a conference on problem gambling at the Golden Nugget Las Vegas hotel. Strachan, a former flight attendant who had once written a bad cheque to feed a gambling addiction, noticed something odd. There were no statistics presented on female gamblers.

She asked Dr. Robert Custer, one of the conference speakers and a clinician in her recovery program, about this and an opportunity emerged. Strachan, Custer and two other researchers went on to co-author the first major North American study into female gamblers. Strachan did the leg work, visiting Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings across the city to survey women in attendance.

Among their findings, published in 1989: 69 percent of female gamblers had contemplated suicide, 36.5 percent had stolen funds from employers and 10 percent had engaged in sex work to fund their gambling. The results were widely reported. “That goes to show how hard up we are for research on compulsive gambling,” Strachan said after the study’s release. “Here’s a person with one year of recovery from compulsive gambling and no prior research experience being treated like an expert on female gamblers.”

It’s not much better today. Tracie Afifi, a professor at the University of Manitoba’s Max Rady College of Medicine, says the research gap still exists. “We know women still struggle with this and it has a significant impact in their life,” she says. “It still is an important public health problem.”

In 2008, she completed a PhD thesis on women gamblers in Canada, “the first comprehensive nationally representative investigation of women and problem gambling,” she wrote. Among the topics she researched was how Canadian women’s experiences with problem gambling affected their mental and physical health and their help-seeking behaviour. Studies suggest women are more likely to seek help for emotional problems than men and Afifi identified several examples in her thesis where women made up a third to nearly half of treatment-seeking gamblers. Yet it’s also widely recognized that women face unique challenges in getting help with gambling addiction. One 2022 study, led by researchers from Australia’s Deakin University, suggests a “disproportionate focus” on male gambling behaviours plays a role, furthering gambling stereotypes and stigma that prevent women from recognizing risks and seeking help.

This was important, in part, because of the feminization of gambling she and other researchers observed in prior years. That means games—like video lottery terminals—were designed to be more socially acceptable and appealing to women. Casino patrons might notice slot machines, for instance, with TV show themes like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Sex and the City.

Afifi’s interest in the topic developed when she noticed that gambling research either focused on men or was genderless. “It probably doesn’t make sense for us to use research that’s conducted on men specifically or men and women combined and think that is applicable to women,” she says.

For instance, researchers have identified that women may develop gambling addictions later in life and more quickly than men do. Many women also gamble to escape, whereas men often do it seeking thrills. If gambling puts an end to a marriage or relationship, women tend to suffer more household income losses than male partners. Gambling debts can further compound this and can create further challenges and disadvantages if they have young children. These factors mean women experience gambling differently and need different kinds of prevention and treatment strategies.

In the past, female-focused public health campaigns against smoking reduced rates dramatically. Gambling could similarly benefit from a health campaign. But we don’t have this evidence base in Canada, despite gambling becoming a multi-billion-dollar, legal industry. Despite provincial- and national-level research groups focusing on women’s health, these initiatives typically focus on broader issues like sexual and reproductive health research. Even the $20-million National Women’s Health Research Initiative, which was launched in 2022, doesn’t mention addictions on its website, let alone gambling, when describing its mission.

Afifi, who now focuses her research on child abuse, says gambling didn’t previously fit comfortably in major funding source frameworks like the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) or the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). For instance, researchers considered gambling a risk behaviour rather than a health problem, precluding it from CIHR funding, according to Afifi. While some Canadian funding agencies have recently announced funding opportunities for gambling studies, the results are unlikely to close knowledge gaps about women’s gambling. Few Canadian researchers study the impacts of gambling compared to other potentially addictive behaviours like substance use, Afifi adds. In their absence, advocacy needs to be used to collect and share information, though no major national or provincial organization exists with a specific focus on women’s gambling.

Though every province and territory offers some free addictions counselling, depths and limits vary, and it is often more fulsome for alcohol or drug addictions than gambling. This means gamblers are largely left to assemble recovery solutions themselves, however they can afford—or not afford—to. Those with financial means or an insurance plan may seek private counselling or attend a residential rehab program. Others may seek free GA meetings in their community. The program’s traditional formalities, like adherence to a 12 step recovery program, aren’t flexible enough for some recovery-seekers. Because the only membership requirement is a desire to cease gambling, men often make up a majority of meeting attendees too. Only a small number of global meetings advertise themselves as “women-preferred.”

“When I went to GA it was a room full of men, and there weren’t other women sharing their experiences,” says Christina, a recovering gambler from Oklahoma. This made her feel a lack of connection, which inspired her to found The Broke Girl Society, an online recovery community and podcast. There are a few such groups—peer-led accountability communities, a modern twist on recovery meetings. Women from around the globe have joined, and Christina estimates about a fifth of her Facebook group is Canadian.

Christina has had hundreds of conversations with female gamblers and says one commonality she notices is women gamblers are often the primary caretakers of their families. Adrienne Cossom, a Metro Vancouver gambling counsellor, says this represents an enormous challenge. “If a woman is overwhelmed with caregiving in her life, either for older generations or for kids, and then you throw the stress of gambling in there, perhaps that opens up mental health issues.” Researchers have linked compulsive gambling to worsening anxiety, depression, self-esteem and stress.

“There’s something so different about people coming together with lived wisdom and lived experience,” Cossom says of groups like Christina’s, though she encourages women to use them as complements to traditional counseling.

Cossom also notes gambling addiction stigma affects women differently, and women are rarely open about gambling with friends and loved ones. Gail is particularly frustrated by this imbalance.

“Men gamble on the golf course, for gosh sake, when they do business,” she says. Yet for women it’s cast as a dirty, hidden secret. This stigma, based on society’s expectations of female responsibilities to the home and family, creates an additional feeling of failure beyond the problems caused by gambling, she says.

Illustration of slot machine display, showing two 7s and a cherry - female gamblers in Canada

THOUGH JULIE’S FATHER wasn’t a gambler, she’ll never forget the day he accepted an invitation to the horse track. Julie, then aged five, was allowed to tag along and pick a horse to bet on. It won. As she grew older, attending races with others became a source of entertainment. She liked to collect everyone’s money and place the bets. “I knew deep down inside that I was different because I would go crazy,” she recalls. “I was the one who would always put more money in.”

Gambling didn’t become a problem for Julie until midlife, when she moved to a remote B.C. island with a nearby casino that was at first a magnet, then a frequent habit, then a blazing distraction.

It took about 45 minutes of travel by ferry and vehicle to get to the casino. Sometimes while playing, she would lose track of time, missing the last ferry. “I slept in my truck one night,” she recalls. “Thank god I had an emergency blanket to keep warm.”

One night in 2016, as the casino was closing, Julie and the stranger playing next to her looked at each other, as if to say why are we still here? The woman offered Julie a room at her house that night. Though she gratefully accepted, Julie felt unsettled. “I decided to go back the next morning, and I didn’t want to have a shower,” she says. “I wanted to go as grimy as I felt and walk in and self-exclude.” (Casino self-exclusion is a self-imposed ban, typically lasting from a few months to several years, or in Nova Scotia, indefinitely if desired.) About two years into Julie’s three-year self-exclusion, she went back in, unnoticed. Only in June did British Columbia started requiring ID at the door to support the program.

Julie also struggled with online gambling, playing long into the night and even at work. She would take her iPad into the bathroom in spare moments while on the clock. When visiting her family, whom she loves dearly, she could hardly wait to go to bed so she could gamble. “It was such a bizarre time of my life when I think about it,” she says.

Quote: “We’re still struggling with issues around being invisible,” Julie, a recovering gamblers, says—both as a woman and as a woman now in her 70s.

It wasn’t until the third time she attempted recovery that she felt it worked. By then Julie felt it was crushing her core values. She had broken the promise to her partner never to gamble online, and had borrowed money from someone who didn’t know about her gambling addiction. That’s to say nothing of the financial impact on her and her partner’s retirement plans. In November 2019, Julie met with a provincially funded counsellor she felt could help with her feelings of guilt and shame. “When I was able to perceive that this person was stronger than me, then I knew that they could carry this weight I’d been carrying.” Emboldened by this connection, she committed herself to recovery nearly four years ago.

Today, Julie loves her post-gambling life. Her relationship with her partner has deepened, and she’s had three visits from recovery “sisters” she connected with online through being a member of Christina’s group. “I would not trade this recovery in for anything,” she says.

That doesn’t mean it’s always easy. “We’re still struggling with issues around being invisible,” she says—both as a woman, and as a woman now in her 70s.

“When you are younger you’re more resilient, you have the ability to believe more in yourself,” says Lisa, another member of Christina’s group. It’s one thing to recover from gambling at a younger age, she adds, but when women are older with a mortgage and about to lose a long-term, well-paying job, it’s an extra degree of worry.

The last few years were challenging for Lisa. Her sister passed away and there was a lawsuit related to her estate. She also had cancer-preventative surgery and lost her job all during the pandemic. She had previously attempted to stop casino gambling, but returned when her most recent three-year self-exclusion was up in April 2022. “I spent the next four days at the casino and the amounts I was losing were just more than I’d ever lost before.”

The following month, Lisa entered recovery during a sick leave from her job, which meant she had benefits to put towards cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavior therapy. She recalls being asked about alcohol and drug intake by her doctor but never gambling, despite presenting with serious mood swings and other co-morbid conditions like anxiety and depression.

“I was off for 10 months on medical leave before I even decided to come clean with my family doctor,” she says.

Doctors asking about gambling represents a potential step forward to helping female gamblers in Canada come out of the shadows. “It’s so essential that family doctors, mental health agencies in particular, and substance use providers are all asking about gambling addictions,” says Cossom. This also helps people affected by someone else’s gambling as a parent or partner.

It also requires avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach. One of Julie’s counsellors realized it would be beneficial for her and her partner to have couples counseling. She wouldn’t have been able to afford this, but her counsellor, whom she was connected with through the province, sought special permission to offer it. Even though it was only 90 minutes biweekly, it made a huge difference to her recovery. “It literally saved our relationship,” she says.

“The importance of women-specific support is that we really get to line up all the different issues that women face that are different from men,” says Christina. For instance, she notes many women fall into gambling during menopause or their empty-nesting years.

After more than three years of online recovery meetings and counselling and finding a community of other women gamblers, Gail now has an entirely different life: a new job she enjoys, a partner who likes to spend time outdoors with her and two teenage step-daughters who live with them half-time. There are even three Scottish terriers, and hopefully, a litter of puppies later this year. She’s at peace with her new life and says she is still friendly with her ex-husband. “I know I wouldn’t have a successful recovery had I stayed in that relationship,” she says.

Recovery is not a bed of roses. While about 90 per cent of Gail’s debts were settled with the sale of her home, the balance was consolidated into a loan she makes monthly payments toward. Retirement will have to wait. At her request, Gail’s partner controls her bank account to make sure she doesn’t go back to gambling. Though she worried she would have to navigate difficult life events like her father’s passing without using gambling as an escape, she marked three years gambling-free about a month after his death. Gail has even recently started taking courses to become certified as a Peer Support Worker, specializing in gambling addiction. She is grateful to have her recovery sisters for support, women like her who have been to hell and back. “And not only have been to hell and back but are successfully living a good, happy, honest life in recovery,” she adds.

Gail loves that this group of women she’s met recover from gambling alongside each other. They understand the problems each other has faced in ways few others can.

“They have sat right in that puddle of shit and found their way out—and they’ll help you out too.”

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