Potential for addiction troubles therapists

December 06, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Every day, Diane wakes up with the urge to gamble.

As a teen-ager in the 1940s, she made side bets on pool games. In her 20s, she discovered the race track, making $150 on her first $2 bet. Then in her 40s, she found the poker machines.

"Intellectually, I knew I could not win," says Diane, who doesn't want her real name used. "But it was like a magnet, I could not quit."

She is not alone in her addiction. An estimated 130,000 Marylanders have a gambling problem, according to a 1990 study by the state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration. The report, which has the latest figures available, estimated that compulsive gamblers cost the state $1.5 billion in lost work productivity or theft, the study said.

Those who treat people addicted to gambling are fearful that problems will increase with the introduction of keno games by the State Lottery Agency in January.

"We're moving from low-intensity forms of gambling to high-intensity forms of gambling," said Joseph Ciarrocchi, a consultant for a compulsive gambling treatment program at Taylor Manor Hospital in Ellicott City.

High-intensity gambling such as race track betting, poker machines and keno is addictive because it gives players instant gratification, Mr. Ciarrocchi says. He also faults the state for TC planning to offer the games in bars, creating the added risk of accompanying betting with alcohol.

Valerie Lorenz, director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, says the highly visible keno also will send a dangerous message to youngsters. "Our concern is that it is telling people to gamble," she said.

Keno supporters say the game is not especially addictive.

Carroll Hynson, Maryland Lottery spokesman, said agency officials do not believe keno will be any more addictive than other lottery games. "I personally have played the game and don't find it that captivating," he said.

He likened keno to putting coins in a juke box -- a diversion while socializing in a bar or restaurant. "I disagree with the idea that it will have a hold on a person," he said.

"Some people always overspend," said Charles W. "Stokes" Kolodziejski, a Democratic delegate from Anne Arundel County who supports keno. "But I believe overall it will be good for the state of Maryland."

Mr. Lorenz and Mr. Ciarrocchi likened keno to poker machines in their availability and payoff. Although it is illegal to bet on poker machines in the Baltimore area, gamblers know which bar owners will pay, and Gamblers Anonymous meetings are filled with poker machine addicts.

Given addiction with poker machines in this state, legal keno has the potential to be even worse, Mr. Ciarrocchi said.

Alice, a recovering addict who played poker machines, said she understands the lure of keno although she has never played it. "That could drive you berserk," said Alice, who asked that her last name not be used,

She hasn't gambled for eight years, but she remembers vividly the exultation and despair she felt while playing the poker machines.

She started gambling $10 rolls of quarters. She ended up going through a $277 paycheck in one sitting.

"I don't know where I crossed that invisible line from fun to compulsive gambling," she said.

She became so desperate, she said, that she considered suicide. "I knew I had to either find help or jump off a bridge," she said.

She enrolled in Gamblers Anonymous and continues to go to meetings weekly. She expects that she will have to go to these meetings for the rest of her life.

Although Diane has no experience with keno, either, she said that if the game had been available when she was gambling she would have wanted to play it. "It's that instant high," she said.

Her gambling addiction was so bad that despite working two jobs, seven days a week, she still accumulated huge debts. She played the lottery and bet on horses. She would leave her evening job and drive to Atlantic City to play the slots a half hour before the casinos closed.

Eventually, she lost thousands of dollars. Her husband divorced her. Her health deteriorated.

Her voice still breaks as she recalls how she resorted to selling drugs to support her gambling habit. "I have reproached myself so many times," she said.

She was caught and sentenced to prison, but even then her thought was to get out so she could gamble.

Although she has not gambled for more than a year, each day is a struggle to stay away from betting, said Diane, who now attends Gamblers Anonymous meetings. "I tell myself, I won't gamble today. Maybe tomorrow. I keep putting it off."

Mr. Ciarrocchi and Ms. Lorenz say they are frustrated that the state is about to embrace a new form of gambling without adequately funding addiction treatment programs.

Currently, the state gives $24,000 toward the gambling hot line operated by Ms. Lorenz's center and publishes the phone number on the back of lottery tickets.

"It's absolutely unconscionable that they [the state] will not put money into treatment," Mr. Ciarrocchi said. "Especially when gambling addiction is a direct fallout of gaming."

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