I’d lie awake, pokie music running through my head
Everyone’s talking about poker machines these days. Our politicians and our newspapers, our clubs and pubs; everyone has an opinion on what we should and shouldn’t do with regards to the pokies. But they’re talking about numbers and policies, votes and strategies and campaigns.
They’re not talking about the people who have been hurt, who are hurting still. People like me.
When I was 24 years old, I had the world on a string. Life was mine for the taking. I was engaged to be married and surrounded by fantastic friends; I had my university degree framed on the wall, a great job and excellent prospects. But by the time I turned 25, life as I knew it was over. I was addicted to poker machines.
It started innocently enough: dinner with my fiancee’s family at the local pub. Afterwards, they decided to pop next door to the gaming room, so I tagged along. I’d never played the pokies; this was 1995 and they’d only reached Victoria a few years before. I’d never been interested. But I found myself in that room, and decided to give it a go.
We played for a couple of hours, and you know what? It was fun. I was with people I knew, trying something different, and when the machines did pay out it was exciting. We finished the evening in front, not by much, but enough to cover the cost of dinner.
So far, so good. But even then, there was a warning sign that I missed… one thing I remember all too clearly is that I didn’t want to leave. If only I’d known what that meant.
A week or so later, I was on my lunch break. I worked in IT (still do, in fact) and after spending the morning at my desk, decided to walk into the city for some lunch. On the way, I passed a pokies venue, and stopped.
Why not?, I thought. Just a bit of fun. And in I went. When I walked out hours later, I had missed two meetings and lost $200. I told no one.
The next day, I was back there again. And the next.
For me, that’s all it took. I threw my life away a day at a time, threw my savings away, my relationship, my friends, everything I had, because I could not stop playing the pokies. I had everything to live for, but none of that mattered a damn.
I kept the secret, kept it so well that it was three years before the lie I was living was exposed. In three years, I blew close to $100,000 on poker machines.
I still can’t explain how it happened, but something in them spoke to me. I would lie awake at night with poker machine music running through my head. When I wasn’t playing, I was thinking about playing. I didn’t want to go on, in fact I was desperate to stop… but none of that counted for a damn thing.
There were days when I would play before work, again at lunchtime and then drop in for a quick $50 on the way home. I would see the same people in the same venues, day in, day out. We recognised each other, fleeting eye contact or a brief nod, but we never acknowledged each other. We weren’t there to be social. We were feeding our demons.
No matter how much I wanted to stop, and believe me I wanted to stop… most days I couldn’t relax until I was sitting at the machine, feeding my money in. Then everything else would fall away, and my world would shrink to just me and the machine. That was, paradoxically, the only time I felt in control.
Don’t ever doubt the seriousness of this addiction. I have never been a gambler, and gambling in general still doesn’t interest me. But at the depths of my addiction, I found myself sitting in my lounge room, trying to decide between a rope and a length of hose over the exhaust pipe. That was what my life had become; choosing which way to end it.
Yet I survived… and eventually, I did break away. By then, I had lost everything and everyone; I thought that was rock bottom. That is until two years later, when I relapsed and came dangerously close to losing the life I was struggling to rebuild. That was my last relapse; I haven’t played since.
I hear people talk about poker machine addicts, and they talk about the poor, the stupid, the lazy. I would argue that I was none of these. But poker machines don’t discriminate; anyone can fall under their spell. That’s the way they’re designed, and you’ll never know unless you play.
And for many, that’s already too late.
Read more from Tom on his blog www.cyenne.com.
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