Split-second decisions can have shockwaves for a lifetime, particularly when poker machines are involved. I was in my late teens when the pokies were introduced into pubs and clubs in South Australia. Not long after they were legalised here, I finally agreed to go to a pokies venue after my boyfriend had been nagging me to join him. He’d been going with his father.
One casual outing can wreck your life
It was the fourth time my boyfriend had asked me by the time I gave in, mostly to shut him up. “It sounds pretty boring to me, but I’ll take your word for it. At least we can get a bite to eat,” I told him. We jumped in a taxi and I thought nothing of it as we chatted on the 10 minute drive to the hotel. Little did I know that I was heading into a ‘zone’ I would not get out of until many years later...When people with lived experience of gambling harm talk about feeling “hijacked” by the pokies, some people can be quick to judge and say “you’re not taking responsibility”. But when I walked into that hotel to “play” on a machine advertised as “entertainment”, I hadn’t a clue that I was making the worst decision of my life. Like a frog put in gradually boiling water, you don’t know what you’ve got yourself into with the pokies, until it is too late.
These machines are designed to addict, releasing the same dopamine rush to the brain as illicit drugs. If someone had handed me a needle with heroin in it, I would have said: ‘get that thing away from me!’ I saw no clear warnings about the grave risks of poker machines. Not only that, it was all perfectly legal - and apparently, ‘safe’.
On that first night, I remember walking around feeling a bit lost with a cup of coins in my hand. I
eventually found somewhere to sit - at a familiar-looking Keno poker machine. It’s the one
where you choose numbers on a touchscreen then press “start” to gamble - not ‘play’, gamble.
Pokies play us, not the other way around. Anyone who has been harmed by the pokies or had a family member or friend who was, will agree, there is nothing fun or playful about gambling-addiction. In my experience as a Pokies Anonymous group facilitator, a huge amount of pokies profits come from people severely harmed by gambling. This means that bankruptcy, family breakdown and even suicide, which so often result from pokie-addiction, are part of the industry’s broken business model. They are playing with and destroying people’s lives. I did not know it then, but an hour after my boyfriend and I had arrived at the pub that first night, my 50 bucks spent, my life had been thrown off-course. As soon as I hit the start button on that Keno machine, I was already in the danger zone. It was like a trap, especially as there was nothing to discourage me from going back initially. I was under the spell of the pokies industry, thinking that this was a normal thing to do. I came back the very next fortnight.
Now I was the one pestering my boyfriend to go to the venue.
I began to gamble on the pokies regularly and alone after my boyfriend and I broke up. I
withdrew socially, and began to dread invitations to birthday parties. The last thing I wanted was
to have to socialise. Inevitably, my relationships suffered and I fell deeper into addiction. My life
revolved around gambling and working, so I could get money to gamble on the pokies again.
My sense of control gradually slipped away from me. It even got to the point where I jeopardised
the things that were going well – like my job that was near a pokies venue. When my boss told
me I couldn’t go to the pokies anymore, I quit. The job, not the pokies.
A friend from a theatre group I was involved with, who had my best interests at heart, told me
about Pokies Anonymous and I only half-listened. She said there were places to get help.
I had started to realise it was something I needed to stop. But I was still in a trance and was not
quite at breaking point – yet. I parked that information (about support group) somewhere in my
brain. I’d need it later.
I continued to spend my time and money – and my precious twenties gambling on poker
machines. When my mother bailed me out and offered to quarantine my income at my request, I
would ring the bank and change my address details so the card got sent to me again. Then I’d
wind up broke again.
This erratic and desperate behaviour is common for people who are addicted to poker
machines. It really is like a drug - only you wouldn’t tell people to “use ice responsibly”.
It took 14 years – a lonely and dark decade or so of my life – before another split-second
decision yanked me out of my nightmare.
The wakeup call of a lifetime
When I finally made the call to Pokies Anonymous, it was a matter of pickup the phone or end my life. After four years considering making the call, I finally punched those digits into my phone. In a single moment, years of doubt, denial and shame gave way to sheer desperation. I anxiously waited for someone to pick up. They did. My wakeup call had begun. From the minute I walked into the first Pokies Anonymous meeting, I felt so at home and relieved. To meet others in the same boat was the first step. After that, I basically didn’t look back.
I began googling and researching about poker machines for the first time. I found out so much about how the machines are designed to addict. I was on a mission. Instead of pokies, I was now obsessed with research and finding out why someone would waste so many years of their life and not wake up to themselves. How did I waste all those years in front of a machine instead of developing myself as a person and spending more time with people I cared about? As the reality of this dawned on me, I just kept saying, “Who does this?” “What kind of person would do that?!” It felt as if it wasn’t even me that entire 14 years. This really was the definition of a ‘wakeup call’. The crazy thing is, I have heard other people reflecting on that moment when they started to turn things around, saying exactly the same words. “Who does this?!” That sense of being robbed of time and who you really are is very common. The question is who creates a machine that destroys people’s lives?
Who does that?
What kind of industry does that?
Will the industry and our politicians one day wake up and look at the past few decades, and say:
“What were we thinking?!”
When is that wakeup call coming to Australia? If it is ever coming, chances are, we all need to be part of the change. Even if this issue hasn’t touched you directly, start paying attention to it. Public awareness and concern are already growing. Major football teams are distancing themselves from the pokies, and candidates of major parties are running on anti-pokies platforms. In a court case against Crown & Aristocrat, in which I argued that the Dolphin treasure machine was deliberately misleading, these gambling moguls were exposed by months of media pressure, and forced to try and justify their inexcusable machine designs. The judge acknowledged that the theoretical Return To Player information on the screen could be confusing. It’s a start!
Shame and Stigma
Sadly, there is still too much stigma and shame about pokie addiction, which prevents people
from asking for help. I have met people privately for coffee who were too ashamed to come to our meetings. These are good people who have wound up in all kinds of mess due to the pokies. One big reason for the stigma is the industry’s “responsible gambling” nonsense. “You’re the gambler, you’re the one coming for the so-called fun and entertainment, you be responsible.” What about the venue supplying a dangerous machine? Where is their responsibility when people are harmed by a machine which is deliberately designed to addict? By saying, “gamble responsibly”, the industry is washing their hands of any responsibility and shifting all the blame onto the individual. The government and the industry should be the ones ashamed NOT the people harmed by these machines. Salvaged from the wreckage. The boyfriend I was dating when this story begins was working as a garbage-collector at the time. He once picked up a framed picture for me that was in perfectly good condition. It had two dolphins diving across each other out of the ocean, with the word “synchronicity” written at the bottom. For some reason, I held onto it and have had it on the wall all these years. The picture came to mind as I sat in court during the case against Crown and Aristocrat, which centred on the Dolphin Treasure machine that I was hooked on.... While meeting him was not exactly great luck considering what followed, everyone we meet, every story we hear, can become something meaningful if we make it. I like to think where I am today is not an accident as I now actively help others trying to recover from gambling on poker machines..
I coordinate a theatre group called The Real Spinners, providing therapy through drama and storytelling for people with lived experience. I am also very active in campaigning about this issue, and I am using my personal experience to shine a light on the dark side of the pokies industry. You reading my story is no accident. Maybe you are now more informed and concerned about something that is a drain on our society and many of your fellow Australians. Maybe you feel less judgemental and open to people in the situation I was in, and want to do something to help. I got my life back. Not everybody does. Let’s work together to salvage something from the wreckage of the lives of people harmed by gambling, and all these decades lost. The pokies only arrived in Australian pubs in the early 1990s. Is it really so hard to imagine an Australia without them?