Stuart's Story - Alliance for Gambling Reform

Stuart's Story

Stuart's Story

Hi, I’m Stuart, I’m someone who has spent a long but successful battle against poker machine addiction. Here’s my story:

As you can tell from my accent, I’m not from Australia. I grew up in a town in Northern Ireland called Bangor. Gambling wasn’t in any way a major part of life growing up. My dad didn’t gamble at all and my mum had a yearly bet on the Grand National, the equivalent of the Melbourne Cup. Bookmakers shops, SP offices, our TABS, were unwelcoming, seedy dark places tucked away in side streets and alleyways. Pubs often had a ‘fruit machine,’ a very basic version of a poker machine in the corner. They took low denomination coins & had low payouts. My brother was fond of these but I never bothered with them…..

I emigrated to Australia in 1999. I initially came for a year long backpacking holiday but as often happens I met a girl, fell in love and our daughter came along shortly afterwards. We settled in the western suburbs of Melbourne.  I knew nothing of the pokies until one fateful afternoon when I was out with a group of friends at a pub in the city. It must have been around 2003. We were having a few drinks when someone  said “let's play the pokies!” I honestly had no idea what she was talking about but I was intrigued. I followed her into a separate room of the pub. It felt like going into a completely different establishment; a dark secret world, a private club. She put $5 into a machine and much to her excitement she won $300. We took her jackpot back to our party in the pub where she shared her good news. I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t won the jackpot….would my story have taken a much different turn….. I was later to learn that winning $300 with a $5 bet was a real fluke. A statistical outlier. A lucky win for her - but an unlucky one for me.

I didn’t play the pokies that day but shortly afterwards I was walking past the St Albans Hotel. This was on the walk back from my daughter’s childcare centre. I hadn’t paid any attention to the venue previously and hadn’t consciously meant to gamble after my recent day at the pub, but something drew me in. I stuck a $50 machine called 3 Dragons. I played for just a few minutes and suddenly the machine rocketed up to payout $800. Excitedly I took the jackpot and walked out, my feet in the clouds. My wife was a student and I was working in a call centre so $800 was a lot of money. I didn’t tell my wife about the jackpot; gambling was to remain something I’d try to keep hidden over the ensuing years.

I started gambling regularly at the St Albans Hotel on the way home from childcare. Not every day, and not in huge amounts. I’ve always been pretty careful with money and I didn’t want to put a dent in our meagre bank account, so it was just $20 here or $50. I can’t honestly remember if I won much but if I did I probably put it back in the machine. 

Shortly afterwards, we moved to Cobram in Northern Victoria, on the banks of the Murray River so I could complete a teaching degree in Shepparton. Cobram didn’t have any pokies hotels but across the river there was a large establishment called “Barooga Sports Complex’ known as the Sporties. Back in the day Victoria didn’t have pokies, so many little towns in NSW along the Murray have these big casino-like pokies barns to lure Victorians across. I didn’t have a car so I stayed away from the place most days. However, on Friday night they offered a big raffle to lure in the punters, and a courtesy bus every half hour took people from Cobram over the border. I continued to play weekly , telling myself I was just there for the raffle. Still small amounts but enough to keep the addiction smouldering…..

After I completed my degree our young family moved back to the Western Suburbs, in Sunshine. Until now, I hadn’t consciously realised that my gambling was a problem. I was annoyed when I lost money, but that annoyance turned to bouts of shame and anger as I played the machines more and more. I had a bit more money now as I was teaching. I was also drinking heavily and taking amphetamines as my marriage began to fail. Alcohol and drug use have always fuelled my pokies use. There isn’t much to do in Sunshine; all the pubs are pokies joints. I started gambling more frequently at the Sunshine Hotel, a dangerous place where wild men swore and kicked machines and people hung around the machines begging for coins if you had a win. I also started playing when I went to the footy; I was and remain a big fan of the Western Bulldogs. Back then the Docklands venue had a big venue on Level 2. I still rarely gambled huge amounts and was mostly able to hide my gambling from my wife. One exception to this was when I got blind drunk at the footy and completely emptied our bank account into the machines. I had to shamefacedly confess my sins; my father-in-law lent us some money for groceries and rent. 

Shortly after this I went on an amphetamines binge and went to the Sunshine Hotel. Speed has a hypnotic effect on the pokies; I gambled big and won big, racking up thousands of dollars on the machine in credits. I wanted to cash in and leave but I was like a zombie, pushing the buttons as my thousands of dollars trickled down to a few hundred. Eventually my wife arrived with our infant daughter and had to literally push me off the machines. The security guards chucked us all out as kids aren’t allowed in the pokies rooms. I went home with my couple of hundred bucks and a very angry partner.

Shortly after this my marriage ended & I returned to Ireland. I ditched the speed habit and the pokies; as I said there are no machines back home. I missed my daughter terribly and returned to Melbourne after a few years in the wilderness. I moved to Brunswick and then after I met Alice, my wife, we settled in Preston where I currently live. I didn’t mean to start playing the pokies again but their hold on me was still strong. I have 3 venues within an easy five minute walk from my house, so I didn’t have to search for them. Soon I was sneaking out of the house late at night to gamble. Although I wasn’t taking illegal drugs, my wife & I were heavy drinkers. I’d tell myself that I was just leaving the house for a sneaky late night beer, but I’d always head to one of the nearby pubs and play in the wee hours.

I’d try to keep this hidden from Alice but my shame meant I’d confess to her, often a few days later. She was bemused but supportive; she’s never been a gambler.

I admitted I had a serious addiction and started attending weekly meetings with Gamblers Help.I went into alcohol rehab and gave up drinking for a year. I banned myself from all the local venues with the Hotel Association’s self-exclusion scheme. This worked for a year from the thought of the shame from being found out by venue staff.  But one day I wandered in on my way home from shopping, expecting to be caught…..but I wasn’t. I started sneaking out of the house in the wee hours. My wife had a furious row with the manager of the Darebin RSL asking why they kept letting me in when I was excluded….but he said they had too many self-excluders on the books and couldn’t monitor us all.

I started gambling on the way home from work on a Friday or after a doctor’s appointment. I don’t really gamble when I’m miserable or depressed; my mind seems to use it as a reward. I continued losing small amounts and felt awful afterwards, guilty and ashamed at my inability to stop. But I kept trying. Sometimes I’d stop more months at a time, then let my guard down and start again.  I was attending weekly sessions with my Gambler’s Help counselor and at one meeting we both agreed that we’d come as far as could on the journey. We’d done a lot of cognitive behaviour therapy, and examined my childhood and talked about the reasons I might gamble but I was still doing it. Sporadically. Then and there I decided we had done all the talking and I needed to stop. So I did.  I walked out of the session and didn’t play the pokies again…..

That could have been the end of the story, but then the major event of my life happened. This is another story in itself. Years passed by and I stayed away from the venues.  I went on to have two more kids, Arlo and Josie. When Josie was two weeks old she had a massive heart attack and nearly died. She spent a long time recovering in the Children’s Hospital and was very, very seriously ill. I turned to alcohol and prescribed tranquilizers to cope with this event, and yes I did start gambling at the pokies again. But only a few times, and I lost only a little money, and when she recovered I stopped. I suppose I’d put in all the hard yards recovering for years and I wasn’t going to go down that path again.

Recovery is like strength training for the mind. The more you resist temptation, the more you add meaning & richness to your life, the easier it is to resist the pernicious machines. One of the ways I’ve found this meaning is by using my story to fight back against the gambling industry. I’ve joined a wonderful organisation called the Alliance for Gambling Reform where we campaign for better regulation of machines & venues. I’ve successfully campaigned for the Western Bulldogs to rid themselves of pokies, and I helped stop the Darebin RSL from adding extra machines to their venue. Giving you this story helps me to fight back.

And I’m free -free from the shame, and self-loathing, and guilt that comes with gambling. It’s been a hard won freedom but I draw meaning and purpose from it, and will use my story to campaign for what’s true, right and fair.