I placed my first bet in October 1994 in Leeds. Little did I know then that it would be the first step in a decade-long gambling addiction that was so all-consuming I would try to take my own life and also do time in prison for using other people’s money to fuel my habit.
I’d joined the football team at university and had money in my bank account for the first time in my life. My peers all spoke about gambling and I wanted to fit in. I went with them to the betting shop and had no idea what I was doing or what all the acronyms meant. I put £10 on each way, at odds of 33 to 1. My my horse was running in blue and white. I initially thought that £20 was a lot of money to gamble and walked away with the intention that this was the only bet I’d ever place. Then I remember the feeling when my horse won and the adulation of my teammates.
My peers all spoke about gambling and I wanted to fit in
For the next 17 years, I tried to replicate that dopamine and serotonin rush. I went quickly from a ‘non-gambler’ to ‘gambler’, placing bets every day but not seeing it as a problem. After I finished university, I moved to Preston to work in retail, working my way up to store manager level. I was still gambling but still didn’t think I was somebody who was suffering from an addiction. I was in control of the amount of time I was gambling, the money I was spending on it and the mental space it was taking up.
I got married in 2001, which was the same year I landed a job as a financial advisor with Abbey National Bank (which later became part of Santander). For the next decade, I lived in three very separate worlds: I never took my home life to work and I never talked to anyone about gambling. In the reward-based environment at work, I trebled my salary overnight and was in charge of my own time – first as a successful financial advisor and then as the youngest regional manager there. This led to a lot of pressure and gambling became a coping mechanism and form of escapism for me. It was not about winning money, but trying to replicate that first ‘high’ and an outlet for work pressure and stress.
Nobody knew about my problem
Dispelling the belief that gambling immediately destroys your life, I was actually very successful in my career for a decade. I also had a good family life as a child and, as an adult, had a wife and three kids. On the face of it, it seemed like a normal world: I had a great family and job with no health issues. However, underneath that surface façade, my gambling was getting out of control. I had placed well in excess of 1,750 bets online alone and transacted £4.8 million. I had 93 separate betting accounts and 16 credit cards. I also owned two race horses, 16 greyhounds and was a VIP member of 14 different operators. I kept this hidden for ten years. It was the most depressing and lonely decade of my life.
Nobody knew about my problem. In some ways, even I wasn’t aware of it. It wasn’t as obvious as it would have been if I was addicted to alcohol or drugs for example. Everyone put the changes in my personality down to work pressure. Even though I was at the serious end of gambling, it was a hidden addiction and there were no physical symptoms. Gambling was the only thing that made sense to me. If I could have gambled with washing up liquid bottles or 6 inch nails I would have got just the same feeling; it just so happens that you gamble with cash and I had access to a lot of it. By this point, some of the money I was betting with was not mine but belonged to Santander’s clients.
I remember sitting there with my head in my hands. This thing had really beaten me.
I only realised the extent of my problem when I read an article about the ex-footballer Gary Speed, who took his own life out of the blue in November 2011. The article discussed all the possible reasons why he could have done this and – although it didn’t reach any conclusions – offered gambling problems as one of the possible explanations. It was like the article was describing me and something kept bringing me back to it again and again – an ‘epiphany moment’. I remember sitting there with my head in my hands. This thing had really beaten me. The walls felt like they were closing in and I remember wanting to throw myself out of the window at work, but it wouldn’t open. Instead, I hung myself up by my tie and kicked away the chair I was standing on. Apparently I was unconscious for three hours. When I fell to the floor, my glasses smashed and my head was bashed in and bleeding. I am lucky that I am alive to be able to recount what happened to me and that I was, somehow, able to drive the twelve miles to my mum’s house. I went from the person nobody worried about to the person everyone worried about.
they told me that I wasn’t insane but it was the worst gambling addiction they had seen in 40 years.
I was fortunate to have caring people around me. My mum dealt with the initial aftermath on December 8th 2012, followed by my wife, who was in some ways relieved to know what was happening with her husband. She had seen me slipping away and my personality changing but had never known why. She reassured me we could get through this together. I told my boss at work, including about my misuse of clients’ money, and she was supportive but completely shocked. I was arrested and had three mental health assessments, where they told me that I wasn’t insane but it was the worst gambling addiction they had seen in 40 years.
At the same time as trying to recover from my addiction, my finances were ripped apart. The judge at Preston Crown Court believed that gambling was no excuse for what I had done and sentenced me to two years and eight months in prison. I wondered how it had gone from my first, seemingly innocent, bet back in 1994 to this! I remember the faces of my kids the night before the sentencing, not realising that their daddy was going to prison for anything up to ten years. That still brings a lump to my throat. They were going to be without a parent because of what I had done. Gambling was ripping my family and career apart.
When I was being taken to prison in the back of the van, a 17 year old in there with me said I’d probably serve half of the sentence and get the last five months on a tag. I was so sad that he knew this but it was the glimmer of light I needed. I thought, ‘I can do a year’.
I was scared stiff in prison – locked up for 23 and a half hours a day with people who had committed a whole host of crimes including violent and sexual offences. Thankfully, I was later moved to a D-category prison (more commonly referred to as an ‘open prison’) near Blackpool. I spent the next ten months working there mowing lawns and then in the library. I also taught six people to read through the Shannon Trust initiative and had a hand in introducing the incredible ‘DVD Dads’ to the Library, allowing kids and prisoners to maintain healthier relationships. I decided to learn everything I could and use my own experience to support other people having the same problems I had.
It was here that I put together my business plan for my company, EPIC Risk Management, which I launched six weeks after I left prison and aims to prevent gambling-related harm. It was slow to start with, as gambling was not seen as a problem. However, now the extent of gambling issues has been realised, the business has snowballed and we are leading the sector in providing prevention advice and services for gambling harms in the UK and other countries – including a recent launch in the US. We have worked in 25 countries providing education, awareness, consultancy and training in the highest risk sectors for harm (criminal justice, financial services, armed forces, professional sport, education of kids aged 14+) along with selected partners in the gambling industry itself who are trying to raise standards and cut out the harm at source.
The advent of online gambling this decade has been the worst possible thing for people at risk of gambling addiction.
The advent of online gambling this decade has been the worst possible thing for people at risk of gambling addiction. It used to have to be football, dogs or horses, but now you can bet on anything, 24/7, with anonymity and with no tangible exchange of cash – you can gamble at work on your smartphone. An estimated 62,500 young people under 16 years old are suffering gambling harm. There’s also a strong link between gaming and gambling. Other innovations like in play betting and cash out are psychologically dangerous and accelerate people along the spectrum of harm far quicker than traditional methods, along with online casino products, which are much more dangerous than sports betting in the main.
There is help out there and you can turn it around.
The advice I would give to anyone who feels they might have a problem with gambling is firstly that it’s okay not to be okay. You hear this a lot, but it’s so true. Also, there is a stigma around gambling and it’s not yet understood or even treated as a ‘proper addiction’, which stops some people speaking out as they might feel a bit stupid. The more people who have the courage to talk about it as a problem, the less stigma there will be. Just talk to someone and don’t internalise it like I did. There is help out there and you can turn it around.