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Taking a Look at the Three Phases of Compulsive Gambling

Gambling involves the betting or wagering of valuables on uncertain outcomes and takes many forms — from games of chance to skill-based activities. People have many motivations for gambling, but all involve the hope of gaining more. Gambling is sometimes a rite of passage by which people discover more about themselves and how to compete with others. It is sometimes a way of life (for people such as casino pros and escape gamblers). It can be, in its healthiest form, a way of socializing and having fun.

Pathological gambling is a progressive disorder that involves impulse-control problems. The consequences of pathological gambling are severe and may be devastating to the addicted person's family and career, but the disorder can be treated. As with all addictions, pathological gambling has personal, familial, and neurochemical aspects. Pathological gamblers may even have a genetic vulnerability, although such complex behaviors are unlikely to be traced to one specific gene in the same way some medical conditions, like cystic fibrosis, have been.

Problem gambling pioneer Dr. Robert Custer identified three phases to a progressive gambling problem: a winning phase, a losing phase, and a desperation phase.

Winning

In the winning phase, you may experience a "big win" or a series of smaller wins that result in excess optimism. You may feel an unrealistic sense of power and control and you're excited by the prospect of more wins. ("Hey Doc, this is a sure thing. I'm betting the farm.") At the same time, you can't maintain the excitement unless you're continually involved in high-risk bets. Your bets increase, and ultimately, the increased risk puts you in a vulnerable situation where you can't afford to lose . . . and then, sure as the sun rises, you do lose.

Losing

In the losing phase, you may brag about past wins; how you had the casino or track or bookie on the ropes. But in the immediate situation, you're losing more than winning. You're more likely to gamble alone, and when not gambling, you're more likely to spend time thinking about how and when you'll gamble next. Most importantly, you're concerned with how you'll raise more money, legally or illegally. You may have a few wins that fuel the size of your bets. But the dominant pattern is that of losing. Moreover, making the next bet becomes more important than the winning of any previous bet.

As the losing continues, you start lying to family and friends and feeling more irritable, restless, and emotionally isolated. You start borrowing money that you're unsure about being able to repay. As your life becomes unmanageable, you may be developing some serious financial problems. Your denial of the huge financial pressures that are building may seem unbelievable to some people: You're also likely to start chasing your losses, trying to win back what you lost. ("Doc, I'll stop, but first I've got to get back to even.") If you don't change your pattern, however, you'll be engaging in more and more self-destructive behavior.

Desperation

The next phase, the desperation phase, involves still another marked change in your gambling behavior. You may now make bets more often than is normal, in more desperate attempts to catch up and "get even." The behavior that's now out of control is associated with deep remorse, with blaming others, and with the alienation of family and friends. You may engage in illegal activities to finance your gambling. You may experience a sense of hopelessness and think about suicide and divorce. Other addictions and emotional problems may also intensify during this phase and drag you down.

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