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Helping Professionals

The Gamblers Anonymous Perspective

by Nick Rupcich 

Over the last 40 years, thousands of individuals have overcome their gambling problems through Gamblers Anonymous (GA) (for problem gamblers) and Gam-Anon (for their families). There is much to be learned from this self-help movement. In addition, many professionals have found that some of their clients benefit from a multi-dimensional treatment program involving counselling and attendance at this mutual aid support group. Those with a gambling problem, or affected by another’s gambling, can learn something about themselves by attending a GA or Gam-Anon meeting. The first and most vital learning experience is that they are not alone. This can be quite a relief since they often hide the gambling problem from others for so long, they feel no one else can possibly be going through the same experience. Second, there is a sense of hope. Listening to others share their past experiences of helplessness and despair and witnessing the positive transformation in their lives brings the realization that they too can make similar changes.

However, GA is not appropriate for everyone. Gamblers Anonymous requires members to refrain from all forms of betting or wagering including raffles, flipping coins or any other games of chance or skill. Those who are interested in moderation or harm reduction with respect to their gambling behaviour would not meet the criteria for GA membership.

The Gamblers Anonymous Perspective

Gamblers Anonymous defines compulsive gambling as a progressive illness that can be arrested but never cured. It is not a financial problem. The Combo Book, a GA publication, states that,

A person in the grip of this illness creates mountains of apparently insolvable problems. Of course, financial problems are created, but they also find themselves facing marital, employment, and/or legal problems. Compulsive gamblers find friends have been lost, and relatives have rejected them. Of the many serious difficulties created, the financial problems seem the easiest to solve. When a compulsive gambler enters Gamblers Anonymous and quits gambling, income is usually increased and there is no longer the financial drain that was caused by gambling, and very shortly, the financial pressures begin to be relieved. Gamblers Anonymous members have found that the best road to financial recovery is through hard work and repayment of our debts. Borrowing and/or lending of money (bailouts) in Gamblers Anonymous is detrimental to our recovery and should not take place.

The most difficult and time consuming problem with which they will be faced is that of bringing about a character change within themselves. Most Gamblers Anonymous members look upon this as their greatest challenge that should be worked on immediately and continued throughout their lives.

(Gamblers Anonymous Combo Book (revised 1999). Los Angeles: International Services Office, page 12.)

Referring Clients to Gamblers Anonymous

Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon are not without limitations. The following details some factors to consider when making a referral to these mutual aid support groups:

Demand for total abstinence
At times you will be faced with a client who has one form of problem gambling and is also involved with other forms of gambling that are not creating problems. If this client was not prepared to abstain from all forms of gambling, this would not be an appropriate GA referral since GA’s only requirement for membership is a desire to refrain from all forms of gambling. The belief in this principle is similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous. One who drinks liquor excessively should not have an occasional glass of wine. This principle does not lend itself to all people looking for help. The demand for total abstinence will result in some new members not returning to meetings. However, most new members will respect the total abstinence approach.

Male bias
Until recently, GA literature was written by men, about men and for men. In the past this factor may have discouraged female participation. Over the years, GA has become more sensitive to the needs of women and in 1996, the Board of Trustees voted in favour of changing all their literature to reflect gender-neutral content. Gamblers Anonymous will need to continue addressing this issue — descriptive content in Ga literature is still slanted towards the predominantly male action-oriented gambler. Increasing female participation at the Board of Trustee level should ensure continued sensitivity and change to improve female participation and outcome.

Concurrent disorders
Individuals assessed with concurrent psychiatric disorders should first be referred to a medical professional for evaluation. Depression or anxiety brought on through excessive gambling behaviour can often subside with gambling treatment. However, if the depression or any other mood or anxiety disorder preceded the problem gambling behaviour, it should be treated as a primary problem by an appropriate professional.

Preparing Clients for Their First Meeting

Clients attending their first GA meeting can expect to see anywhere from five to 30 people at the meeting. Advise the client to get to the meeting 15 to 20 minutes early. It can be less intimidating to arrive and meet two or three people as opposed to arriving at the appointed start time when there could be 20 strangers present. The meeting secretary customarily arrives 20 to 30 minutes early to set up the room. This time is often used to orient new members to the program. They will be told about the meeting format and will be given “new member” literature, including a meeting location list, phone list of active members in the area, GA’s “combo book” and information on any other news or upcoming events. In addition, new members are generally asked to listen for a while. Later in the meeting they will be given an opportunity to share with the group if they wish. Newcomers are encouraged to give themselves 90 days before deciding if the program is helpful or not.

How Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon Work

When new members enter a GA meeting for the first time, they are asked to respond to the 20 questions. (Gam-Anon has its own set of questions. see GA The Twenty Questions .) Following their responses they are welcomed to the group. The new member is told that most compulsive gamblers answer yes to at least seven of the 20 questions.

Gamblers Anonymous Recovery Steps

The 12 steps of recovery are the basis for the Gamblers Anonymous recovery program.

1. We admitted we were powerless over gambling — that our lives had become unmanageable.
GA believes that the gambler must develop the ability to look at his or her gambling honestly. This means taking an honest look at the consequences of his or her gambling behaviour so that he or she is able to admit, accept and unconditionally surrender to his or her powerlessness over gambling. It is suggested that if members have difficulty admitting to powerlessness over gambling, writing about its consequences might be helpful.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to a normal way of thinking and living.
Step two says a normal way of thinking and living cannot be achieved through willpower alone or without the help of a Higher Power. This is the beginning of the spiritual part of the program. GA believes a source of power is necessary to bring about positive change. Most new members have difficulty understanding what this Higher Power is, but it is only necessary for them to accept that one exists.

3. Made a decision to turn over will and our lives to the care of this Power of our own understanding.
Step three involves a decision that fosters the action needed for recovery as the individual’s belief in a Higher Power strengthens. The essence of step three is that by asking the Higher Power to help the person live without gambling, the person will get the help he or she is seeking.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral and financial inventory of ourselves.
Step four is done through an autobiographical approach, looking at positive and negative qualities in oneself. A financial inventory is also required. GA believes the past must be finished in order for recovery to proceed. GA has developed a pamphlet to assist members with this step, called “A Guide to Fourth Step Inventory.”

5. Admitted to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step five asks the member to share his or her fourth step autobiography with someone he or she trusts. This step helps the individual resolve his or her guilt, recognize his or her positive qualities and encourages him or her to practise humility. GA believes that this is essential for a good sound recovery.

6. Were entirely ready to have these defects of character removed.
Step six involves developing an inventory of their character defects, which need to be worked on and eliminated. Members are encouraged to work on each defect one at a time. GA states that without eliminating character defects, the likelihood of returning to gambling is high.

7. Humbly asked God (of our understanding) to remove our shortcomings.
GA claims that character defects are a major reason why people gamble excessively. Hanging on to them increases the probability of relapse.

8. Made a list of all persons we harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Note that steps four and six asked the member to create a list, and now step eight asks for another list. This list is made up of all those harmed — including oneself. This step is not a requirement to make amends. It asks the person to only make a list of all those harmed, and to be willing to make amends.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
GA encourages members to make amends in person whenever possible. By the time a member is working step nine, a significant and noticeable change should have taken place. Consequently, those harmed may be much more receptive to the gambler making amends now, as opposed to early on.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
A personal inventory is taken on a daily basis in pursuit of personal growth, not perfection. GA has developed a daily balance sheet to monitor oneself called the “Daily Inventory of My Behaviour,” which can be found in the appendix at the end of this section. The second part of the step talks about taking immediate responsibility for wrongdoing. Practising this part of the step helps one to gain a deeper insight into oneself.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step eleven speaks to a deepening of faith in a High Power. Reflecting back to steps two and three when the spiritual part of the program began and experiencing where one’s life has come to, in step eleven there is a sense of peace and gratitude with the High Power as well as the human race.

12. Having made an effort to practise these principles in all our affairs, we tried to carry this message to other compulsive gamblers.
Caring for and sharing your experience with other compulsive gamblers is working step twelve. Listening to others sharing their experience is also working step twelve. Step twelve asks GA members to carry the message of hope to other compulsive gamblers. This is the step that keeps the program alive.

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