Gambling Addiction Has Taken Over My Brother’s Life

My brother bet it all, and he lost big. His wife and kid have been staying with me for a week and might never return to him. Our mother won’t even talk to him. How he still has a job is beyond me. He has a serious gambling problem, and he knows it, but he doesn’t know how to stop. He’s in a bad crowd and a bad place mentally. The gambling seems more important to him than his family, even though he says that’s not the case. He’s furious with me for allowing his family to hole up with me. I guess you could say I’m caught in the middle, but I felt like I needed to be there for the people he is hurting. I think it started around a year ago; it’s hard to say for sure. That’s longer than I could put up with. Am I doing the right thing here? Am I doing enough? —Big Bro
Dear Big Bro,

Thank you for writing. The fact that your brother is angry at you for helping his family is a likely indication of how severe his gambling has become. (In addition to his seeking “lower companions,” as 12-step literature says.) Your question reminds me of how powerful family “systems” are, especially those affected by (what sounds like) addiction or compulsive behavior. It’s remarkable that you are being generous enough to allow his family to stay with you but wonder if you’re doing “enough.” I think the short answer is yes. You’re doing a great service.

But you ask another question that bears some examining, namely, “Am I doing the right thing here?” I’m coming to the conclusion that when compulsivity or addiction is involved, there is no “right thing.” For instance, partners of addicted spouses will ask me, “Is the right thing to stay or go? Try to help them get into rehab or is that enabling?” The right answer is yes and no to all of the above.

The downside to completely detaching (generally speaking, mind you) is that you begin to feel guilt or self-criticism for being aloof; if you get caught up too much in helping and it goes nowhere, you are likely to feel resentful, taken for granted, and so on. So I suppose there’s this magical balance that much smarter folks than I have not yet figured out. I suppose that, like all things human, God (or the devil) is in the detail. But gambling is particularly destructive because it involves money, which can crush a family’s resources like Thor’s hammer.

The advantage here—not always the case—is that your brother knows he has a problem. Not knowing how to stop is nothing to be ashamed of. Addiction or compulsivity on the level we’re talking about is as much a disease as depression or anxiety. (In fact, addiction parallels both.) How does a person “stop” bipolar? Or diabetes? Well, you see a professional. Fortunately, there are self-help meetings (Gamblers Anonymous) as well as addiction therapists or even treatment centers (such as the Control Center in Los Angeles or Sierra Tucson or The Meadows in Arizona) that can help. (More treatment centers are taking insurance these days.)

The point is, he doesn’t have to know how to stop because he probably can’t. (Step 1 in a 12-step program is saying, essentially, that you can’t stop and your life is chaotic due to that fact.) Also, you might check your own motives in that many family members in your position may (1) minimize the addiction (is it really that bad? Sadly, yes), (2) think you can “do something” best left to a professional counselor or psychologist, or (3) doubt yourself for not “doing more.” You cannot will a person with depression to get better by good intentions; ditto with addiction. The most eloquent Shakespearean speech will not convince an addicted person to do squat. Usually it comes down to setting consequences for the addicted person that may sound hard but tend to get attention: If you don’t stop, you’re going to ruin your family and/or lose your wife and/or access to your children. If you don’t stop, I need to pull away and detach until you get help; it’s too painful for me to watch a ship sink while the captain refuses life boats. Many people addicted to alcohol, for instance, don’t get help until their second, third, or fourth DUI. Many with sex addiction don’t stop until their partner threatens to end the relationship. And so forth.

You may also try to organize a family intervention, either informally or formally. This is trickier than it looks (despite what the movies and TV show us). I know some interventionists who would be willing to consult with you (perhaps for free or low cost) should you want more information on this; you can contact me via this website for more information.

You’re obviously a very caring and loving brother or you wouldn’t be writing. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is tell the addicted part of the person, “We’re sick of you and how you’ve hijacked the person we love.” I would add that the sooner you and other family members—and your brother—take action, the better. Addiction is progressive and, like a shark, stays hungry and keeps moving. Thanks again for writing.

Best wishes,
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
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  • Maureen

    Maureen

    January 4th, 2014 at 9:04 AM

    What kind of action should they take? I mean, he knows there is a problem, so does everyone else in the family, but it is a lot easier to say yes this is a problem then it is to actually seek help and do something about it. And the family members can’t do the work for him, he has to seek that out for himself and make that resolve to do the hard work to break the cycle of addiction. So I guess I would like to know just how forcefully does the family need to intervene? It is clear that this has already harmed a whole lot of people, and a whole lot more could still be lost, but then you stop to think that this is something that he is going to have to pursue on his own and you kind of feel at a loss for just how involved you should actually become.

  • aggravated wife

    aggravated wife

    January 4th, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Why is it that you step in and try to help the addict’s family and he gets mad? Shouldn’t they be grateful that someone is stepping in to help where they have failed? Or does that just highlight all of that failure a little too clearly for them?

  • Drea

    Drea

    January 6th, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    Do you ever worry that he will think that you are choosing sides because you are letting his wife stay with you?

  • leigh p

    leigh p

    January 7th, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    My instinct would actually be to say to stay out of this as much as possible. THis sounds terrible right?

    But I have this feeling that until he is ready your help isn’t wanted and will come across as being pushy and intrusive.,

    Addicts are kind of like that- they will say that they want your help but until they are gooda nd ready they really don’t want it. It’s kind of hard to know when they men it and when they don’t so you have to tread carefully but I just think that until you know for sure the ebst thing to do is stay out of it as much as possible.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    January 7th, 2014 at 1:15 PM

    Sometimes I suggest something like, ‘I can’t do anything about this now but if you want help, I’ll do all I can to support your recovery.’

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    January 7th, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    I think I’m with Leigh on this. Many folks with addiction issues have this dual nature where part of them wants help and the other part wants the rush or high of the addictive behavior, with the hope/delusion that one day they will master the process. Which is like trying to ‘master’ diabetes without proper care. There is unfortunately shame in not being able to control behavior; it goes against too much cultural baggage. Though this is starting to change, slowly, as the stigma of mental illness becomes less oppressive. But we have a ways to go.

  • Chris Massman, MA, MFTi

    Chris Massman, MA, MFTi

    January 9th, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    Dear Mr. Haber,

    Thank you for sharing your expertise on this issue. I am a Marriage & Family Therapist Intern who has a specialty in Chermical Dependency and life experience with loved ones in recovery and others currently using drugs and/or gambling. Gambling addicition is one of the worst addictions to recover from. I find this especially true when the gambler minimizes, justifies, and rationalizes his behavior. He may convince himself he wins more than loses. He believes he is lucky and considers gambling a business or hobby. Peers may look to him for picks to enable their own gambling behavior. This identity as a gambler feeds the ego and offers the gambler a sense of worth. He is good at this behavior. It feels good to be sought out for advice. Furthermore, Vegas sport betting,Indian casinos, as well as online poker continues to fuel this addiction. I see many adolescents who come out of their dorm rooms and shells to provide a service to their peers where they are gaining a sense of purpose and self esteem by becoming the bookee. Similar to the unpopular kid who once he becomes the drug dealer is sought after as he can provide his peers with the drug they need to survive. However, the horrible truth is the adolescent is not being sought out for being who he is, moreso for his product. When the individual conceptualizes the painful reality of this he comes crashing down. Who is this person once his identity as a drug dealer or gambler is taken away? One may ask, who am I and what is my purpose in life without gambling?

    Gamanon is a wonderful 12 step group for family members of gamblers. Gamblers Anonymous as you stated, is the 12 step support group for the gambler. Thank you for opening up discussion on this very prevalent subject.

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    January 11th, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    Thanks Chris. Appreciate your insight and info.

  • Candace

    Candace

    September 22nd, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    Dear Mr. Haber,
    I work for my brother who is a gambling addict. He owns the business. He has taken many thousands of dollars out of the company account and blown it at the casino. He has mortgaged his paid-for house to the max. I know he is in about 100 thousand dollars of debt. All of his friends and his wife love to gamble. Whenever there is a celebration they all go to the casino. I don’t believe his wife knows how bad his addiction is. He goes to the casino during working hours when she is not around.
    Please help me! Do I tell her?
    Thank You!

  • Darren Haber MFT

    Darren Haber MFT

    September 23rd, 2014 at 7:05 PM

    Dear Candace, thanks for your question. Boy what a dilemma. It sounds as if your brother is at risk legally and maritally for a very hard crash indeed. For example it may be necessary to stage an intervention at this point before your brother ends up over his head even more. As for telling his wife or not, I can’t imagine keeping a secret of this magnitude, and it’s not fair for your brother to expect this, given the enormity of the debt he is incurring. This may be affecting her future as well. I would talk to your brother first and give him the chance to tell her, or else you’ll have to. She’s going to find out sooner or later and you need to ask yourself what would happen to your relationship with her if she discovered, later, that this was held from her? Although your brother may have a greater chance of repairing or saving the marriage if he steps forward and comes clean, and agrees to get help now. I would keep the main focus on getting help for him sooner rather than later. I’ll also see if there are people who do interventions to see what options might be available; hopefully one of them could do a free consult with you. There are treatment centers too, who might have someone you could speak with. Feel free to get in touch.

  • Candace

    Candace

    October 27th, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    Dear Mr. Haber,
    I can’t thank you enough for your reply! I have been beating my head against the wall for a couple of years over this. You have made it very clear to me what I have to do. I didn’t mention that my brother claims he has PTSD from the Vietnam war, and I’m not saying he doesn’t, but he uses it to behave any way he wants.
    I will keep in mind the intervention if need be. Again, thank you so very much!

  • Darren Haber

    Darren Haber

    October 27th, 2014 at 11:11 AM

    You are welcome. Glad it helped. Thanks.

  • Susan

    Susan

    June 9th, 2015 at 12:33 AM

    My stepbrother is taking lots of money from my father,often up to 20000 a month, who is elderly and worried about him. He claims it is business debts, household expenses etc but this has been going on for years and is getting worse. We don’t know if he is really in trouble or if he is gambling or something. How can we know? Thank you.

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