I'm a decorated United States Navy vet and a well-published writer whose last book had a full-page review in The New York Times, has gone paperback, and has been translated into seven languages including Chinese, Russian and German. Formally educated at the universities of Michigan, Georgetown and Stanford, I've lectured at several schools including the University of Washington. My raw I.Q. has been measured at two standard deviations above the norm (100)—three deviations denote genius—which does not mean I don't do some pretty stupid ass things.
I woke up one early morning not too long ago, laying in the brush next to the Clark Fork, across from Safeway, after a fitful night's sleep out in the open—no tent or bed roll. The idiot I had lost my rent money, had lost my food money, and had lost all the rest of my other money playing poker. It was cool and breezy enough that no bugs were bugging me, yet a curious otter kept swimming by, looking at me, wondering what I was. I could have told him, "I'm a gambling addict. I have a hole in my soul that I throw money into. I need to get over it, otter. I need help. With casinos seemingly on every corner, Missoula thrives on addicts like me. Where can I get help in Missoula?" In any event, the otter said nothing and swam away. I stood up, brushed myself off, and walked up and out of the bank to find some answers.
Let me explain. I started gambling in middle school, flipping coins and winning by declaring even or odd. In high school I regularly played poker with friends, oftentimes running out of money and writing IOUs that were used as chips. Playing poker, I saw myself as the dashing Rhett Butler, Steve McQueen's driven Cincinnati Kid or, more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack Dawson, who you may recall won his ticket on the Titanic in a poker game. Steinbeck wrote, "I suppose a man's capacity for self-delusion is boundless."
I joined the service, got married, and my gambling was at bay until a few months before my enlistment was up and my replacement arrived two months early. I went to the horse track every afternoon for 60 days, winning a net of $400.
Gambling subsided in college, but for a graduation present my wife and I rewarded ourselves with a trip to Atlantic City, where I played cards for 12–14 hours a day and left a few hundred dollars up. After we divorced I found solace in many a card game or casino, including down in Florida with so-named "boats that don't go anywhere" (they sail out past the three-mile boundary to gamble legally). I was living with a warm, giving but high-maintenance woman at the time. When that ended, she said, sadly, "You gambled away our love." I did.
And so I entered one of the only public inpatient gambling rehabilitation programs in the country, a Department of Veteran's Affairs (VA) facility in Brecksville, Ohio (440-526-3030). During my three weeks there I met many folks far sicker than I—a fellow patient won $62,000 on a slot machine and continued to play minutes after they gave him the check. Another talked of stealing company funds. More than a few others told of how they lost their wife and children to their addiction.
I'd heard or read many similar stories. I found a study that contends 50 percent of casino profits come from us addicts, and that in the 1990s gambling interests hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to conduct surveys of how the industry could be better viewed. Many took his advice that the term "gambling" be changed to "gaming." Then in 1999, responding to a petition by New Orleans gambling interests, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law restricting gambling advertising as a violation of the First Amendment. (I'm almost a First Amendment absolutist, but in this case make an exception). I wonder if the Supremes would rule that Pavlov has an unfettered right to ring his bells?
I thought I was "cured," but soon went back to my old ways. When I got my first book contract—and a $40,000 signing advance—I set a few records: I won over $4,000 on one hand (four kings; when I saw the fourth I screamed like a Klaxon), came home with $8,500 cash another night, but in the end lost about $20,000, simply because I did not know when to quit. In fact, a kind family lent me their cabin on Rock Creek to write the book. My addiction was so strong that I actually pawned their generator to play. And lost. (I got it out of hock when I eventually got more cash). I'd forced myself to live on about $100 a week until the book was finished and accepted some 18 months later. This self-inflicted poverty burned so deep that I stayed away from casinos when my next milestone payments totaling $60,000 arrived.
Flash-forward to the present and my addiction is active again, and I need help.
I walked into the Vet Center on N. Higgins Avenue (721-4918), announced that I'm a gambling addict, and asked for assistance. The staff didn't know of any Gambling Anonymous groups in town, but gave me two bus passes so I could get to the VA Outpatient Clinic on Palmer Street (829-5400) and meet with Meaghan Lee, an addictions counselor. This I did. She listened and listened and listened. She understood. And she referred me to a therapist named Quinton Hehn (544-5041). He actually makes house calls. He picked me up at the outpatient clinic and we drove to his office on West Central where he helped me reconnect with the do-not-gamble process.
I told him that I'd outed myself as a gambling addict to my close friend, Zac, who I told never to lend me any more money. Hehn—who goes by the folksy "Dr. Q," as his license plate reflects, or simply "Q"—said he'd like to see gambling addicts wearing signs announcing our affliction and talk with others about it. Talking is a powerful antidote to this so-named "hidden disease."
He noted that somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of adults are addicts, and that some experts claim that after gambling is added in an area, addiction rates can climb as high as 11 percent. In fact, Dr. Q argues that the state of Montana itself is addicted to gambling revenues. He notes that research in Minnesota revealed that the actual cost of gambling to a state is 45 percent of the gross rather than the 15 percent tax Montana charges.