Off the bet 

On the long road to recovery, gambling addicts find a shortage of local support

The Missoula field office for the Montana Department of Justice’s Gambling Control Division on Palmer Street is hardly inviting to the uninitiated. A solid, windowless door separates the office from the main foyer of Suite D. After knocking to request information about treatment for problem gamblers in Missoula, the woman answering the door provides only two phone numbers. One is for a 1-800 helpline. The other, she says, is a local extension to a Gamblers Anonymous group. Call the local number and a familiar tone greets you, “We’re sorry. The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service.”

After hearing that the local number she gave is to a dead line, the woman from the field office shrugs.

“Oh, okay. We never use it, so thanks for letting us know,” she says as she swings the door shut.

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Less than a mile away at Valor House off Mullan Road, a handful of people are spending their Labor Day evening talking to one another about their struggles with gambling. Valor House is a transitional housing facility for homeless veterans run by the Poverello Center. But on Monday evenings they allow this Gamblers Anonymous group to meet in the common kitchen area.

Ron is one of the first people to arrive, and says he has been attending GA in Missoula since 1989. Mitch and Pamela, also regulars, walk in and take seats.

On most nights the group attracts between four and 10, but given the holiday no one is terribly surprised by the weak turnout. Then, just before things are set to begin, a greenhorn named Allen walks in. He’s a 20-year-old who started gambling when he was 18. Within two years of regularly hitting the casinos, he says he has gotten to the point where he needs to reach out.

Allen says he’s often waited for his paycheck from work to be directly deposited into his account at 12:01 a.m. so that he can head to the casino at 12:02. He once won $950 on a machine after just five minutes, only to sit and play out the money until it was gone. Last night, he says he had a meltdown. He showed up at the meeting because he wants to make that a milestone rather than another broken promise. “I gambled for my last time last night,” he says.

Mitch, who usually sits and listens to everybody else’s stories, folds his arms across the table and leans in toward Allen to tell him a story. One night near the holidays he listened to a woman sob over a machine about how she blew all of the money set aside for her children’s Christmas presents. Mitch felt sick to his stomach, and swore he was done. But within a week he was right back at the machines. Over a period of seven or eight years, Mitch says he was basically flying below the radar, meaning he was never in danger of losing his home or jeopardizing his livelihood in a public way, but still lost about $150,000. Those losses, he warns Allen, will catch up eventually.

“Can I say something to you?” he asks Allen politely. “The very first thing I learned from coming to these meetings is that you never trust yourself.”

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