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.
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.”
The meetings provide people like Mitch and Allen a support network that can help them be accountable in their recovery. The Monday gathering at Valor House is one of at least three different Gamblers Anonymous groups in Missoula, each of which follow the 12-step platform established by Alcoholics Anonymous. Most groups, including the one at Valor House, are led by volunteers. The state limits who can treat gambling addiction, meaning a significant number of licensed addiction counselors are not legally permitted to treat gamblers.
Pamela, a group regular who has been clean for two and a half years, says she feels the state of Montana should provide more to those who struggle with this problem, and chides it for using the money instead to support the state’s “dysfunctional budget.”
“I don’t think we’ve ever figured,” Pamela says, “how many casinos are there in this town?”
Allen pulls out an iPhone and begins to Google “Missoula casinos” as Pamela starts thumbing through a phone book. Within a few minutes, Allen comes up with the results.
“There’re 44 that are within three miles of here,” he says.
In fact, the Gambling Control Division reported last year that there were 81 gambling locations in the city of Missoula, in which about 1,300 individual video gaming machines were operating. The machines in Missoula alone generated $4,157,666 in tax revenue in 2012; video gaming machines statewide last year brought Montana $54 million in taxes.
Not a dime of that money goes toward treatment of any sort for gambling addiction. Instead, the Montana Tavern Association, along with several other groups representing state gaming interests, provides funding for the Montana Council on Problem Gambling. The MTCPG provides training to qualified counselors in the state, but there are only three in Missoula with the credentials to treat gambling addiction.
MTCPG Chairman Mark Kennedy says the council is a private nonprofit, and that the decision to designate it as such was made more than 15 years ago after consulting with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. He says it was recommended because accepting state funds would be much slower than working directly with the gaming industry.
“It was a business decision,” Kennedy says.
The Valor House group is led by Kathy Bordner, a recovering gambling addict herself. The group receives no funding from anyone and is completely self-sustained. For the vast majority of people recovering from gambling addiction in Montana, who have no cash to afford private counseling or inpatient treatment programs, groups like these are their only option for recovery.
Before Kathy Bordner, 44, starts a GA meeting, she pulls out a book to pass around for attendees to sign in. As the book makes its way around the two dining tables, the members sign their name next to the date of their last bet. By her name, Bordner signs 5-13-10. Three days after that, according to documents filed with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office, Missoula police received a call from the UPS Store on Brooks Street reporting suspicions that Bordner had been embezzling large sums of cash from the business.
“I seriously can tell you how many casinos are on any street in Missoula,” Bordner says.
Her eyes sometimes well with tears as she recounts how she went from carrying a steady job to felony charges, but she says she wants to share her story so that others may learn from her mistakes.
Bordner had always gambled off and on without issue up until around 2008. Wanting to fit in with a new social group, she says she started going out drinking with them at the casinos around town. She would hang out and drink with her new friends, but would always stay behind to gamble at the machines. She slowly got hooked. Nearly everything she did was designed around gambling and chasing the fleeting rush that came from every occasional win.
“It’s like when you win you get a hot flash from your feet to your head. I don’t know how else to explain it,” Bordner says. “I would go to Wendy’s before I would go gamble because I knew when I was done gambling I’d be broke.”
Many times, Bordner says, she would write hundreds of dollars in checks to a casino in one night. Sometimes, she says she saw staff holding checks for other gamblers behind the counter, allowing them to buy the checks back at the end of the night depending on their winnings. According to the Montana Gambling Control Division, check holding is a form of credit gambling, and is illegal.
Back at the GA meeting at Valor House, Pamela says staff at some local casinos would let her buy her checks back before she stopped gambling more than two years ago. Rules were bent as long as she developed a rapport with the staff. “Once they got to know me, it wasn’t a problem,” she says.
Around 2008, Bordner says she began stealing from work in order to spend the cash on video gaming machines. In July 2010, Bordner confessed to a Missoula Police detective that she had indeed been changing the deposit slips at UPS to cover up money she had stolen over the years.
According to charging documents, Bordner tearfully told the detective that her gambling addiction drove her to steal from the business, and that she had also borrowed money from friends all while trying to hide her problem from her husband.
According to the forensic accountant’s estimate in the charging documents, Bordner had embezzled almost $39,000. She pleaded guilty to one felony theft charge, a fraction of the alleged total, but made Alford pleas to the rest, meaning she did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict her.
When she was sentenced in early 2012, Bordner received two six-year sentences for two felony theft charges. All but 30 days were suspended, and she was ordered to spend that time in the Missoula County Detention Facility. While locked up, unable to go outside and not allowed to take showers alone, Bordner says she battled depression and panic attacks. She tried unsuccessfully to have her jail sentence commuted to house arrest.
“One day would have been enough for me. I was so scared,” she says. “For the first two weeks I basically hid under the stairway and cried.”
In the time following her release from jail, Bordner has received counseling for gambling in Missoula and has taken opportunities to share her experiences with others. She occasionally gives talks to classes at the University of Montana and Hellgate High School, and eventually came to lead her own GA group in Missoula. Bordner feels as though she is on the upswing and on top of her addiction, but wary of the fact that the need to gamble could sneak up on her at any time.
“I thought I was a bad person,” she tells GA attendees. “And now I know I’m not a bad person. I just made a piss-poor decision.”
Bordner’s counselor, Quinton Hehn, has a second floor office in West Central Missoula. He pulls out a drawer of files covering dozens of people he is seeing for gambling or a combination of that and other addictions. Over the years he has helped steer hundreds toward recovery.
Hehn, known by most in the community as Dr. Q, is one of only three local licensed professionals trained to treat gambling addiction and who offer it in a free group setting. One of the things he has noticed about people with an addiction to gambling is that most of them seem to come from a higher socioeconomic status, and often exhibit higher intelligence than those suffering from other addictions.
“Successful people go into their trances doing what they do,” Hehn says. “It’s very much like a meditation. A trance effect. There’s no problems in the world. Everything is perfect. And then when they walk out the casino door, all the problems are back.”
The endorphin rush achieved from the occasional win makes the cycle of dependence in gambling even more difficult to shake. “You could drop a bomb beside them and they wouldn’t notice it,” he says.
This hook comes during this first stage of gambling, when Hehn says the potential addict starts out by seeking that one big “bonanza.” This, he says, is a ruse that looms over the addiction until that person reaches stage two, which is defined by the need for the gambler to win back losses and cover debts incurred. The final stage, Hehn says, comes when the gambler resigns to merely sit at a machine and play every penny they have until it’s gone, no matter how much is won, and walk away broke every single time.
“They just kind of live in that sad life with nothing,” he says.
The world can get even darker for a gambler at the end of their rope. Lucky Lil’s casinos have their own collections system to chase down debts, and can leave some with destroyed credit, Hehn says. He’s also seen his fair share of people getting into trouble over sports betting in town. He recalls one young man associated with Griz football who wound up in his office after he started to dole out tips to sports gamblers whenever, for example, a player had a bad knee that could affect the score. He suffered harassment when he stopped being so forthcoming with his information. Hehn notes that every game in town—televised or live—could have a bet riding on it.
“I’ve seen people talking about losing 70, 80 bucks on a golf game,” he says.
When a gambler reaches the breaking point, the majority of them, by nature, don’t have a penny left to afford treatment out of pocket. This is why so many turn to independent GA meetings led by people like Bordner.
Hehn’s sessions are made affordable on a sliding scale, and he even makes the occasional house call. As a licensed clinical professional counselor, Hehn is eligible to receive funding from the Montana Council on Problem Gambling, whose main office is based in Great Falls.
MTCPG Director Bonnie Huestis says that the effects of gambling addiction on the brain are profound, and quite similar to heroin. The risks for leaving problem gamblers without access to treatment in Montana can be sudden and devastating.
“In our field we say the highest suicide rate of any addiction is with gamblers,” Huestis says. “I have had so many family members come in and say, ‘I was just blindsided. I had no idea my spouse was gambling, and now we’re in debt about $100,000.’”
Historically, gambling has been treated in the medical world as a compulsive disorder, like nail biting, and not a behavioral disorder, like alcoholism. This distinction has prevented a great deal of gambling addicts from being able to receive health insurance coverage for costly inpatient treatment facilities, of which there is only one in Montana. Some folks at Bordner’s meetings have said that in order to qualify for inpatient treatment in the past, they have had to exaggerate their difficulties with other substance addictions or straight-up lie about them just to gain entry and have their gambling issues addressed.
The American Psychiatric Association recently decided to change the way it views pathological gambling, which it will now refer to as “disordered gambling.” They have concluded that disordered gambling shares strong commonalities with substance abuse disorders. Subsequently, their Substance-Related Disorders category has been renamed Addiction and Related Disorders to include gambling.
Counselors who are accredited with the title of licensed addiction counselor have not been legally allowed to provide treatment to people suffering from gambling addiction, but the new distinction from the APA allows room for that to change. In April, Gov. Steve Bullock also signed House Bill 61 into law, which allows for licensed addictions counselors to treat gambling addictions in Montana. The new law goes into effect Oct. 1 and could open up a greater pool of qualified counselors to receive training from the MTCPG—and offer more options to problem gamblers across the state.
During another one of Bordner’s GA meetings, Jay LaPlante, a 51-year-old Montana native, listens as an older woman in a denim jacket explains how she used to go to casinos on tribal reservations about once a year, before she moved to Missoula and got swept up in video gambling. She says she would justify the rez trips by telling herself that if she ended up losing, her money would be going to the less fortunate tribal members who needed it more. LaPlante, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, abashedly concurs with her.
“Well, I’m an Indian and I was just paying Indians back for what the white man did to us,” he says, laughing.
LaPlante has been “off the bet” for a year now, but has battled multiple addictions all his life. He says he quit drinking for good in his early 20s, but found himself checking out casinos a few years later on his down time from a job that requires lots of travel around the country, often through tribal lands and their casinos.
“When I decided to get sober I just went to AA and I stopped. With gambling it took me 15 years to stop,” he says. “I liked it. That was when money actually dropped out of the machines and you could hear it.”
The casino visits eventually ate into his other costs. He was late on bills and started dipping into his savings accounts. His success with AA led him once again to seek help from others like himself. When support groups specifically catering to gambling were too tough to find, he sought help from others back at AA meetings, but that only backfired. “I’d go to AA and I’d tell them, ‘I’m a gambler,’ and they’re like , ‘Oh, next time you go to the casino I’ll go with you.”
Having been seasoned in both AA and GA, LaPlante has found the two groups to be very different environments. AA meetings, he says, are usually filled with sociable people who are okay with laughing at themselves and sharing their experiences. Gamblers are much harder to reach.
“When you’re gambling, you’re not really interacting. In fact, you don’t really like people around you,” LaPlante says. “I just find gamblers to be more serious.”
In 2011, he made a plan that had doom written all over it. He moved in with a friend in Las Vegas. His logic told him that the city held nearly 100 GA meetings a week, and he would have the biggest support network to steer his recovery.
The plan didn’t work. He eventually stopped looking for meetings and waltzed right back in to the casinos. When he erroneously made bets on a company card, he decided to come clean with his employer. He says they have supported his desire to get better.
The disgrace of relapsing hangs over him. The possibility of another slip-up is never far away, and last struck LaPlante one year ago when he made his last bet.
“Eventually shame will go away. It has to for a person to recover,” LaPlante says. “To be sober and then to engage in another addiction, that’s part of the shame I feel. Like I should have known better.”
LaPlante continues to go to GA meetings on a weekly basis. In regards to the lack of a phone number to a functioning GA group in the local Gambling Control Division office, he’s not surprised. He doesn’t have any expectations from the state. It’s the individual group’s responsibility to maintain its own exposure and availability to addicts in town.
“It would be great if those people would reach out to (GA groups), but it’s not really their responsibility to do that,” he says.
The system puts the onus on the addict, and LaPlante knows that as well as anyone. He says work will be sending him to Las Vegas once again later this month. He plans to stay with a friend north of the city, far from the main strip. If he can’t handle himself, he says he will simply get in his car and leave the city, probably for the last time.
The names of some Gamblers Anonymous attendees have been changed. Missoula meetings occur Mondays (214-1863), Wednesdays (542-0900) and Thursdays (728-5224).