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Betting on recovery, Part II

Mar 4, 2013


By Nathalie Hardy
Of the News-Register


“Suicide rates and ideation are extremely high among problem gamblers,” according to Simeone, whose mission with Yamhill County Health and Human Services is to help people like Berenbaum kick the habit.

“They’re just miserable,” she said. “They aren’t trusted and they don’t trust themselves. They’re depressed.

“It’s really not unusual for compulsive gamblers to have attempted suicide. It’s the last act of gambling — suicide out of desperation.”

For Berenbaum, a Mac resident five years into a new start in a new marriage, the trigger was stealing her husband’s travel fund and frittering it away at the tables.

In her mind, she was simply planning to borrow his stash long enough for her to make up for a big loss of her own — a settlement she had been awarded for wrongful termination. When her rationalization crashed, it was a close call between facing him in abject humiliation and simply ending it all.

But because she chose the former, the theft also served as the impetus for her to finally get help. She picked up the phone, dialed the Oregon Lottery’s gambling help hotline and spoke with Simeone.

That was 19 months ago. And despite one brief relapse — not unusual for a 47-year-old gambling addict’s daughter who began gambling herself at age 14 — she seems to be on the road to recovery.

“I can take deep breaths now,” Berebaum told the News-Register. “I feel alive again. There is something in you that dies during addiction.”

Berenbaum explained her false start this way:

“The first time in treatment, I had to unwind my addiction. The second time, I could focus on the surrounding issues.

“Don’t give up is what I’d tell people. When they say it’s a process, it really is.”

Berenbaum said, “When I first started treatment, I went through an enormous range of physical and emotional changes in my body. I felt guilt, shame, self-condemnation, depression, anxiety, fear and spiritual defeat.”

That, she said, triggered physical manifestations that made the journey all the harder. But she said Simeone worked with her, teaching her specific coping techniques for each stage.

Simeone said gambling affects brain function in biological ways, so simple things others take for granted aren’t simple at all for addicts in recovery.

Berenbaum had to re-learn methods as elemental as a normal sleep pattern. Before she got help, she said, “I would stay awake for days at a time — working, gambling, going back to work again, then gambling again.”

Treatment didn’t immediately fix that.

“When I started treatment, I had a lot of issues with mind-racing,” she said. “I was experiencing recurring nightmares that haunted me for months and months.

“I was lucky if I slept two to three hours a night total. I was so exhausted I would hallucinate at times. The only place I felt safe to close my eyes was at treatment.”

But life gradually got better.

“Today, my sleep patterns have improved significantly,” she said. “I have learned better control.”

Teaching clients how to meet their needs for essentials like rest and nutrition are among top early priorities, Simeone said. 

“They have to learn to not think about gambling,” she said. “They have to learn how to talk themselves into a healthier choice.”

Simeone said having a support structure in place helps.

“They start to have money again,” she said, “and people in their life are more respectful because they are really trying.”

For that reason, she said, “It’s good for families to come into treatment, too. They need to understand what’s going on. They need to realize that something like going to the casino just for the buffet, for example, is really not a good idea.”

Simeone said one of the people she’s been helping is a close relative of a gambler in treatment. When the gambler began to get better, so did the close relative.

Her blood pressure went down, allowing her to cut back on medication. She also started to get more sleep.

“I don’t think people realize how much stress they are under until they start healing,” Simeone said. And that applies to everyone in the household, not just the member with the direct addiction.

Ironically, she said, even feeling better is something that can take acclimation. After years caught in the throes of addiction, addicts aren’t used to feeling normal.

“It’s pretty astounding, actually,” she said. “The addiction is so entrenched, they have to learn to embrace the freedom that comes with not being a gambler.”

Simeone said, “Early recovery is really hard, but it’s possible for us to get to the basics of what they want their lives to be. I wish more people knew recovery was possible, that there is help available.”

Berenbaum feels recovery has saved her relationship in addition to her life.

She said her husband is a manual laborer, so he’s accustomed to hard work. This was hard work of another kind, though.

It tested his patience, but it paid off — for both of them.

While they work different shifts a lot of the time, they go to church together. They love riding bikes, going on hikes and being active outdoors, so they carve out time for that as well. 

“It is absolutely different now,” she said. “Now I have a relationship with open communication and trust, which is huge. It’s not something I’ve experienced before.”

One factor Berenbaum will probably never shake is the haunting recollection of opportunities she missed with her kids when they were growing up and the price paid on both sides.

“As a single mom, I worked in the casino business, which is 365 days a year,” she said. “With the addiction on top of that, when there were special occasions like a birthday or Christmas, I would end up gambling away the money I had set aside for them.

“Addictions affect your family, they just do. And they can be passed down to your kids without you even realizing it,” she said, as her father’s was to her.

It pains her to think about it, but Simeone is teaching her to dwell in the present, not the past.

“Trying to learn how to be a parent in recovery is a hard issue for me,” she said. “You have a tendency to not want to forgive yourself.

“You ask how you can ask your kids not to do something you did. But I am teaching myself at the same time I’m teaching them. I’m not going to enable them.”

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