High Stakes

Photo by James Ngugi

The deck was dealt again and again, and chips were gained and lost without any consideration for what time it was. The only indication of time passing was when the dealers changed shifts. Forty- eight hours after she arrived, Carmen Thomas emerged from the casino, winnings in hand.

“Some people say I have an addictive personality,” Thomas says.

Thomas started gambling with friends in her early 20s. It started as an innocent way to pass the time, but the thrill of the win kept her coming back.

“Your hand is itching and you want to go,” Thomas says. “You start dreaming about it, and then you have to go. It’s like this unusual euphoria. You’re on top of the world. Like you can do anything.”

Soon she was faking sick and leaving work early to go to the casino. She was maxing out credit cards and using rent money to fund her gambling. If her husband or friends refused to loan her money, she’d lash out at them.

“She gets this look in her eyes, and she changes,” Thomas’ husband, Glen, says. “It’s like she changes into a different person.”

Gambling addiction can do that. What begins as an exciting night out once every couple of months, can progress into needing that high every chance you get. There’s a gray area between when the behavior turns from simple fun to downright destructive. Deciphering what side a person is on can be difficult—but a proper diagnosis is crucial to recovery.


85 percent of Americans have said that they’ve gambled before, pouring $119 billion into the industry in 2013, according to H2 Gambling Capital. Yet only around two percent of these gamblers have an addiction, totaling six million people.

In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ( DSM-5 ) reclassified pathological gambling from an impulse control disorder, a category shared with kleptomania and pyromania, to an addictive disorder with many criteria similar to those of a drug or alcohol addiction. The manual requires an individual to exhibit four out of nine behaviors to be considered an addict. From risking relationships to unsuccessful attempts to stop, gambling can become destructive.

“Just like a drug addict is chasing their first high, a gambler is chasing their first win—trying to get back to that same scenario,” says Kenneth Cameron, LMHC, a therapist at the Aspire Counseling Center in Des Moines. “That first win is what causes the spiral.”

Addictive substances like drugs stimulate the reward system of the brain to send out more of the pleasure chemical dopamine than usual, according to “Scientific American.” As addicts continue using the substance, the brain adapts and produces less dopamine. As a result, it gradually needs more to get the same feeling of euphoria. The act of gambling activates this reward system in a similar way, which is why compulsive gamblers feel the need to increase the amount of money they gamble with.

What differentiates gambling from other addictive behaviors like drug or alcohol abuse is that it doesn’t come with any obvious outward sign. The body has no physical way of expressing the turmoil that’s happening inside, which is why some refer to it as a hidden illness.

“Most people don’t get addicted to it,” says Nicolas Foss, a gambling counselor at the Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services of Southeast Iowa. “But there’s a small segment of the population that does, and when they do, they really get in trouble.”


Every opportunity she got, Thomas would use her money to gamble. Paychecks became a mental game of how much needed to be spent on the necessities and how much would be left over to gamble.

“That’s all you think of. How much can I turn this money into?” Thomas says. “I knew that Friday at 1 a.m. my money from my paycheck would be available. I knew to go to the ATM at that time. And I’d see a line of compulsive gamblers standing there waiting for the ATM to turn over.”

As Thomas’ addiction got worse, she found herself itching to get into the casino more. Even driving past the building would have her fantasizing about how much she could make with the $20 in her purse.

Thomas went to great lengths to hide her habit. “I didn’t have to pick up my son until 6, and my husband wasn’t expecting me home until 6:15,” Thomas says. “I would time it so he wouldn’t know I left work early for the casino.”

Thomas’ behavior was a tell-tale sign of a problem, Cameron says. “Many individuals aren’t open about it. They don’t tell a lot of people,” he says.

On top of her secrecy, Thomas found herself constantly trying to dig out of debt. “I would write bad checks thinking I’d get the money back,” she says. Experts call such behavior “chasing losses.” “It’s an effort to get back to normal when the gambling was innocent. A fun high, no debt, no family problems,” Foss says. “It becomes a major fix for all their problems, so they’re chasing their losses all the time.”

And it’s easy for those losses to add up. “Gambling addicts can be sitting there for three or four days and they’re never going to pass out like you pass out on alcohol or drugs,” Foss says. “With gambling, you can do a tremendous amount of damage in a short period of time because you don’t have to quit. Your body’s never going to shut down. The only thing that’s going to stop you is, how are you going to get the money?”


After a hard loss one night, Thomas found herself crying behind the wheel on the drive home. Twenty dollars had turned into almost $1,000 before she made some bad moves and lost all of it. She had no money and her gas tank was running on empty when she saw a sign for 1-800-BETSOFF, an Iowa gambling treatment hotline. Before Thomas even got home, she picked up her phone and called the hotline.

Cameron explains that many gamblers live in denial. They disguise their addiction as just having fun. But Thomas had hit an all time low. She finally realized that her habits weren’t normal.

“I always had an answer,” Thomas says. “This particular time, I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do next. I think that’s what prompted me to get help.”

The day after her big loss, Thomas met with someone from Gambler’s Anonymous and started the program. One of the first steps she took was signing a lifetime ban at the nearest casino.

“In therapy, you’re attempting to change those irrational thoughts back into rational ones,” Cameron says.

“How you’ve affected your family, how you’ve lost friends over this, how you’re indebted to everybody, how you’ve chosen this addiction over all of your priorities and things that matter in life.”

The reason some people, like Thomas, get addicted while others don’t isn’t completely known. But like most addictions, the recovery is a day-to-day process.

“There are individuals who have hit rock bottom. They’re tired. They’re done,” Cameron says. “And they’re able to recognize the effects of this addiction, and they’re ready to be over it.”

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