What Gambling Addiction Feels Like

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

As an addiction counselor, I’ve spent countless hours talking to people about gambling addiction. Although each individual’s journey with addiction is unique, colored by personal experiences, triggers, and challenges. The account provided here depicts the lived experience of many common themes. Although there are many different types of gambling, it focuses on the most common form of gambling addiction I’ve seen recently: young men engaging in sports betting and online casinos.

The digital age combined with recent policy changes have ushered in a boom in this area, which have become alarmingly accessible. With just a click or tap, individuals are plunged into a virtual casino environment, available 24/7, devoid of the traditional boundaries of brick-and-mortar establishments. This ease of access, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies, has made these platforms particularly enticing.

Recent years have seen an unprecedented surge in young men falling prey to online sports betting and casino games. Their immersion into this digital gambling world, while appearing recreational at first, often morphs into a deeper entanglement, leading to significant emotional, financial, and social repercussions.

While this article delves into this specific manifestation of gambling addiction, it’s crucial for readers to recognize the broader spectrum of gambling-related issues. Understanding the nuances of this addiction, particularly in the context of our rapidly evolving digital landscape, is the first step toward addressing and combating its insidious effects.

I hope the following description highlights the experience of gambling addiction in great detail, allowing those going through it to know that they are not alone, in addition to allowing others a peek inside the inner experience of gambling addiction.

The Beginning

You always thought of yourself as someone who could handle risks. It began as a form of light-hearted recreation – a friendly wager among friends on a football match, with the thrill of anticipation lacing every shout, every goal, every close call. The rush of winning, even a few bucks, is intoxicating.

You find yourself drawn back to the apps increasingly more often. The adverts make it look so easy – just predict the outcome and win big. It’s just a bit of fun, you tell yourself. You enjoy watching games more now. There’s a stake, something real on the line. It makes watching sports more exciting.

However, as the days turn into weeks and months, life presents its set of challenges. Perhaps it’s the sudden loss of a job, or maybe it’s the nagging realization that your peers seem to be moving ahead while you feel stagnant. There’s a gap — between where you are and where you wish to be. With bills piling up and the weight of expectations pressing down, there’s an ever-growing chasm between reality and aspirations.

Bridging a Gap

This is where the allure of gambling evolves. What began as a fun, occasional indulgence starts appearing as a viable solution to your monetary woes. The memories of those initial victories play on loop in your mind. “What if,” you think, “I could just win a big one? That could change everything.”

Instead of dabbling in games of chance for the sheer joy of it, you now approach them with a different mindset. Each bet is no longer just a bid for entertainment but a potential ticket out of your current predicament. The highs of victory aren’t just about the thrill anymore; they represent hope, a promise of a better tomorrow.

The times when luck doesn’t favor you, instead of taking them in stride as part of the game, they start feeling like personal setbacks. “Just one more try,” becomes the mantra. Because the next bet might be the one, the big break you’ve been waiting for.

Conversations with friends and acquaintances further reinforce this belief. There are always stories, either firsthand or through the grapevine, of someone who made it big, who bridged their life’s gaps with a jackpot or a lucky streak.

Yet, what often goes unnoticed or unacknowledged is the mounting frequency of your gambling sessions and the increasing amounts at stake. Rationalizations become second nature. “I’m investing,” you might tell yourself, “It’s just like the stock market, but with quicker returns.”

However, beneath the surface-level justifications lies a growing desperation. Each loss isn’t just a hit to the wallet; it’s a dent in the hope of escaping the rut. And each win? It’s a tantalizing taste of what life could be, fueling the belief that gambling is not just a pastime but a pathway to a better life.

Losing Control

It starts to feel like you are caught in a powerful riptide. At first, the ocean’s surface seems calm and inviting, promising adventure and reward. But as you wade deeper, the undercurrents grab hold, pulling you further and further from the safety of the shore. You might kick and struggle, trying to swim back to familiar ground, but the force of the riptide is relentless. It drags you into deeper waters, where you’re at the mercy of the vast, unpredictable ocean, desperately trying to keep your head above the waves, searching for a lifeline or a way back to solid ground.

This progression, from casual fun to a perceived lifeline, is a slippery slope. The games, the bets, and the casinos remain the same, but the stakes — emotional, financial, and psychological — transform entirely. What once was a game becomes a quest, a mission to bridge life’s gaps, not realizing that with every bet, the gaps might be widening even further.

You begin playing more online casinos as a way to make some quick returns. But as the months slide by, you notice you’re digging yourself an even deeper hole, faster than before. The bets weave themselves into the very fabric of your evenings. What was once a casual flutter becomes a ritual. Each night, ensconced in the soft glow of your screen, you promise yourself just one more bet, one more chance to reclaim what you’ve lost.

As the gaps between victories grow, and so does your determination. You start investing more, always with the belief that the tide will turn, that the next bet will restore balance. But with each miss, the hole deepens. That promising glint of a big win becomes increasingly elusive, and you find yourself spending more than you ever win.

Your bank notifications change in tone—from congratulating you on deposits to alerting you about dwindling balances and overdrafts. The web of debt starts slowly, innocuously. You delay a bill or two, thinking the next paycheck or that elusive win will cover it. But soon, you’re juggling—borrowing from one account to cover the deficits of another.

Friends begin to notice the shifts, not just in your finances, but in your demeanor. Their eyes hold questions, concern evident in their voices. “Is everything alright?” they probe gently. But pride and denial make you deflect, assuring them and yourself that you’ve got everything under control. You believe, with fervent desperation, that just one win will set everything straight.

Chasing Losses

Credit cards and lines of credit become your best friends. You think of them as your lifeline to make back what you’ve lost. It’s just a temporary setback, you reason. Soon you’ll hit that jackpot or big parlay and all will be right.

Late at night, you find yourself on your phone. Days and nights blur. Sometimes, there’s a massive win, and for a fleeting moment, you’re on top of the world. But the highs become less frequent, replaced by a growing desperation.

Your savings account dwindles. Bills stack up, unopened. You’re juggling debts, borrowing from one card to pay another. Every waking moment is consumed by the next bet, the next game, the next chance. The weight of anxiety presses constantly against your chest.

You begin to realize you’ve lost so much. Not just money, but time, relationships, trust. You want out, but it feels like you’re trapped in a vortex.

But you remember those early days, how light and carefree everything was. Deep down, you know this isn’t you.

The night you hit that first big win is etched in your memory. A complex bet you’d thought was a long shot suddenly came through. As the last whistle blew, your app lit up, digits multiplying before your eyes. The feeling was electric, a heady cocktail of shock, disbelief, and euphoria. That evening, cash seemed to flow into your account effortlessly, making you believe you’d cracked some code that others hadn’t.

For days, you relived that moment, the adrenaline, the rush, the pure exhilaration. It wasn’t just about the money; it was the validation. The world seemed to whisper, “You’re special.” In that intoxicating haze, gambling didn’t feel like a game of chance anymore. It felt like a skill, a legitimate way to outsmart the system and make money. And if you could win once, why not again and again?

The glitter and allure of gambling fade, replaced by a gnawing desperation. The euphoria of the early days, the thrill of the bet, the ecstatic highs of the wins, have all evaporated. What remains is a grim, mechanical act, no longer driven by pleasure but by necessity.

Each click, each bet, each spin, isn’t about the joy of the game anymore. It’s a desperate scramble to patch up the holes that have appeared in your life, the mounting bills, the looming rent, the incessant reminders of debts unpaid. Every loss isn’t just a hit to the wallet; it’s a crushing blow to your hopes of finding a way out of the quagmire you find yourself in.

The bright screens and flashy graphics become a stark contrast to the bleakness of your emotions. With every gamble, there’s a silent plea, a whisper to the universe, begging for that lifeline, that miracle that can pull you out of the depths. But more often than not, the universe remains silent.

The weight of each pressing expense magnifies the pressure tenfold. The thought of utilities being cut off, of facing eviction, of not making ends meet, drives you further into the cycle. It’s a paradox – the very thing that led to the predicament promises to be the escape.

In those moments, the games lose their magic, their appeal. They become a tightrope you’re forced to walk, a gauntlet run in the hope of salvation. The despair is suffocating, and every failed attempt pushes you closer to the edge, not of victory, but of complete collapse.

Shame and Isolation

What was once an exciting social activity becomes becomes something you’d prefer to do alone. At first, the isolation creeps in subtly. You decline an invitation here, postpone a meet-up there, all in favor of that next potential win. The thrill of the game, the enticement of the next big score, starts taking precedence over shared laughter, late-night talks, and familiar faces.

The walls of your room become a cocoon, shielding you from the outside world, but also trapping you inside with your spiraling thoughts and mounting debts. The once joyous chime of your phone becomes a source of anxiety. Is it another bill reminder, a concerned friend, or a family member probing too close to the truth?

As the grip of addiction tightens, it becomes harder to face the world. Shame, guilt, and regret become constant companions, making social interactions daunting. The fear of judgment, of pitiful looks, or hushed whispers becomes overwhelming. You start to believe that isolating yourself is a kindness to others, sparing them from the chaos that your life has become.

Gone are the days of spontaneous outings and joy-filled gatherings. Instead, you retreat further, finding solace only in the fleeting highs of the gamble, even as the lows grow darker and more prolonged. The loneliness is palpable, a heavy weight, yet it’s the price you pay to shield your secret, your addiction, from those who once stood close.

The shame isn’t just a feeling; it’s a heavy cloak that drapes over your every move. Every glance in the mirror becomes a stark reminder of how far you’ve strayed from the person you once were. It gnaws at your insides, a constant, relentless reminder of choices made and consequences faced.

With each loss, with each dive deeper into the abyss of addiction, shame whispers in your ear, telling tales of failure and weakness. It taints memories of successes and joys, painting them with the brush of regret. The internal monologue becomes one of self-reproach, a litany of “if onlys” and “what ifs.”

Interactions with loved ones become a minefield. Their eyes, once full of warmth and understanding, now seem to penetrate right through to your raw, exposed vulnerabilities. Even when they don’t voice it, you can hear the unasked questions, feel the weight of their unspoken concerns. And with each encounter, the shame deepens, reinforcing the urge to hide, to retreat, to isolate.

Shame transforms the very essence of your self-worth. It convinces you that you’re undeserving of love, understanding, or redemption. It’s a shadow that lingers, even in moments of respite, ever-ready to remind you of your failures and stumbles. It becomes the barrier between you and the world, a wall you erect to shield others from your perceived disgrace.

Escapism and Distraction

The gnawing despair, the weight of unfulfilled promises and mounting losses, becomes a constant specter. In an effort to escape its grip, you find yourself seeking solace in another primal instinct: intimacy. The raw, visceral nature of sexual attraction becomes a tempting escape route, a brief respite from the storm raging within.

The chase becomes a game in itself. The flirtations, the dance of mutual attraction, the rush of endorphins with every touch and glance—it mirrors the highs you once sought in gambling. But just like before, it’s about distraction, a numbing agent for the pain beneath.

In the throes of passion, the world narrows. The looming debts, the crushing weight of addiction, the shadows of shame—they all recede, replaced by the immediacy of the moment. It’s a world where you can be someone else, where the roles you play and the masks you wear offer a brief sanctuary from the relentless reality.

But as the dawn breaks and reality seeps back in, the emptiness returns, often magnified. The transient nature of these encounters, the fleeting connections that lack depth or true understanding, only accentuates the loneliness. Instead of a salve, these distractions often end up being another layer to the complex web of escape mechanisms, another way to avoid confronting the heart of the darkness.

With time, the lines between seeking genuine connection and using intimacy as a mere diversion blur. The emotional costs stack up alongside the financial ones, adding to the complexity of the situation. You grapple with not only the shame of addiction but also the realization that in your quest for distraction, you may have further isolated yourself from genuine human connection.

Recovery

Recovery doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a quiet realization that the path you’re on is unsustainable. The first step, as they often say, is admitting you have a problem, and it’s perhaps the hardest. But once taken, it acts as a guiding light.

Support systems become essential. Whether it’s a formal support group, therapy, friends, or family, leaning on others allows you to share the burden. Each session, each conversation peels back the layers of denial and self-deception, revealing the raw wounds beneath. It’s painful, but cathartic.

Every day in recovery is a challenge, a conscious decision to fight against the urges. The mind, having been conditioned for so long, often tries to trick you into believing that one small bet won’t hurt. But with each resisted temptation, the chains of addiction loosen a little more.

Over time, you learn to replace the rush of gambling with healthier pursuits. Maybe it’s exercise, where the endorphin rush soothes and energizes. Perhaps it’s a hobby long forgotten, now dusted off and pursued with a newfound fervor. These activities become anchors, holding you steady when the seas of temptation grow rough.

Financial recovery is a slow process. Each paid-off debt, no matter how small, becomes a victory, a tangible proof of your progress. Budgeting and financial counseling might become part of your regimen, guiding you towards fiscal responsibility.

Emotionally, there’s a lot to unpack. The shame, guilt, and regret don’t vanish overnight. But with time and introspection, you learn to forgive yourself. You understand that recovery isn’t about perfection, but progress.

Relapse

As the pull of gambling remains strong, even though recovery has been so freeing. Your mind becomes a master of rationalization. These justifications, while seemingly logical in the moment, often serve as dangerous pathways to relapse.

“It’s just this once,” you tell yourself, believing that a singular return to the game won’t rekindle old habits. The illusion of control looms large, making you believe you can dip your toes in without diving headlong.

“I’ve been good for so long,” is another common refrain. This self-reward system tricks you into thinking that periods of abstention have “earned” you a short stint back at the gambling table, as if it’s a deserved treat.

“I’m wiser now,” you might think, convinced that past mistakes have made you more equipped to handle the stakes. You’re confident that with newfound insights, you won’t fall into previous traps.

“I can afford it now,” is a particularly potent rationalization when finances stabilize. The pinch of lost money doesn’t seem as sharp, and the thought arises that perhaps you can now gamble responsibly, keeping losses in check.

“I need to prove to myself that I can overcome it,” becomes a challenge, a test of will. The idea is not to avoid gambling altogether, but to engage in it without getting ensnared— to prove mastery over the vice.

“Just to socialize,” you might think when friends who still gamble invite you out. The intention is to be part of the camaraderie, not necessarily to play. But the environment, the familiar sounds and sights, can easily trigger old impulses.

“I’ve had a rough day; I deserve some fun,” is a way to seek solace. The stresses of life become excuses to seek the escapism that gambling once provided.

Each of these rationalizations, while sounding reasonable in isolation, chips away at the resolve to stay away from gambling. They downplay the risks, magnifying potential rewards or the illusion of control. And once the dam of restraint shows the slightest crack, the floodwaters of addiction can surge back in, often with greater intensity, leading to relapse.

The first time you slip, a mix of emotions cascade through you. The initial rush of adrenaline, that old familiar thrill, gives way to a gnawing guilt. “I’ve failed,” becomes the dominant thought. Yet, the relapse can also falsely reinforce the rationalizations. If the night ends in a win, it’s easy to think, “See, I can manage it. I just need to be careful.”

But if it’s a loss, another dangerous rationalization emerges: “I need to win it back.” This is the same old cycle, the chase, the belief that one more bet, one more spin, will put things right. But, as history has often shown, this chase leads further down the rabbit hole.

Friends and family, who’ve seen your struggles and celebrated your sobriety, might express disappointment or concern. Their reactions, while well-intentioned, can sometimes amplify feelings of shame and failure. You might start avoiding them, not out of resentment, but out of a desire to shield them (and yourself) from the reality of the situation.

As days progress, the internal conflict intensifies. One part of you yearns to break free, to get back on the path of recovery. The other part, fueled by the rationalizations and the fresh memories of the recent gamble, nudges you to continue, promising better outcomes, convincing you of newfound wisdom.

The real danger of relapse is not just the return to old habits, but the potential to plunge deeper. The fear of judgment, the weight of self-imposed expectations, and the very real consequences of renewed gambling can form a vortex, pulling you in with alarming force.

Yet, it’s crucial to remember that recovery is not a linear path. Stumbles, setbacks, and relapses can be part of the journey. What’s essential is how you respond to them. Do you let the rationalizations guide you, or do you recognize them for what they are: mirages in the desert of addiction, promising relief, but leading to further desolation?

Drawing from past experiences, seeking help, leaning on support systems, and most importantly, showing self-compassion can make the difference. The road to recovery, with all its twists and turns, is still ahead, waiting to be traversed with renewed determination.

There is Hope

Gambling addiction is a tumultuous journey, marked by the dizzying highs of early wins and the crushing lows of mounting debts and shattered relationships. It’s a path where the allure of easy money and the thrill of the game intertwine with the mind’s rationalizations, forming a complex web that ensnares even the most resolute. As the addiction deepens, it becomes less about pleasure and more about escape, leading to isolation, shame, and a feeling of entrapment. Relapses can muddy the waters of recovery, but they are not the end of the road.

Yet, amidst the chaos, there’s a beacon of hope. Recovery is not only possible but attainable for anyone willing to seek it. It’s a journey that may not be linear, and it will undoubtedly challenge one’s resolve. Still, with support, introspection, and determination, the chains of addiction can be broken. Every setback is an opportunity for a comeback, and every day away from gambling is a step towards a brighter, freer future. Remember, it’s not about how many times you fall, but how many times you get back up, stronger and more resilient. There is a world beyond addiction.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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