FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And now we're going to move from talking with mental health experts to someone who has lived addiction. Jonny W. lost almost everything to a gambling addiction. Thank you for coming in and being with us.
Mr. JONNY W (Member, Gamblers Anonymous): Thank you for having me here today.
CHIDEYA: Well, you know, let's start at the beginning. When did you start gambling?
Mr. W.: Well, I started at the ripe old age of about 12-years-old. And at that particular time, it was just a matter of fun and hanging out with my friends.
CHIDEYA: So, when you were 12 were you playing with kids or adults?
Mr. W: I was playing with my friends, kids, and a friend of mine used to babysit, and we used to go over while he was babysitting, and we'd play a game called Tonk (ph) and we'd play for money. And I found myself saving my lunch money up during the week so I would have some money to play with on the weekends. And basically that's how I started with that, and it was fine.
CHIDEYA: When do you think you crossed the line?
Mr. W: Well, I believe I crossed the line somewhere in the middle of my college when I was trying to go to school. And you know, going to college you're always short of funds, and I found a way, I thought, to increase my money, my income by going out into a little gambling. Unfortunately, I was going to school here in Los Angeles, and Gardena was quite close. So it was an opportunity to go down and play a little poker and increase my funds, and at the beginning I was winning.
CHIDEYA: It's always nice to be winning, but then what happened?
Mr. W: Well, after a while the winnings that I was getting wasn't enough. I always wanted more. And I found myself after a win and if I had to leave, I would always find myself the quickest opportunity to go back and win more and to win more and then I find myself going there every night and on the weekends and every opportunity. But in the winnings, I started to lose as well. And the more I lost, the more I wanted to return and reclaim my losses. And basically that got me started on a whirlwind and a cycle of - seem like never ending.
CHIDEYA: How deep do you think you were in it in terms of losses, total losses?
Mr. W: Oh, goodness. I would not say millions. But I would say hundreds of thousands.
CHIDEYA: And it changed your behavior with your friends and family, right?
Mr. W: Oh, absolutely. I became alienated from most of my friends and everything because I wasn't there for them or with them. They had out to social events and things, my social event was to get to the casino as quickly as I could in order to gain money.
CHIDEYA: And what did it do to your marriage?
Mr. W: Well, I got a divorce. I ended up in divorce. I ended up with my wife getting everything plus the kids. And basically, I was out in the streets trying to survive.
CHIDEYA: So, you're a very pulled-together gentleman. What changed between that moment when you hit bottom and now?
Mr. W: The basic thing is I finally realized that I hit the depths. I could not go any lower. And at that time, I realized that I needed to do something, and I needed to help myself and that's one of the things about a compulsive gambler, he or she needs to get to the bottom of their desperation and everything else and be able to seek help. And that was the point that I really realized that I needed help. So, at that point, I decided to go into Gamblers Anonymous and seek help and was very fortunate to get it there.
CHIDEYA: Did you just find them because, you know, you looked them up or how did you find out about the group that seems to have turned your life around?
Mr. W: Well, you know, it's very simple. In the casinos and everything else, they do have numbers, and they do have little signs up saying that if you have a gambling problem call this number. But I had heard about it and many times I walked right those signs, and I've laughed and said I have no gambling problem. But this particular time, the last time I walked out of a casino with my head low and losing all my money for who knows how many times, I wrote that number down and the next morning I called it. And it happened to be a Thursday morning and I called the number, talked to the people there and they told me that there was a meeting at Thursday evening. And I found my way to that meeting and from there they've taken it, and I've been going ever since.
CHIDEYA: Do you think that gambling - we talked a little bit earlier with the doctors about, you know, things like chemical addiction, do you believe that gambling is a hardwired addiction in your brain?
Mr. W: Well, I wouldn't - I'm not quite sure hardwired. I know it's an addiction, I don't believe that there's something up there that's gene or something like that. But through repetition of gambling and other things and mindset with the brain and everything else, there is something that's up there that says that I am a compulsive gambler. And given the chance to go back, I will do it again. That's for sure. So, there is something there.
CHIDEYA: Do you consider yourself still an addict?
Mr. W: Yes. I will be a compulsive gambler until the day that I die.
CHIDEYA: So, how - what changes have you made in your behavior specifically to avoid going back to where you were?
Mr. W: Well, that's the good thing about the program. We do have a recovery program. We do have people in there that help with financial situation, emotional situations, etc. I needed to have completed the 12 steps of recovery and on a continuous basis at least 2 meetings per week. I need to know what the other people who are coming in or still suffering and that the disease is still out there. And by attending meetings, I will always know and I will never forget that compulsive gambling still exists for the compulsive gambler.
CHIDEYA: Well, sir, thank you for sharing your story with us.
Mr. W.: Thank you for having me again.
CHIDEYA: Jonny W. is a member of Gamblers Anonymous, and he joined us in our studios here at NPR West.