Illustration by Joe Fleming

Finding positivity, gratitude and resilience in problem gambling recovery


I met Phil in late August of 2017. We spoke at Good Shepherd Ministries a shelter in downtown Toronto, where he was living and receiving treatment for problem gambling. The hard-working 58-year-old spoke to me about his life as a salesman and a security guard, and the empathy that got him by.

“You’ve got to be a salesman when you’re a security guard, truly, because you have to deal with people,” he says. He was a strong orator, with a deep and clear voice. “Some people you have to deal with are just…” he pauses. “But, if you treat them like human beings, they’ll treat you that way, too. It doesn’t matter how drunk a person was, I always knew how to talk to them…I’ve been in roles where I may as well have been in the military.”

Phil was always a defender. Growing up, he experienced a lot of abuse. His father often physically abused his mother, and once attempted to kill her. Phil would try to shield her from his father’s rage. In fear, Phil’s mother never wanted him to leave her side. Anytime he tried to leave the house, she’d call for him to come right back home. He was concerned for her safety, but he also felt trapped.

“I saw this all my life,” he said. “I was her protector.”

In his teen years, he started gambling and drinking heavily. When he wasn’t gambling, he thought about everything that was going on at home. It became his escape.

“As I started losing, I sold everything. I had nothing. It doesn’t feel good, to have everything, and then have nothing.”

“I basically went into a cave…I had money and worked…[so] I started buying lottery tickets to occupy my time. They kept me busy…I thought it was okay.”

Men can develop problem gambling as a way to cope with early life trauma, such as abuse and neglect experienced in childhood, says Dr. Flora Matheson, a research scientist at the Centre for Urban Health Solutions at St. Michael’s Hospital. Men who lack healthy role models and support may look for ways, like gambling, to forget about pain.

For Phil, gambling became a more serious concern later in life. In 2002, he received a sizable inheritance when his father passed away. A friend told him about a casino in Ajax, Ontario, and he decided to try his luck. In his first couple of plays, he lost big sums of money—$1500 and $2000—but he went back. “I just start, I can’t stop,” he said. The slots had him hooked.

During his third visit, he won $666, then $10,000, then another $1700. His big wins attracted the interest of a woman. They started dating, and she manipulated him into giving her his savings.

He thought he could win it all back at the casino, but he kept losing. He was running out of money, and had to sell his laptop, his TV, and all of his other possessions. Sooner or later, he lost his home: an upscale apartment in Toronto.

“I was living in a beautiful place at Main and Gerrard. It was basically the penthouse. It was gorgeous—my own place,” he said. “As I started losing, I sold everything. I had nothing. It doesn’t feel good, to have everything, and then have nothing.”

According to Dr. Matheson’s research, there is a strong link between problem gambling and homelessness. Men experiencing poverty are nine times more likely than the general population to develop problem gambling.

At the time of my interview with Phil, he estimated having spent $25,000 to $50,000 on gambling in his life. “You don’t realize it’s hurting you until you get to the point where you lose everything. You have nothing to live for anymore. It gets to the point where I’m in and out of shelters, in and out of shelters, in and out of shelters,” Phil said.

Gambling proved to be an insidious past-time for Phil, not only leaving him homeless, but worsening his mental and physical health. Homelessness deepened his depression, and worsened his diabetic symptoms.

“I’m never going to give up, because I’m fighting.”

“My health is deteriorating…I may have to go on insulin. The only thing gambling is going to do is make me sicker….it’s like a drug.”

Still, Phil is resilient. He’s confident that he can stop gambling the way he surmounted other hurdles in his life. He stopped drinking two years ago, and has been clean from drugs from over 17.

“I’m never going to give up, because I’m fighting,” he says with conviction. “I’m a fighter. So I’m going to keep on fighting.”

He joined the Gambling Addiction Program at Good Shepherd Ministries in Toronto where he receives individual counseling, and help for his specific housing and health needs. He participates in the cognitive-behaviour and life skills group, and attends Gambler’s Anonymous. He says the programs have helped him understand why he turned to gambling. On his own, Phil has personal strategies that help him resist gambling urges. Playing games on his cellphone distract him from buying scratch tickets.

“I play my games. I plug my phone in. I got my charger. I go over to the rec centre and I sit there and play…I don’t think [about gambling],” he said.

Phil is also grateful. Despite everything, he described feeling like something out there is watching over him. He’s looking forward to what the rest of his life has to offer. Soon, he will be getting permanent dentures. He lost his teeth to a past addiction with crack cocaine, making it difficult for him to eat.

“I can smile for pictures. You know how that feels?” he smiles. “It will be different. You’re chewing, your pace is slower, and not only that, but apparently you’ll talk differently.”

“I could be 58 years old, [and] it will take some time to adjust. But you know what, I got all the time in the world,” he laughs. I’ll get my own damn teeth.”

We are very grateful to the participants in our research, as they have shared with us very personal and difficult stories that have helped us understand the complex pathways that have contributed to their housing and gambling concerns. The following story is one example.

This middle-aged participant told us about how he’d come to Canada as a young child. He shared that his early life had been difficult and “traumatic,” marked by homelessness and family violence. His family lost their home because of his father’s alcoholism and gambling. He shared that he felt sad because he eventually ended up struggling with the same issues his father had.

Like many other men in our study, he began gambling as a minor. Around the same time, at age 16, he started drinking—something he learned through his family and friends. He was taken with sports gambling; he was good at it, and he enjoyed it at the time.

I started gambling when I started drinking. So, that would be at the age of 16, and I went on with drinking, I went on with gambling . . . I’d gamble on a daily basis. I used to like [bet] on sporting events like basketball, or hockey, baseball, soccer, football. I’m a football fanatic.

In order to continue his gambling activities as a youth under the age of 18, he engaged in strategies with older people who facilitated his gambling.

When I was that age, I couldn’t gamble or drink, so I had to . . . pay someone to play for me. So, they’d have to get something out of it. So, I’d have to give them some money so they’d play for me, because you ain’t going to get something for free, that’s for sure. I’d have to get people that I drank with to buy the tickets, because then I’d bribe them by buying alcohol. That would work.

Our participant said that for him, drinking and gambling go “hand in hand,” and he has struggled with both interrelated addictions throughout his life. As an adult, his interrelated gambling and alcoholism has caused him to experience many financial troubles—with dire consequences, including the loss of his home and estrangement from his wife and child.

So, the gambling actually, I guess, caused me to drink more because of a lot of stress, mental stress, and that’s when it got worse. So, because of that, that’s why I lost all my possessions. Being homeless is not a fun place, that’s for sure. I’ve had to sleep on benches. I had to sleep in parks. I’ve had to sleep on people’s floors, people’s couches . . . I also had to take money from my friends, so-called friends, to pay people from gambling. So, a lot of financial hardship from getting into that situation.

He has entered treatment for alcoholism and gambling. His experience taking part in the research with a peer interviewer was beneficial for him. Talking about his experiences helped lead him to realize how his addictions intersected.

So, it’s kind of good that you guys came that time, because I was still in pre-treatment, which was here when you guys came by here for the survey. So, that’s when a light bulb went off in my head. Not only am I an alcoholic, I also have a gambling problem. So, thanks to you guys, it worked in my favour. So, I commend you guys for coming here and doing the survey. So, you deserve some credit where credit’s due.

The powerful stories these men shared with our research team helped us learn much more about the way in which gambling is experienced in the context of poverty.

Reproduced from: Hamilton-Wright, S., Woodhall-Melnik, J., Guilcher, S.J., Schuler, A., Wendaferew, A., Hwang, S.W. & Matheson, F.I. (2016). Gambling in the landscape of adversity in youth: Reflections from​ men who live with poverty and homelessness. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13 (9), 854-871. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph13090854