16 March 2013

Kenya: Gambling Behind Glitz and Glamour

If you believe the movies, gambling happens in such glamourous settings: Boxing matches where the women wear fur coats, diamonds and gold; well-lit casinos with huge chandeliers, serious older men and women wearing next to nothing; or the races where mesmerising thoroughbreds confirm that God is the first and best engineer.

Gambling seems fun, like people are always winning, like money is easy to make and you are just minutes away from all your dreams falling into place.

According to the Casinos of Kenya website, which is maintained by the Association of Gaming Operators of Kenya, there are 17 member casinos in places as varied as Thika, Eastleigh, Watamu, Malindi and of course Nairobi.

A quick glance within them tells you that given the huge investment they have made in these venues, they do not take it for granted that you will walk in and perhaps spend your money.

Rather these places are brightly lit so you lose your sense of time, they offer free food, the temperature is controlled so you are comfortable and sometimes they even spray oxygen in the room to keep you awake and alert. In Las Vegas they even spray pheromones in the air to keep you sexually stirred and the drinks are free.

So what happens when you fall for all the glitz and glamour?

Singh's story:

For Singh, the glamour and glitz of gambling has faded like an old bronze statue. He is so embarrassed and ashamed of his addiction that he won't even meet me in person.

He insists that he will share his story because it may change the lives of others but he will only do so on email. I think that this is a little unorthodox but at least he is willing to speak and I can't find another gambler in recovery.

After answering about 15 questions on email, he agrees to a skype session where I can't see his face too well. He will not tell me his age, real occupation, religion or what he does for a living, I tell him that I need them for the sake of narrative and he says he will send me something.

Here is his story:

Singh is a 38-year-old businessman in Nairobi. He used to be married but after years of putting up with his gambling, his wife took their two children and left. He has been gambling for the last 18 years and loves the card games at casinos.

"My first big win was 5,000 American dollars (Sh430,000) and I can still remember the high. So much money and so quickly, I felt fantastic. In 2009, I was in Las Vegas and I won a clean 70,000 dollars (Sh6 million). It was bittersweet because that is the same year that my wife took our two kids and left," he says.

"I was careless and we lost our family home. I think after putting up with me for so long, that was the last straw. Our home... it was too much. That wasn't even the biggest loss but it was too much." So, what was his greatest financial loss? I ask.

"Some 132,000 dollars (Sh11.3 million)," he says flatly.

"It is only after she left me that I started thinking that I might have a problem. It is hard to find help here in Nairobi," he pauses and looks down, "It is not like America with Gamblers Anonymous or anything, and this is a daily struggle that I have to deal with. Just from answering these questions, I know that I will need a session with my therapist."

Pascal Mwita, his psychologist, later confirms that these questions triggered Singh and they spent most of the day after our conversation together.

Singh says that he is driven to gamble by the emotional highs and lows, "they are my real addictions. That euphoria of winning, but also the lows of losing."

I ask what deep need he thinks gambling fulfills in his life and he replies, "Through therapy, I have come to see that I have a deep sense of loneliness. I have issues with self-image and shame. I am not much of an extrovert and gambling made me feel accepted and provided a sense of belonging."

He says recovering from gambling addiction is an everyday struggle, "staying away from the gamblers table has been particularly difficult. I am a success there but in everyday life, I have lost almost all of my inheritance, I am deeply in debt and I am not even 40. It has been almost three years without gambling and I am still paying debts.

"My family is disappointed with what I have done with my inheritance because my father worked so hard for his wealth. I am ashamed of that," Singh pauses and looks away, then looks at me and says, "But my wife and children... my wife and children have not been with me for the last three years and that is the biggest cost," he says and looks down.

From the tone of his voice, his sunken shoulders and general posture, I can tell that Singh is a man in pain, shame and feeling deep remorse.

Mwita, a psychologist, addiction specialist and shame therapist says that gambling addiction falls under 'process addictions'.

He explains, "Process addiction is a relatively new way of describing an addiction to an activity, or a process, that does not involve taking brain-affecting substances such as cannabis, alcohol, cigarettes or hard drugs.

The term 'process addiction' covers addictions such as over-eating, compulsive shopping, the compulsive need for sex (sex addiction), or porn (porn addiction), compulsive gambling (gambling addiction), or compulsive computer game playing (computer game addiction).

We should note that addictions, whether substance- or behaviour-based, differ from pure obsessions and compulsions in that they are directed toward a goal, and are expected to yield pleasure."

The four phases of addiction:

So how does the gambling addiction work? Mwita says, "Gamblers who experience difficulties often go through a series of cycles, or stages, before they reach the point at which they feel helpless. Some compulsive gamblers will skip a stage, the following four phases are fairly common among this population:

1. The Winning Phase - In the beginning, the compulsive gambler often experiences a 'big win', which results in more frequent gambling and increased wagers. This tends to enhance self-image, and the gambler begins to fantasize about winning and the wonderful and exciting future this will bring about. Unreasonable optimism develops. Note: Some gamblers never experience this phase and skip to the following stages of progression.

2. The Losing Phase - During this period, the compulsive gambler thinks only about gambling. Personality changes begin to develop. Lies, borrowing money, and cover-ups are common. The gambler can no longer control the gambling, and relationships with family, friends, and employers deteriorate.

3. The Desperation Phase - The gambler can no longer pay debts and looks for bailouts that could be legal or illegal. These actions are rationalized as a means of getting even or recovering their losses. As the "chase" continues, the gambler panics at the prospect that the action will stop. During this time, the gambler clings to the belief that a winning streak, which will solve all their problems, is just around the corner. There are increasing signs of depression, irritability, and thoughts of suicide may be present.

4. The Hopelessness Phase - You'd think it couldn't possibly be worse than the desperation phase, but the difference is that in the hopeless phase, the compulsive gambler completely loses all hope. He just gives up, and doesn't care whether he lives or dies. In fact, he wishes he were dead, and may make one or more attempts at suicide at this point, if he has not already done so. If not ending their actual life, many compulsive gamblers in the final throes of stage four resort to activities that cause them to become incarcerated. In this way, they've taken themselves out of the equation - they can no longer do harm to others if they're in prison. For many action compulsive gamblers, the fourth phase is the final phase. For some, however, there is a fifth phase - one, finally, of recovery.

Treatment and Recovery:

Amuka Pilgrimage, which was founded by a psychologist Pascal Mwita offers one-on-one counseling, group sessions and even home visits to recovering addicts. Mwita says shame plays a huge role in addiction.

"As a therapist, my job is to get the individual to talk about what they are ashamed of and their regrets. Shame derives its power from secrecy. The person feels alone, like they are the only person who has ever gone through what they are going through and they are keenly aware that they have let others down. Shame is very isolating as the person suffers alone. So we break that barrier in treatment so it stops depleting the person's self-worth and dignity."

He adds, "shame feeds addiction. The person thinks 'I am worthless' or 'nobody cares' so they need something to replace those feelings and they gamble or have sex or get high."

If you think you may have a problem, he recommends that you speak to a therapist or turn up for an addict support group meeting at 6 p.m on Thursdays at All Saints Cathedral. You could also email him at pascal@amukapilgrimage.com

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