She Bets Her Life

A writer and former compulsive gambler reflects on women and addiction.

Basement Medicine 2: the hard knowledge that set me free

Understanding Post Acute Withdrawal is the key to forgiving ourselves.

The first months of my committed gambling addiction recovery, I was sure I had Alzheimer's.  I couldn't think (or couldn't stop thinking), remember, feel - couldn't even read, which has always been my essential sleep aid.  I somehow surfed the chaos in my mind and managed to research information for She Bets Her Life before the book even had a title. As I stayed clean, stayed away from other minor fixes and walked the healing desert, my thinking began to clear.  I was writing one of the last chapters of the book when I stumbled across information in the Victoria, B.C. Gamblers' Anonymous website that seemed to enter straight into my mind and heart.  As I read, my tattered and beautiful mind, my tattered and beautiful life made sense.  I saw that I had never lived free from compulsive behavior and thinking.  I had never been out of the cycle of using and withdrawal---not since the first time I comforted my childhood terror with every chocolate chip cookie in the jar.

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I found the next words of She Bets Her Life flowing out from my fingers onto the keyboard:

 “…when I read about postacute withdrawal on a Victoria, Canada, Gamblers Anonymous site, missing pieces of a puzzle I’d never been able to solve fell into place. All of us who battle our compulsions and addictions talk about how easy it is to slip back into using—the recidivism rate for recovering gambling addicts is higher than that for any other addiction. We know, too, how hard it is to live clean. We can get blindsided by feelings that other people seem to take for granted. While I have come to understand the power of triggers, of euphoric recall, of a “disease that tells me it is not a disease,” I have never fully accepted the depth and persistence of my mood swings—and the even-more-painful reality that I cannot seem to sustain ordinary happiness or remain interested in a loving relationship once it stabilizes.

         "Understanding postacute withdrawal has given me a new way to be with who I am. According to the GA Victoria website, postacute withdrawal can occur randomly at any time in recovery. It is hard to identify because it is not dependent on length of recovery. A ten-year-clean gambling addict can be plagued by it as much as the newly abstinent. While it can occur in connection with underlying psychological conditions like depression, bipolar, OCD, and other personality disorders, it is often misdiagnosed as one or more of those “illnesses.”

"The website reads:

Often a deep emotional low occurs shortly after some pleasant experience like a good vacation, a promotion at work, a well deserved achievement or honor. The low is a baffling experience and is usually the point where the member goes back to the addiction, explodes uncontrollably or goes into a deep depression and is misdiagnosed.

 When I read these words, I saw the template of decades of my life. I’ve used something—anything—to distract myself since I first discovered food and books when I was five or six. It’s always been true that I need a good book to read in order to go to sleep, and when I don’t have one or more of them I feel jittery. I’ve been an addict all my life. I’ve been in withdrawal all my life. Postacute withdrawal is an aftereffect of a true addict’s cycles of using and withdrawing.

         GA Victoria also discusses the phenomenon of a recovering gambler visiting a casino (not uncommon in areas in which casinos are also music and entertainment venues) and not gambling: ...a few days or weeks later the same individual experiences an extreme mood swing—either a high or a low—and is again baffled. The effects of being in the gambling environment actually did trigger a delayed emotional reaction.

         Finally, they reminded me that those of us who have used for years don’t know what we feel. They point out that it’s normal to have buildups of feelings—sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, happiness, contentment, joy. Once the gambling addict is not using, those feelings can be overwhelming. Reality is not a comfortable place for recovering addicts of any sort,” the site emphasizes. And so, the recovering addict almost always reacts with a relapse of some kind, perhaps not by gambling, but by using any of the multitude of mind-altering substances and behaviors available to any of us."   ---She Bets Her Life: a true story of gambling addiction, Seal Press, 2010

For the sake of inclusion (which might be a definition of community), let's assume many of you are hooked on something.  Let's assume you began using as a young child - to soothe, to buffer, to jack up your mood.  And, let's assume that learning about Post Acute Withdrawal might allow you to look back on your own longing to feel connected, with those you care about and with yourself.  Let's assume that like me, you can use all the compassion you can give yourself.

Here are two terrific resources, both written with intelligence and compassion:

for most of us:  http://www.interventionctr.com/paws.htm

for gambling addicts, whether you are in recovery or not: http://www.victoriaga.org/withdrawal.htm 

 

 

 

 

Mary Sojourner, M.A., is the author of She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press/ April 2010) and Going Through Ghosts (U.Nevada Press, 2010).

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