More seek treatment as Clackamas County lawmakers vie for reforms aimed at slowing gambling machines

by: PHOTO BY JON HOUSE - Nate Peterson is pictured along McLoughlin Boulevard south of Milwaukie, where many cafes and restaurants advertise their lottery machines. Peterson is a former gambling addict, who now works as a counselor helping others recover.Nate Peterson still vividly remembers the moment when he tried video poker in a bar and won $200 soon after moving to the Portland area in 2004.

“That dopamine hit for me was a big one, and it was in my thoughts constantly, to the point when I stole money from work to gamble,” Peterson said.

Peterson, now 46, soon found himself playing on the state’s video lottery machines for hours almost every day to zone out, losing hundreds of dollars in most sittings and ceasing to care about anything. He lost $5,000 on video gambling in eight months before he sought treatment on Aug. 30, 2008.

“It slowly took a hold of me, and it became an escape to where I was playing more and more of my money and taking more of my time,” he said. “I was able to pay back the stolen money without any police intervention, and when they asked me about it, I said, ‘I think I’m a gambling addict.’ “

by: PHOTO BY: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Customers play state-sponsored Video Lottery machines at Cafe Del Toro, a former white-tablecloth restaurant that now makes $234,911 annually, based on 2012 funds after the state gets its approximately $1 million share, at its Lottery Row location.Now Peterson works as a counselor to help other gambling addicts recover from trying to recapture the joy of that first big win. As a former board member and vice president of Voices of Problem Gambling Recovery, he attempts to put a face on gambling addiction and testifies for reforms in front of the Legislature and the state’s Lottery Commission.

“In Oregon it’s prolific, second only to Nevada in concentration of gambling,” said the former California resident who had no problems with addiction as an occasional gambler in Reno. “It’s not for a lack of willpower or that people are morally corrupt — it’s a disease, and I wanted to bring some hope for people that recovery is possible.”

Bi-partisan bills heading through the Oregon Legislature this year promise to help the state recover for its own addiction to lottery funding (“Momentum builds for Oregon Lottery reforms,” Jan. 9). State Reps. Bill Kennemer (R-rural Clackamas County) and Carolyn Tomei (D-Milwaukie) agree that the state’s current lottery system is encouraging addicts to provide needed funding for schools and health care programs.

“It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, because people feel bad about losing, and then it just makes their depression worse,” Tomei said. “My big push is to make it harder for people to gamble, and if you’re driving along McLoughlin Boulevard there’s just place after place that provides gambling through the Oregon Lottery, and it gives the impression that if you lose at one place, you could drive a short way and win somewhere else.”

Seeking treatment

According to the Department of Human Services, more than 74,000 Oregon adults meet “problem or pathological gambler” criteria, but only 1,321 sought treatment in 2011. One percent of the state’s more than $1 billion in annual lottery revenue goes to gambling treatment at 46 providers in Oregon.

Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare runs one such facility called the Clackamas Gambling Clinic, 15630 S.E. 90th Ave., where county residents can receive family gambling therapy, couples therapy, individual therapy, group therapy, phone therapy, case management and even treatment via Skype. About 70 to 80 people are constantly enrolled in its programs, and sometimes Cascadia refers severe cases to check themselves in at the Bridgeway in-patient facility in Salem.

Philip Yassenoff, the clinic’s program manager, says that most clients in Clackamas soon discover that responsible gambling means self-imposed abstinence. The first part of the clinic’s standard program offers tips for learning the importance of avoiding video lottery machines and tips for getting out of the habit.

“Then the program focuses on how to live life and turn to family and hobbies,” Yassenoff said.

After three to nine months, clients generally “complete” the program, but are welcomed to return if they relapse or are having trouble controlling their urge to gamble. Yassenoff doesn’t expect the widespread problem to decrease much with the Clackamas County legislators’ modest reforms.

“We think of this as a public-health issue, and I don’t think that its central importance will change,” he said. “It’s important that people can receive this care, because the treatment is more cost-effective than the ultimate consequences.”

Such consequences include: Of the 1,861 gamblers who sought treatment in 2009, 38 percent admitted that they committed illegal acts in order to obtain money. Their average gambling debt was $32,000, and 48 percent reported suicidal thoughts.

“It’s pretty startling to sit in a room with someone who has a sterling reputation who says they just borrowed money without asking from the Girl Scouts or their church and thought they would pay it back,” said Mary Jayne Wykowski, a clinical social worker based in Portland.

Cocaine-like addiction

Jose Ricardo Vargas Garcia, masters-level gambling addiction adviser at the Clackamas clinic, estimates there are 12,000 problem gamblers in the county he serves, based on the 3 percent state average for population, so many aren’t yet seeking treatment. Problem gamblers can make six figures and no longer be able to support the lifestyle to which they were accustomed as they lose their jobs, or they could be making less than $20,000 annually and illegally selling use of their food-stamp cards for cash with which to gamble.

“It’s just a wide range,” Vargas Garcia said. “Their lifestyles are different, but when they talk about being addicted to gambling it’s largely the same story, just like alcoholism.”

Everyone recognizes that they should stop, but a gambler’s brain activates the same way as if they were using cocaine, he adds. If they’re winning, he observes their eyes getting wide and other signs of addiction like shortness of breath and increased heart rate.

“They say to themselves, ‘If I could win this amount and it will all be over, and I could pay everyone back, and it will all be OK,’ ” he said.

This points to the need for people who are specialists in gambling, because the types of interventions done for problem gamblers are different from anything else in mental health.

“You have to let them get upset at themselves when they try to explain how they ‘work’ the machine to cheat the state from money, which is of course impossible,” Vargas Garcia said. “Sometimes they say they played $200 and get $250, but then they’ll be omitting details like how they had just lost $400.”

Of course, gamblers are more often losing their money.

“That’s when they start getting into crisis mode and the depression sets in,” Vargas Garcia said.

He sees two main types of gamblers: more rarely “action gamblers” who enjoy being in the moment and tend to play card games that encourage “high rolling” and whose self-worth relies on their winning. Escape gamblers, who are trying to avoid something are much more common, and they tend to go for Oregon Lottery machines that are random and easy to use.

“Usually when people get into gambling, they’re trying to cope with something they don’t want to deal with directly. Some people have had previous addiction problems and they just find a new way of getting addicted,” he said.

If you minimize the availability of alcohol, then fewer people will become alcoholics, and the same is true of gambling, Vargas Garcia argues.

“People would still have issues that they had to work through like poverty or domestic violence, but then at least people wouldn’t be turning to gambling as a way to deal with these problems,” he said.

Peterson, the former gambling addict who now helps treat those afflicted, agrees that there is good a path forward.

“If I could just help one other person see that there are limitless possibilities for moving forward to a good life after addiction,” Peterson said. “I’m not anti-gambling or anti-lottery, but if the state is going to have gambling, we need to have adequate funding for treatment and I think that’s around 3 percent.”

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