Casinos are intoxicating. Although it was once an illicit activity in Oklahoma, casinos provide excitement and escape for rural and city dwellers. The lights, music, friendly staff and the sound of a jackpot can send even the most casual of gamblers over the edge.
A Chance to Change, a counseling service center in Oklahoma City, recently reported a two-thirds increase of patients seeking gambling counseling from 2007 to 2008.
David Swope, gambling counselor for A Chance to Change, said several factors are contributing. One reason is the easy accessibility of a casino.
"It's about proximity," he said. "There are casinos five to 10 miles away versus 100 miles away."
Swope said the declining economy may also contribute to the rise of gambling addiction. Because funds for a week's stay at a hotel are limited, people spend their days at an entertainment facility nearby.
Cody Shoemaker, a gambling counselor for Bridgeway, a substance abuse service out of Ponca City, said people are just trying to stretch their dollars further and win some extra money.
"Spend a little here, and get a little increase. It's very seldom that you win, and when you do, you spend it right back," he said.
Wiley Harwell, the executive director of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling, said gambling offers an escape to some and a rush of adrenaline to others. Many problem gamblers are avoiding a problem at home or work and finding comfort in the walls of a casino.
But gambling addiction is simply a behavioral problem, Swope said. When rewarded for a behavior, such as winning money, there are some areas of the brain that treat gambling the same as if one has an addiction to drugs.
Although some people are more susceptible to becoming a gambling addict than others " such as those who have had addictive behavior with substances " it can affect anyone, Swope said.
The biggest group to seek gambling counseling is the elderly, Shoemaker said. That demographic feels especially welcomed by the friendly staff and more spare time.
"(The) elderly may not have anyone to wish them for a happy birthday. Casinos send them cards and say, 'Come get your free dinner!' It becomes to them almost like a family," he said.
There are many symptoms of addictive gambling behavior, Swope said, including feeling out of control, unable to quit, an obsession with gambling or the consequences of gambling, agitation and depression.
"There are some who wake up thinking about gambling "¦ it's a huge conflict within a person," he said.
Travis, who is still participating in group therapy sessions for a gambling addiction, struggled for years with his problem.
His struggle started 15 years ago when he moved from Oklahoma City to a place that had legalized gambling, he said. New to the city and with nowhere to be with friends, Travis decided he would try gambling, just for fun.
"All of a sudden, gambling became my friend. It became my entire social life," he said.
After a while, Travis moved back to Oklahoma, where the access to casinos was more limited. His addiction didn't stop, but it did slow down.
As time went on, he sank right back into his addiction. At the height of his problem, Travis spent nearly all of his money, was evicted from his apartment and had two cars repossessed, he said. At the time, Travis was making about $50,000 per year at his job, but almost all of his earnings went into gambling, he said.
About six months after his problem resurfaced, he recognized he had a problem, he said.
He sought help for his gambling problem in December of 2006 and was determined to live a normal life.
Travis said it took a long time to earn his family and friends' trust again because of lies about how much he had spent at the casinos. He had also isolated himself from others.
Treatment has done Travis well, with his urges to gamble at an all-time low. He currently attends a group gambling session every week to discuss his progress with other ex-addicts, he said.
Bill Lance, CEO of the commerce division of the Chickasaw Nation, said patrons should enjoy their experiences responsibly.
"Once a game ceases to be fun, it ceases to be a game," Lance said. "So we have employee training programs in place which encourage and support responsible gaming practices. We're also a founding member of the Oklahoma Association for Problem and Compulsive Gambling, and we work with this association and other service agencies to promote a better understanding of this problem."
Although recovery is useful, it must be practiced often and takes time to see results, Swope said.
"Some may not need (counseling) at all and some it's a lifelong issue," he said.
Counseling sessions offer the patient advice on how to budget and tips on dealing with any triggers or urges, he said.
Unfortunately, the relapse rate of a gambling addiction is very high, Harwell said. About 20 percent of gamblers can sneak back into their old ways, he said.
"People really need to assess what's going on with themselves," Travis said. "If they remotely think there's a problem, they can get help." "Jamie Birdwell