Gambling Addiction Recovery - Why Abstinence is NOT Enough

Gambling addiction recovery is a topic that can spur some controversy.  When I was first faced with discovering that the love of my life was a pathological gambler, I came to believe that it was an issue of will power, and as intelligent and strong-willed as she is, that she could just.  She "simply" needed to put her mind to it and make it a priority.  In other words, I equated recovery with abstinence.  Abstinence (i.e. refraining from gambling of any kind) is required for recovery, however, it is far from being the same thing.  At least that what I later came to believe.

Gambling Addiction Recovery

Although some people will debate this, it has become a common belief by professionals, and those with extensive experience, that abstaining from gambling, even for decades at a time, does not mean that a problem gambler is in recovery.  Let me elaborate.  Professionals believe that gambling is not a problem gambler's actual problem.  While it certainly creates additional problems with relationships, trust, and the financial destruction that it can cause, gambling is actually a symptom one or more underlying problems.  If you believe this premise, then someone with a gambling addiction who stops gambling (i.e. abstains), is not yet in recovery.  Abstinence from gambling does not mean that someone has even entered the recovery process.

Abstinence certainly alleviates a lot of the downstream impacts, and NEW problems created by the lies, stealing, deception, and financial issues created by the action of gambling.  However, gambling addiction recovery can only be achieved by meaningful treatment relating to why a person is driven to gambling in the first place.  There are many reasons why a particular person (who eventually becomes a problem gambler) will gamble.  For someone with a gambling addiction, the action of gambling can:
  • Provide a sense of control;
  • A way to escape from life and issues they're struggling with;
  • A physical high (related to escapism); it's said that the brain chemistry of someone on a drug high is identical to that of a gambler while they're gambling;
  • Etc...
This is why in addition to going to Gambler's Anonymous, in order for the gambling addiction recovery process to take place, some degree of therapy is required.  You can read more about therapy in the Help With Gambling Addiction section.  The ultimately goal is not just to stop gambling, but to achieve a state of emotional well-being and internal happiness.

As an analogy, although not a perfect one, consider someone, despite being wealthy, who is continually driven to rob banks.  Think of abstinence as cutting off their arms.  Without arms they can no longer rob banks, however, the drive and urge to do so remains.  Although such an individual no longer robs banks, they are still a bank robber, for whatever is underlying their drive to rob banks is still there.  Of course, a problem gambler who abstains using various tools is certainly not the same as cutting off one's limbs to avoid being physical capable to perform certain activities.  But hopefully the concept of stopping the symptom (gambling, or robbing banks in this analogy) while not treating the underlying problem makes sense.

Based on my studies and personal experience, I strongly believe that while abstinence is highly desirable, and can relieve a tremendous amount of pressure and issues from loved ones impacted by a problem gambler in their lives, it's only a piece of the recovery pie.  I believe that someone who has abstained from gambling for even 20 or 30 years, but who has never had any individual therapy for their underlying issues, can never truly be at peace and happy with themselves and in their life.  It's for this reason that I urge people to really take the extra effort to determine the appropriate treatment to uncover and deal with a gambling addicts underlying traumas.  If your gambler is able to abstain (certainly not a trial accomplishment of course!), don't stop there.  True recovery requires an additional level of work and commitment.  And of course, always keep in mind, that them, no you, need to want recovery for themselves.  Gambling addiction recovery is not something that you or anyone else can do for them or force them to want to do.  That's not to say that loved ones can't provide some encouragement of course!

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