No one decides to become a gambling addict. And I am no exception, although I wanted to be a gambler for most of my life. If I had known what kind of hell it would lead me into, I would not have set my hopes on it.
I remember how I was very interested in money even as a child. In the Donald Duck cartoons, Uncle Scrooge had massive amounts of coins, and I wanted to have just as many myself. I was frugal and hard-working, we collected empty bottles and got the coins for them when we returned them to the store. In the entrance to the store there was a gambling machine, and I once had a go on it using the money from the bottles, and loved it straight away. The game gave me the chance to get more coins. At the age of around eight, I already had a gambling problem – I basically lost on gambling all my pocket money and other money I had obtained. Back then, the minimum age for gambling machines was 15, but in practice nobody checked.
My brother, who is three years older than me, taught me how to place a bet. We are both good at maths, and already in primary school we were reading books about betting and calculating odds. We were both dreaming that sports betting would give us an easy way to make money quickly. When returning betting coupons at service stations and kiosks, I saw men who had thick wads of coupons and cash, who drank coffee and smoked, and I wanted to become like them when I was older.
I played ice hockey and football. During match trips, I wasn’t really interested in what happened on the field but rather on what happened in the service stations, on the betting machines. One time I betted away the food budget for the trip, and because of me the whole team was banned from making any bets.
When I was thirteen, I got my first summer job. For two weeks of work, I received a wage of 1300 marks, which was on my account immediately at the end of the last work day. The two-kilometre journey home took me several hours, and when I finally got home, there was only 300 marks left on my account. I had spent 1000 marks on the gambling machines at the nearby service station. That summer I learnt how to systematically lie about things. My parents assumed that I had money for pastimes and for buying myself something nice. I remember how I would think up all kinds of expenses for myself and loudly exaggerate how much things had cost.
My mother died of cancer when I was fifteen. She had taken care of the invoicing and other paperwork for my father’s business, and I began to take care of these after she died. I received a wage for this from my father, and so I had a fairly decent amount of money for someone my age. I used the money on gambling, tobacco and alcohol, and would get drunk every week.
After doing my army service, I moved to Oulu and studied business and online poker. Being good at maths, I actually did well – at online poker. My childhood dream of making money was coming true. It was available quickly and easily. My idols were Patrik Antonius, Ilari Sahamies and top poker players from other countries. Money, vodka and women. I drank, gambled, and played around. Online poker took my money and my mental health. I became withdrawn from normal daily life, got depressed and started getting panic attacks. In the end I sought and received help for my mental health problems, but I didn’t talk about the root cause, the gambling, and so didn’t get any help for it.
I moved back to my home town, Raahe. I worked as a taxi driver, got married, and we started a family. My gambling was fairly moderate, although I did place sports bets every day. I also learnt about harness horse race betting, and at that time smart phones came onto the market, so during my work days I would sometimes follow the sport and harness races from my phone while waiting for customers. I happened to make several fairly large wins. This got me excited, and once again I began to dream of being a professional gambler.
In 2013, I developed some health problems and had to give up my work as a taxi driver. I was home with the children and I had lots of extra time and not much meaningful stuff to do. My days began to be filled more and more with gambling, through which I imagined I could support my family. At that time I also discovered online casinos and their enticing slot machines, and I got tried out on the drug levodopa, for which one side effect is a strong desire to gamble. Pretty soon I was basically spending all my waking time gambling. I moved my computer to the garage so that I was able to smoke while playing, and under the table I had a big empty whiskey bottle into which I would urinate so that I didn’t even need to interrupt my gambling to go to the toilet. I presented myself to my friends and family as a successful professional gambler and imagined that my dreams are coming true. I basically gambled in every way possible: sports betting, horse racing, poker, backgammon, online casinos. I even bet on greyhound races.
The money disappeared, but the passion for gambling remained. I had read that payday loans were a big scam, but I nevertheless decided to give them a try. The money came into my account immediately, and I was gambling once again. I lost all the money, then took another loan, then another one, and so the spiral began. Soon I realised that I had reached a point where I had no chance of being able to pay the repayments on my debts, but I was still sure that soon I would win so much that I could pay all my debts and start a wonderful new life with the leftover money. The stress and anxiety I felt was huge, but I also believed that they would soon be gone when the big win came. I hid the collection letters from my wife, who knew nothing of my debts and my losses until one day she made it to the post box before I did. I cried and confessed that I was gambling, and we worked out the total amount of debt, which even I didn’t know precisely. We arranged a payment plan for the debts and I promised to stop gambling.
I didn’t gamble for several weeks, but then I started to imagine that I could gamble in a controlled way, betting with small amounts and winning some extra money to help with daily life and paying off the debts. To begin with, I forbid myself from using the online casinos and, keeping it secret from my close friends and family, I began betting again. I quickly saw that the same feelings were emerging and the gambling was getting out of control. Pretty soon I returned also to the online casinos, and things continued as before. My grandmother died and I received some inheritance money from her, then lost it all on gambling in a moment. I had lost my credit worthiness and could no longer take any more loans. I deceived my close friends and family, taking money from them, from our joint bank account and from my children’s piggy banks. The moment came when I no longer had any money for gambling and could no longer get any more from anywhere. I understood what I had done, once again, and how I had broken my promise. I had a mental breakdown and self-destructive thoughts started to arise. I couldn’t sleep, and one night I typed into Google “gambling addiction”. I found some information, including the Pelipoikki programme, which I then applied for. On the following day, I confessed to my family that I had once again been gambling. They were disappointed, of course, and asked how I would now succeed in giving up if I hadn’t been able to before. I said that I’m not able to with my own strength, that I need help for my addiction.
The Pelipoikki programme involved online tasks and weekly phone conversations with a professional support worker. Through the program, I learned to understand my own addiction and my motivation to recover steadily grew. As the programme was coming to an end, however, I felt afraid of the future. I wasn’t sure that I could manage on my own. The support worker told me about Pelirajat’on and asked if he could give my contact details to them. Soon afterwards, I got a call from Pelirajat’on and I was invited to an empowerment course in Kalajoki. The empowerment course was my first experience of peer support, and it immediately made sense. It was wonderful to share feelings and experiences with peers who have experienced the same things as I had. It was easy to speak with them because they understood me and I understood them, and nobody needed to feel ashamed. And when I also met on the empowerment course the experts by experience, who had recovered from their addiction, I understood that I also had a chance of getting free from gambling for good. My most significant experience from the course, however, was the talk given by addiction expert Matti Nokela, which was really eye-opening. In his talk, I heard for the first time the phrase grief work being used to talk about addictions. I understood that I had to say goodbye to a large part of my life in order to give up gambling.
After the empowerment course, I felt so good and so unburdened that I wanted to share the same feeling with those suffering from gambling addiction and to help them, where possible. I was invited to become a Pelirajat’on peer adviser, and a bit later on I also trained to be an expert by experience. I led peer support groups, volunteered for the peer helpline and also the chat service, and as an expert by experience I have participated in numerous different events and courses, for example by telling my own story on an empowerment course.
2018 was a difficult year for me, and in summer 2018 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The diagnosis was preceded by a manic episode during which I relapsed and started gambling again. It was terrible to realise what had happened. I felt that I had let down so many people; my close friends and family, my colleagues, those I was supporting as a peer advisor, the Pelirajat’on workers and all the people who I had shared my story with. Because of my role, the shame was much greater than it had been before, although it had been huge even then. I remember thinking “what would the peer adviser Joni say to the Joni that has relapsed?”. I had always emphasised the importance of honesty in recovering from gambling addiction, and now I myself had to be honest, although it was a really big step to take. I told my family, my Pelirajat’on contact worker and several colleagues. It was a big disappointment at least to my family, as it also was for me, but I received support and help for both the relapse and for getting mental health treatment. The relapse had to be worked through, and that helped me understand more about my own addiction disorder. Through receiving the right medication and therapy I have evened out my mood swings well and am feeling once again on the right track and motivated to do my work as a peer advisor and expert by experience.