A Rock-Bottom Gambler Craves Fellowship

By Chris Wright 02/26/13

With no money left to travel to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, I sought community elsewhere. What I found made me reconsider my motives.

Are two better than one? Aces via Shutterstock

I was supposed to go to a GA meeting on Friday night, but I'd gambled away the bus fare. And the rent. And food. Which is what made me decide to go to a GA meeting in the first place. A classic Catch-22.

I greeted that morning, as I so often do these days, gurgling with anxiety. The exhaustion I felt as I tallied up the previous night's catastrophes went beyond a mere lack of sleep—it was of the too-tired-to-feel-tired variety, the final few moments in the tar pit. So I called a problem gambler helpline and got on with a guy named Bob.

Bob was a little gruff. First, he uh-huhed and mm-hmmed as I dribbled my story into the phone, but after a half-hour or so he seemed to have had enough. He took particular issue with my insistence on generalizing about my condition. "You are a resourceful liar, Chris," went a typical rebuke, "not we."

More and more, I ignored the sympathy and advice being offered, lingering instead on the tales of woe—the woe-ier, the better. I was indulging in misery porn.

Even as I sobbingly recounted my most recent implosion, I wondered if I wasn't angling for a story here. I kept asking Bob if a lot of the people he talks to are often given to buying bargain sausages for their kids, having just blown enough to acquire an entire pig, or if my payday-loan pyramid scheme was out of the norm. His responses grew increasingly short. There was a point where I feared he might hang up on me.

But on reflection, I don't think these questions represented my journalist's instincts kicking in so much as a desire to feel that mine is a shared experience, that I'm not the moral equivalent of a two-headed calf. It's not for nothing that the various Anonymous groups use terms like "fellowship," or that their meetings are attended by "members." It's the sense of being part of a community, no matter how wretched, that keeps us going back.

As I look at the Gamblers Anonymous 12-step stuff—and the "ancient spiritual principles" therein—I can't help feeling that they're overcomplicating things. It's not God who heals the addict; it's Ed, Jane, Larry. As for the number of steps involved, there are three: You meet people with problems like yours; you find that some of these people have prevailed; you allow these people to guide you towards recovery. The rest is just window dressing, like the mask the witch doctor wears while administering his curative potion.

And, again, that horrible morning, lacking the funds even for the bus ride to my nearest GA meeting, the longing for association became especially urgent. Bob asked if I couldn't walk to the meeting. And when I explained that no, I couldn't, as this would be more like a 12-trillion step program, he didn't laugh. Instead, he suggested I visit his organization's website, which has a forum where people offer sympathy and advice. "That might be helpful," he said.

This was the heading for my first post: "Dark Thoughts." I was shooting for compelling and mysterious, because the last thing you want on any Internet forum is to be ignored. "I feel like I've lost all control," I revealed in my opening salvo. "I just don't see any way out." (This part was—is—especially true: I feel trapped, helpless in the face of my urges, and this is the thing that sometimes leads me to wonder if I can go on.) Almost immediately, I received a response: "There is a way out and it is called 'Stopping!'"

Jesus, why hadn't I thought of that?

Over the next few hours, I trawled the New Member area, taking some measure of comfort from the familiarity of the stories being told. Broken relationships, lost homes, deprived children, self-hatred, deceit, debt—the forum had it all, especially debt. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about this grim convocation was how many of the testimonies took the form of ledgers. The outpourings of emotional and psychological torment were there, but people seemed most eager to illustrate, with absolute precision, how dire their financial situations had become.

I had a few unsavory revelations while I was reading these posts. First, it became increasingly clear that, rather than seeking shared experiences, I was looking for stories that were more abject than my own. There was a relief in knowing that my failures were being matched, and sometimes trounced, by many of my fellow sufferers. More and more, I ignored the sympathy and advice being offered after each post, lingering instead on the tales of woe—the woe-ier, the better. I was indulging in misery porn.

I've had similar reactions during actual meetings. I don't think this makes me a particularly insensitive person. All of us are drawn to tragedy, particularly when expressed in a stylized form. And Anonymous narratives do generally follow a certain arc—dabbling, escalation, crisis, resolution—along with the unities of hardship and humiliation. There is a recreational aspect to listening to this stuff.

We should note here that this wildly inappropriate response to suffering is often courted by the sufferers themselves. While addicts tend to downplay their problems with their non-afflicted friends and colleagues, put them in a room together—virtual or otherwise—and the opposite becomes true. Anyone who has ever attended a meeting will have witnessed this: the subtle games of one-downmanship.

This is not to trivialize the horrors inherent in the addictive lifestyle—God knows I'm aware of them—but merely to point out that even the most benign human impulses can often degenerate into something less agreeable when expressed in terms of the collective. So it is that, in a Group setting, the basic need for understanding and appreciation can sometimes mutate into what might be termed Downfall Envy, and the unseemly efforts to redress what is seen as an imbalance of grief.

I experienced this dynamic, too, during my foray into the world of online support groups. It started somewhere during the transition from appreciating the unity of experience on the forum to resenting it. Because, yes, hearing stories just like yours does mitigate feelings of isolation. But the flip side is that, with each telling, the story loses a little of its power. Your descent into misery and depravity may not have been particularly pleasant, but it was yours. Now you find out that a million other people have ridden the same slide.

So it was that upon reading "No money for my baby's 1st Christmas," I went back to my entry and excised the part about only being able to afford a few meager gifts for my own kid this year, which now seemed a petty complaint.

A little later, during one of my frequent checks for responses to my post (oh, Vanity), I came across one from someone named James. "You will feel better, stronger and more capable in time," he wrote. "I feel for you, I genuinely do; there are always options, there is always a way out my friend." It's hard to say why, exactly, but I very nearly believed him.

London-based writer Chris Wright is a frequent contributor to The Fix. One of his recent pieces wondered if the disease model is an easy way out.

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London-based writer Chris Wright is a frequent contributor to The Fix. One of his recent pieces wondered if the disease model is an easy way out.