I Came Out the Other Side

By Tony Kelly 10/17/14

I am an ex-gambling addict and professional footballer who made it out of my addictions.

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The year 1984 is when it all started for me, the year that I placed my first ever coupon football bet. Looking back I should have taken heed of that old cliché, "Your first bet is your worst bet."

Not for one moment, as with all gambling addicts, did I ever think that bet would lead into a long and torturous journey of gambling addiction. Why would I? After all it was all meant to be a bit of fun and banter with my football pals. Very quickly it didn't seem like such fun, after I found myself dipping into my wages from work.

This is what addiction feels like. You slowly start to lose control of your actions and emotions thereby deflecting your anger onto others. 

We are all susceptible to gambling addiction, we just don’t realize it. It can happen to anybody.

Professionally and psychologically, we have no concept of the make-up of our genes, character, or vulnerability to addiction. Therefore we are all taking a risk once we start to indulge in this evil disease as there are proven medical/physiological reasons for why some of us become addicted while some of us do not. Professional practitioners are able to find the root of an individual's reason for becoming an addict, in most cases, which is why it is so important that we seek professional advice or help when we feel we have a problem.

Moving on from the therapy side of gambling addiction and fast forward two years. As with all gamblers, "chasing" is a term we can all relate to, so by now I was a regular gambler and more importantly a regular loser! I was at my local Mecca, bookmakers in Dulwich South East London, and was firmly on the slippery road to ruin. You see, chasing your losses is a very dangerous formula—it only succeeds in pushing you deeper and deeper into debt, as I found out, with devastating consequences.

After moving to North London from Dulwich, I was soon increasing my outlays, which again is a sign of desperation, with my wages increased through my new job at Eastern Electricity and my football wages with St Albans City FC. It was easy to take risks and continue my search for the big win, the win which I hoped would solve all my problems.

It was St Albans City which would be the club that would propel me into the big time after a £40,000 transfer to Stoke City, and provide me with more than enough ammunition to continue my, by now, severe gambling addiction.

I can't stress enough that the emotions you go through as an addict; the feeling of seeing your horse pipped on the line by an 50/1 outsider. It's painful and at times so hard to take, which is where the anger and frustration comes into play and you take it out on your loved ones, which only adds to your problems. These feelings I keep firmly in my memory bank as a reminder that I will not be going down this road again in the future. I remember losing a bet by teletext! Teletext I hear you say, well teletext still exists today but as there were no mobiles or much televised racing in the late 80s, it was a way of finding out various sports results. As I scrolled down the screen with my remote, squinting my eyes in the hope that the name of my horse would show up in bright capital yellow letters, BANG! Like a hammer blow my horse shows up in second place, and there goes my treble, together with yet another remote control thrown across the room!

With that you sink into a mini-depressive state, lost in your own little world wondering where the next win is going to come from. This is what addiction feels like. You slowly start to lose control of your actions and emotions thereby deflecting your anger onto others. 

So having got my dream life into the world of professional football in January 1990, I had visions of finally getting out of debt as I knew the money I would be earning would be enough to eventually solve my financial worries. How wrong I was! Sadly my journey after signing for Stoke City would be one that would take me on a huge roller coaster that would take me years to recover from.

Now, a fully-fledged professional footballer living the high life with all the trimmings, money, fame, girls, I was living the dream with money burning a hole in my pockets! So where did it go wrong? Well, with the bonus of excessive funds at my disposal, and with my obsession of chasing the big win, it became apparent that all I was interested in was continued gambling to get debt-free as quickly as possible. Unfortunately with bigger layouts came bigger losses.

Yes that vicious circle we all find ourselves in from time to time. Although I cleared some debt it was not enough. You think the big one will come soon and you start playing the percentage game, surely this week or next week. At this point It is so important for gamblers to acknowledge they have a problem and to accept it and just get help.

Denial is a major factor in any addict's life, especially a gambling addict. It takes mental strength and courage to accept you are an addict, so I urge all gamblers to seek help before it is too late and you end up losing everything.

In today's society, gambling is no longer just a social event, or something you may experiment with for fun or financial gain, it has now become a serious mental health issue with thousands of people in the UK and around the world. 

Known to people in the medical profession as the hidden addiction, gambling addiction in most cases has no real visual signs so we need to be educated on how to spot individuals who are suffering and really raise the awareness. This illness is on par with alcohol/drug addiction and should be treated as such.

There is no doubt my addiction caused me serious health issues such as headaches, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and depression. Therefore gambling addiction needs to be addressed within the National Health Service, and other organizations, so that we are all aware of the consequences surrounding it.

So here I was continuing to chase my losses hoping for the big one. That obviously never came. I was spiraling into debt deeper and deeper and all logical and rational thinking had long left me!

After only five years as a professional I had lost approximately £300,000 in property, wages, cars, and incidentals.

My regret is not asking for help at the height of my addiction in the mid-90s. All gamblers have that mental block that enables us to stay in complete denial, the shame and embarrassment is all too much to take and so we turn away the very people that care, our families and friends.

By the time I hung up my boots in 2000 I had lost everything except for a flat I bought in Enfield. I was constantly chased by numerous creditors and bailiffs alike, making my life a misery.

In 2009 I took on a major decision in my life, which I feel was probably the best decision I have ever made. Sometimes in life you have to take a step backwards to go forwards and in my situation it seemed like a good option so I decided to declare myself bankrupt and start again. Not only was it a huge relief and burden off my shoulders but it gave me hope. Coupled with my counseling sessions I could finally see a way forward. And that’s all I wanted.

I had had the high life and the money so it was now all about moving on, learning form my mistakes and trying to do something positive with my experiences. My bankruptcy file totaled £172,000 and I keep the file to this day as a reminder to others. I intend to continue my work in helping thousands of people who are out there suffering from gambling addiction and who need help and support.

So no more sleepless nights or wondering when the next bailiff may come knocking, but more importantly I can now look forward to a stress-free life and enjoy putting something back.

My journey has been a long and painful one filled with ups and downs along the way, but it’s a journey that also shows that out of adversity can come triumph. The lies, the deceit the heartache caused to loved ones is now a thing of the past and I stress that it’s a selfish act to inflict your pain on others and disrupt their lives, reinforcing the need to ask for help as soon as you feel you may have a gambling problem—it could save your life.

I sincerely hope my story serves as an inspiration and has a positive effect on those who read it, and that it educates individuals as well as organizations throughout the UK In terms of tackling gambling addiction in a major way.

I am one of the lucky ones. I came out the other side. Many don't!

Tony Kelly is a former professional footballer based in the UK, the author of Red Card, and the founder of his own consultancy group.

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