GABRIELA Byrne remembers first hearing about Jie Yu, the mother whose toddler died after being left in a hot car while she played the pokies. Byrne shivered to think that it could have been her. Even more painfully, “When my daughter heard it, she said, `It could have been me.”‘
Byrne used to be a problem gambler. For four years from 1992, nothing else mattered to her when the urge hit. “I picked up my kids one day; my son was at preschool and my daughter in the first year of school. It was a hot day. I had this voice saying to me, `Oh my God, today you can’t gamble,’ because my husband was interstate at work and I had the kids. And then this voice said, `But you need to go, just for five minutes.”‘
Byrne left her children in a car across the road while she played the pokies at a local hotel. She was gone only 20minutes, “probably because I ran out of money.
“But it doesn’t take 20minutes for a child to get out of the car and run across a busy street and get hit. (Another gambler I know) put her son to bed, he was three at the time, and she left him to play the pokies. When she came back at 11.30 or 12 a neighbor had him because he had been running out on the street screaming for his mum.”
News of the death of Jie Yu’s son, toddler Brian Yao, in February last year was splashed across newspapers and television reports. Even Prime Minister John Howard felt impelled to comment on the tragedy. A Supreme Court jury recently convicted Yu of manslaughter and she is awaiting sentence.
But while Brian Yao’s fate seemed extraordinary, the circumstances that led to it are frighteningly common. Researchers have known for years that women who become “hooked” on pokie machines lose their sense of time while they are playing and become oblivious to the demands of normal life.
“I think there’s the potential for it to occur again,” says Julie Nelson, coordinator of Gamblers Help Northern, of Brian’s death. Nelson says more than 50,000Victorian women are now “addicted” to poker machines, and women make up 52per cent of problem gamblers calling Gamblers Help. The Productivity Commission has estimated that 1.1per cent of the population has severe gambling problems, and 2.3per cent have serious problems.
Women who are compulsive pokie players commonly feel the sense of timelessness and tuning out from the normal world that Yu experienced during the two-and-a-half hours that proved fatal for her son, according to Victorian Government research.
Playing for Time, a study by the Department of Human Services into the impacts of gambling on women, says: “Many women have reasons to be attracted to the sense of timelessness, ritual or even distortion of thinking that may arise during long episodes of play. It gives an opportunity for respite, a chance to change `the present’ by replacing it with oblivion.”
Says Nelson: “The product has a very mind-deadening effect; you can switch off totally, you can absorb yourself in the flashing lights and the continuous play.”
The effect is so intense that in problem gamblers it can interfere with otherwise powerful parenting instincts, says Helen Carrig, manager of Relationship Australia’s South Australian problem gambling service. “Women, in particular, are programmed to look after children, so when a mother forgets her child or puts gambling ahead of her priorities in terms of purchasing for the household, that tells you something very serious is going on for her.”
This is not news that all politicians have been keen to disseminate. The Playing for Time report was gagged for two years by the previous Kennett government, according to one of its contributors, Ainslie Hannan. Hannan, who is also chairwoman of Women’s Health in the North, says: “They wouldn’t let the research be launched. It was completed in 1998 but was finally launched in March, 2000, by (Labor minister) Christine Campbell.” Playing for Time found that women gamble for many reasons: loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression; to escape the relentless demands of family, or because they have financial or relationship problems. Many women who start as “normal” social gamblers develop a problem with it if there is a big change in their lives: if they lose a job or a partner, if children arrive or leave home, or if they experience some kind of tragedy. Psychiatry labels problem gambling an “impulse control disorder”.
There are similarities between men and women with gambling problems but they tend to gamble for different reasons, says Nelson. “We see more men gambling for a competitive edge, whereas women are more likely to be filling in time or to relieve their mind of pressure… using it for emotional pain relief.”
Once an obsession with poker machines develops, it has all the hallmarks of an affair, says Helen Carrig. “They no longer think about their partner; they think about the machine. The effect on relationships is exactly like having an affair: there is deceit, preoccupation, and time and money spent away from the partner and the relationship.”
Byrne, who now counsels problem gamblers, agrees. “I always refer to my time as a poker machine addict as my hot passionate love affair with George (as in Tattersall). It had a lot of characteristics of an affair; the lying, the cheating, the putting of a lot of your needs or wishes on to something or someone else. You lose all sense when you have an affair like this.”
For some women, the relationship with poker machines mirrors the dynamics of an empty or abusive relationship they have in real life, says Jeanette Wentzel, a counsellor with Gamblers Help Eastern. “It’s like another person they have to feed and cosset and give something to, another thing making demands on them.”
Byrne says problem players experience adrenalin highs while playing, followed by depressive lows that send them back to the pokies for another lift. Kate Earle, a psychologist and researcher, says tense people use the pokies as a tranquilliser and flat people use them as a stimulant. “It’s an avoidance mechanism for a lot of people. We can only stand so much reality,” she says.
This leads to the question raised by the gambling industry before a recent Productivity Commission inquiry. Industry representatives argued that problem gambling was the result of people with problems who gambled, rather than something that was caused by gambling.
But the commission concluded that, for many gamblers, pre-existing problems do not appear to trigger problem gambling. It also said scientists have been unable to identify an “addictive personality”. “While some factors may predispose a person to gambling, there is little evidence that problem gamblers share common personality traits, which suggests, in turn, that anyone can, in the right circumstances, become a problem gambler,” it found.
Women seem particularly vulnerable to poker machines. “Men certainly haven’t taken to poker machines in the same way or so rapidly,” says Alun Jackson, professor of social work at Melbourne University.
Research suggests this is partly because there are few recreational spaces in which lonely or isolated women feel as welcome, comfortable, anonymous and safe as they do at pokie venues – and such venues are now common in many suburbs, sharing the same areas women have always frequented for shopping. The gaming venue where Brian Yao died is next to a supermarket.
“Women describe (pokie playing) as one of the few times that people don’t ask them who they are. People who look different aren’t questioned,” Hannan says. “Women also feel that (gambling) is one of the few things in their life that’s just for them, and with that comes a sense of freedom and a sense of false control.”
Sometimes, there are few recreational alternatives. “Take Sunbury,” says Nelson. “It’s a commuter suburb. Partners are at work from 7am and don’t get home till 7pm, and that’s a big day for women to fill. But nearly every community venue, such as the bowling club, has gaming machines. There are five main community meeting places and they all have gaming machines.”
And sometimes women are directly targeted in marketing campaigns. Byrne says: “I know of a pub in Oakleigh that for a while, until we sent a TV crew there, was giving women vouchers for milk and ironing. If you go there and spend $20 you get half an hour’s ironing from somebody. They are especially targeting women and social security (recipients).”
Compulsive gamblers and their counsellors have suggested a range of measures to ease the problem. They include interruptions to play and reminders to players about how much time has passed and how much money has been lost; education programs, including warnings in venues about the possibility of “addiction”; and alternative avenues for play, recreation and creativity for women.
Byrne is now cured of her gambling obsession, to the point where she can go into pokies venues without feeling tempted to play. “It’s like it is with an old passionate love affair. If you run into an old flame, the one you thought you could not live without, you look at him and you think, `God, what on earth did I ever see in him.”‘ Her voice is suddenly joyous: “It’s not me any more. I don’t know what I ever saw in it.”
But she knows that she can never replace what she gambled away. Byrne lost a job and many friendships – and came close to losing her marriage – before she was able to break her addiction. “My daughter and my son are very educated about this; I think we have a very, very close relationship. But I missed four years of their growing up. And that’s something nobody can give you back, even God.”
The personal costs
* Problem gambling causes 29,000 divorces or separations each year.
* One in 10 problem gamblers contemplates suicide and up to 420 suicides a year can be attributed to gambling. Each year 49,000 people suffer depression “often to always” as a result of their problem gambling.
* Problem gamblers each lose an average of $12,000 a year; their total losses are $3 billion a year, making them one-third of the gambling industry’s market.
* For every problem gambler there is, on average, one associated child living in the same household.
* American research has found that children of problem gamblers are more likely to be depressed, drop out of school, smoke, drink, take drugs, and gamble.
Source: Productivity Commission
Also see Gambling with Life and Ending The Affair
First published in The Age.