Walking through my story part II: Tulalip Problem Gambling program participants share recovery journey during awareness month

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

As we continue our series with the Tulalip Problem Gambling program during awareness month, Tulalip News sat down with a young woman who wanted to share her story about the dangers of gambling addiction with the community. Jenny, a single parent who grew up locally, discusses the strong grip that gambling had on her life three short years ago, and how the Problem Gambling program helped her turn her life around for the better. 

Over the years, the Tulalip Problem Gambling program has been a reliable source to those attempting to put an end to their gambling addiction, helping those in recovery along their healing journey. Since it’s establishment, the program has served not only members of the Tulalip tribal community, but non-Natives, who are fighting a gambling addiction and live in our neighboring communities as well.

The Problem Gambling Program provides a plan to recovery tailored to each individual’s needs while incorporating tribal culture, and a number of fun events and activities throughout the year. Several Problem Gambling participants have experienced a great deal of progress as they worked through the program, alongside individuals who are on a similar journey. Due to all the success stories that are a result of the Tulalip Problem Gambling program, many local tribes are now following their model and building programs on their own reservations to help their membership and fellow community members. 

March is an important month for the program as they take part in a nationwide initiative known as Problem Gambling Awareness month. Originally, the campaign began nearly twenty years ago in response to the amount of sports gambling surrounding the NCAA March Madness college basketball tournament.

Trigger warning – Jenny talks about heavy topics in the following Q&A, including suicide contemplation.

Tulalip News: How did you find out about the Tulalip Problem Gambling program?

Jenny: Through GA (Gamblers Anonymous).

Are there a lot of people in the local GA community who have heard about the Problem Gambling program and utilize it?

I would say no, not a lot of people. The people who told me about it had been in GA for a long period of time and knew about others having success through the program.

Like you mentioned, there’s not many from the local GA community who participate in the Problem Gambling Program, but the people who are in GA that I have spoken to, the program really seemed to help them through that next phase of kicking their habit.

Yeah, it was something that I got involved in right away in my recovery. I think I heard about it during my first meeting, and then I called within the next day or two. I found that the program is phenomenal. I don’t think I would have taken my recovery as seriously without the program, and certainly wouldn’t have learned as much as I did without the program. I think that those who are in recovery, GA is a great place to be, but I believe that this program gives you a different level of recovery that everyone should have and experience.

Can you talk about your story, and how you reached that point to where you needed that extra assistance from GA and the Tulalip Problem Gambling program?

At the time I was a single mom. I had always worked really hard – just providing for my son. I’m a registered nurse and I’ve always held down and worked a full-time job; it is kind of stressful at times. I lived by the casino all my life, but I never went into the casino until about seven years ago. And immediately, because it was such a positive experience my first time, it grabbed me. I walked in and spent $100 and I walked out with $950. I just was floored, like, what?! And I found in the casino a place to go and just escape from reality and from all of the stressors in my life. 

I felt like I could go in there during certain times of the day and just escape – and that’s what I did. I think the worst year was when I won forty-one jackpots in one year and I didn’t have a dime to account for it. And I owed a lot of money to a lot of different places. I took out of my 401k and lost it. I pretty much hit rock bottom. I had this internal struggle that I wanted to get help, and I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. And I didn’t know how to. 

I didn’t know what GA looked like. I didn’t know what recovery looked like. And I didn’t know if I really had a problem, but I felt like I did. I felt alone. It was through the program that I learned so much about me and about why I was gambling. That journey and discovery, was amazing. At one point, at the very end of my gambling, I felt like I needed to try GA and if it didn’t work, I already had a plan on how to take my life. And so, to get a glimpse of hope from the Problem Gambling program was phenomenal. The program gave me that everyday hope to help walk me through life on a weekly basis. Now, I am over three years in recovery!

Congratulations, and we are so happy that you’re still here with us.

Thank you. It’s all because Robin is phenomenal and Sarah’s phenomenal. I was able to bond with the girls, and even the guys, who were in my program – that definitely helped.

What were some of the tools that the program provided you with?

Oh, gosh, so many different tools. Walking through the story is a big one. Anytime I felt like I wanted to go back to gambling, basically they would tell you to kind of walk that out. Every time I went to the casino at the very end, it was destruction. Walking that out helped me. They told you to make a list of things to do if you get bored. And if you wanted to go to the casino, to ban yourself, so I did. That was a huge tool for me to go around and ban myself from all the different casinos. Building my self-confidence up and learning that gambling is an addiction that doesn’t discriminate and it’s not who I am.

You mentioned creating bonds with others in the program. I know they hold events throughout the year, were you able to take part in any of those?

I have gone to the yearly problem gambling dinner that they have every March. And I have taken some recovery coaching classes to become a recovery coach so in the future I could help others who might be struggling and needing some help.

Why were those bonds important to create?

Just additional lifelines out there. They’re there if you’re struggling, you can call them and they know what you’re going through, and they can walk you through it. It holds you accountable. If they see that you may be possibly going in the other direction, they can be there for support.

Can you talk about the dangerous cycle of gambling and what it is like to be caught up in it?

It’s a horrible cycle. You can win a jackpot, but you turn around and give it right back to the casino. Your paycheck, you can blow it within hours of receiving it. I would win two or three jackpots a night, and I would still walk out empty handed. When you walk out empty handed, you just start beating yourself up, you start the negative talk – that you are so dumb, that you not only just walked away from such and such amount of money and wins, but you also just spent your whole entire paycheck. And how are you going to provide for your son? And how are you going to get gas? How are you going to get food? How are you going to pay your bills?

I would try to go to bed because I had to work the next day or a be at work in the next five hours, and I couldn’t because I would stress. I would toss and turn and hear the bells go off in my head from the casino. Then the next day would wake up and say, ‘well, if I can just go back and get a little bit more money, then I can pay my bills’. It’s just this vicious cycle and your mind is always at the casino – when can I go back? When can I try to win my losses? Every chance I could get, I would want to go to the casino.

In contrast, compared to your life before you took the step to go to GA and then the Problem Gambling program, what is your life like today?

A life without beating myself up every day. There’s no more stress. There is no worry about where am I going to find money to pay my bills. I can make my payments on time. I have a savings account. I’ve repaired my credit. I have relationships again, because before I would just isolate. I pushed everyone out of my life when I was gambling, and now I actually have healthy relationships.

Awesome. That’s great to hear! Why do you believe it’s important that these programs are available and offer that extra support like the Problem Gambling program?

Well, that’s just it – for that extra support. I honestly think that the Problem Gambling program helps people be their true self. Not only are you in recovery, but you’re learning more about yourself. It’s a journey of finding out who you are, and these counselors are amazing at it. I’ve never had anyone like Robin in my life before, who just knew me and could tell what I needed. She is pretty amazing.

There’s accountability, which I think is important. Like, GA, no one knows if you’re going or not. You don’t have to have a sponsor. You don’t have to go. With the Problem Gambling program there’s homework, there’s accountability. 

Do you have any words of advice you would like to share with those who need that extra support and could benefit from the Tulalip Problem Gambling program?

I say do it. It will be worth it. One, it’s free. How can you pass up free? And you learn so much about yourself. It was an intensive program that changed my life. For those who don’t know about it, I just try to do my part and spread the word as much as possible.

That is important because sometimes it’s almost like problem gambling is not taken as serious as some of the other addictions. What are you what are your feelings on that and your thoughts?

I wanted to stop gambling for long over a year. I felt hopeless and helpless. And it wasn’t just through the 12 steps, it was the Problem Gambling program that helped me get through it. That addiction is just the same as anything else. Addiction is a means of coping. People eat. People drink. People use drugs to cope. And gambling, that’s how I coped with life. When everyone talks about addiction, they think it’s just alcohol or drugs, but there’s so many other addictions. 

I believe that’s all the questions I have. I want to thank you for your time and your words, and for helping spread the word about problem gambling! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

I am thankful just to share my story. In GA, I have found that there are a lot of nurses who gamble, because it’s a way to cope.  I hope this reaches others and helps them reach out for that extra support if they need it. 

Native Americans are at the highest risk of developing a gambling habit. A 2019 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol and Related Conditions showed that 2.3% of the entire Indigenous population are currently battling a gambling addiction, one of the highest percentages in the nation. And after a few years of dealing with the global pandemic, that percentage is unfortunately expected to increase.

The Tulalip Problem Gambling Program will be hosting events throughout Problem Gambling Awareness Month, leading up to an in-person dinner event taking place at Tulalip Resort Casino on March 26th at 6:00 p.m.

If you or someone you love is dealing with a gambling addiction, or if you would like to find out more information about Problem Gambling Awareness month, please contact (360) 716-4304.