EARLY one February morning in 2008, the bottom fell out of Rachel Lane’s world. The married mother of three was getting herself and her kids ready for school when the phone rang.
"It was a woman calling to say she was suing my husband for the five thousand dollars he had borrowed from her," says Lane (not her real name). "She just wanted me to know she was suing him. Everything became so chaotic after that."
The elementary school teacher didn’t know her now-ex-husband was a compulsive gambler. She now realizes there were warning signs, but back then, she either didn’t recognize them or brushed them off as her spouse’s idiosyncrasies. He always insisted on bringing in the mail. They rarely went out. He’d work odd evening hours. The phone, Hydro or TV would be cut off and he’d claim he’d forgotten to pay the bills.
Lane’s not alone. While hard statistics are hard to come by, close to 1,100 Manitobans have voluntarily banned themselves from our two government-run casinos. It’s important to remember those are gamblers who have admitted they have a problem and sought help. They’re out for two years and must complete a gambling education program before their ban is lifted.
If a person doesn’t want to stop playing at the casinos, no one can force them.
In 2006, the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba commissioned a study into problem gambling. It determined that 1.4 per cent of adult Manitobans could be considered to have severe problems with their gambling. That’s more than 12,000 people. The same study showed another 4.7 per cent of the adult population were considered moderate-risk for having problems with their gambling.
The issues didn’t stop with the gamblers. The AFM study revealed approximately 12 per cent of adult Manitobans experienced problems as a result of someone else’s gambling in the past year.
The AFM’s Annual Statistical Review for 2009/2010 indicated 20 per cent of its gambling-service clients reported they were involved in the legal system. Gambling was involved in more than half of those cases. Rachel Lane asked her husband to leave soon after that 2008 telephone call. When the financial damage was totalled, Lane was $378,000 in debt. Her ex was $500,000 in hock. He’d taken out a second mortgage on their Royalwood house, run up an $87,000 line of credit in her name, put $23,000 on her Visa and failed to pay the $141,000 remaining on their mortgage. They had an outstanding $4,750 Hydro debt and owed $1,780 on their water bill. She owed back taxes she thought had been paid and was responsible for a $5,500 spousal RRSP.
Lane now glumly remembers living in her $350,000 dream house without electricity for a time.
One of her lowest points came when she signed up for a joint Hydro/Salvation Army program. The program gave her $300 toward her bill when she chipped in the other $300. She needed the help, but it was humbling.
Her husband declared bankruptcy. So did she eventually, ashamed and angry. They lost their house.
He was charged with embezzlement, fraud and theft from employers and acquaintances.
When Lane found a townhouse to rent with her kids, a colleague had to co-sign the rental agreement. She’d been a teacher for 20 years, always made a good living and says she supported her husband when he took some business risks. Part of her massive debt was a loan she co-signed early one morning before work.
She thought it would help him with a job opportunity. She didn’t read the papers carefully. The money went straight into VLTs.
Bev Mehmel, director of corporate social responsibility for Manitoba Lotteries, says the corporation stresses gambling is a form of entertainment that will cost you money.
"There’s no magic that’s going to win their money back," she says. "Gambling’s a bit confusing. There’s a lot of myths. As human beings, we don’t deal well with randomness."
VLTs and slot machines are entirely random, she says. Just because you play for an hour without winning doesn’t mean the machine is about to pay out.
There are information centres at each casino staffed by AFM employees. If people need to talk about gambling concerns, they can. Mehmel points to the AFM help line at 1-800-463-1554 as a 24-hour, multilingual source for gamblers and their families.
Manitoba Lotteries gives the AFM over $3 million annually to support a range of problem-gambling prevention, education and treatment services.
She said casino staff are limited in the direct intervention they can offer. Unlike an alcoholic, problem gamblers don’t show obvious signs they’re in trouble. Unless they’ve voluntarily banned themselves, they’re not prevented for plugging money into machines.
Rachel Lane says she contacted all the hotels around Windsor Park after she discovered her husband’s secret. She showed them his picture and the majority agreed not to let him back in.
She has slowly dug herself out of debt. In the beginning, she sold everything she could to raise money.
Her union and colleagues at work have been tremendously supportive. She’s had "a ton of counselling." But her relationship with one of her three children is fractured, and she still feels stupid about not noticing the problem sooner.
"This is such a silent addiction," she says. "My real lesson is you need to be involved in your marriage and the finances in your marriage."