Steve’s gambling started innocently enough while living in Dunedin in the late 1990s.
‘Really, it started with occasionally going to the pub to watch the sports and during various intervals go and slide a $2 coin or a note—in those days you could put notes in—and not giving it a second thought. In about 2000 it really took its hold, though, becoming more about going to the pub under the false guise of pretending to watch the sports. ’
Things quickly got out of hand and at one stage Steve was gambling up to between eight and 13 hours at a time. ‘It’s a terrible existence. The worst thing in life is just existing. I wasn’t living—I was just existing.’
Playing the pokies seemed a way of escaping the pressures of life, but it only made things worse. ‘It wasn’t necessarily the pokies; it was the issues around it. I never really clicked [I was addicted]. These places offered a bit of socialisation, warmth in winter; in some places you got free drinks. I didn’t notice till bills were struggling to be paid and food was hard to buy. It got suicidal really. The frustrations led me to a really dark place.’
Later in 2000, Steve began to fight back. After reading about The Salvation Army’s gambling service setting up in Dunedin he got in touch and began to get help.
‘The people there, like [gambling case worker] Chris [Watkins], were non-judgemental people you could talk about a wide range of issues with and they had understanding and empathy. It wasn’t done under a religious concept—that’s what I do like about The Salvation Army, they cater for everyone. It was somewhere I felt I could go, not be judged, and continue learning —even if I was making very small steps.’
Despite that help, there were some tough times as Steve struggled with his addiction. A passionate long-distance runner, he won the 2004 Dunedin Marathon. ‘I gambled all that money away; nine months training—gone.’
Finally, he took the step of going round the places he used to gamble in and put up exclusion notices, barring himself from the premises. ‘It was like taking something back; taking my respect back, my accountability back. A lot of people look at you quite strangely when you say, “I’d like to bar myself.” ’
Although it was now illegal to allow Steve access, some places still let him in when he slipped. One club, he says, was finally closed down for allowing him back, and personally he would like to see pokies banned completely.
‘They really are an evil aspect that’s been allowed to permeate society under the completely false pretence of giving back to the community. I would be ecstatic if they were no longer allowed in pubs and clubs. They just do too much damage to individuals and society.’
Not gambling leads to its own struggles, Steve says. He still speaks with Chris when he needs to, and he knows he’s one step away from going back down that path. ‘Not playing meant facing up to the reality of life and who I am. You learn a lot of negatives about yourself when you’re gambling. You do a lot of things: you lie, you cheat, and you steal from yourself.
These days, I ask myself, “Am I’m okay?” I’m not looking for perfection, but I want to know I’m okay—and I know I’m not okay when I’m playing the pokies.
by Steve Skilling (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 13 June 2015, pp9.
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