Matt shares his experience of when he first started gambling, how his relationship with gambling changed when he moved away from home to university, and how it affected his life
(Warning: This story contains mentions of suicide).
Do you remember your first gambling experience?
I started gambling when I was 16, spending a few pounds on scratch cards and occasionally sneaking into the bookies to place a bet on a football match. Gambling was something to do; it was very small amounts and I never thought about it being something that could ever be harmful.
How did your gambling change when you went to university?
At 18, I moved away from home to Uni, and it was a big change. I was doing everything for myself, making my own decisions and spending money on myself. I love football, so I joined the university football team. Soon, my Sundays consisted of playing for the team in the morning and then, in the local pub and placing bets on the Premier League matches after.
I remember one day, going to place my bets and seeing a friend on the machines that allowed people to bet on games like virtual roulette or slots. The first time I used one, I turned £4 into £30, and I remember being blown away by the fact that I could make £26 in just a few minutes. As time progressed, I found myself putting small amounts in these machines alongside placing my usual football bet each week.
*image of Fixed Odds Betting Terminal
How did your gambling develop further?
As the year went on, I found myself placing more on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBT). I was still only spending £20-£30 a week, but as a student, money wasn’t always easy to come by. I didn’t tell anyone that it might be becoming an issue, mainly because I didn’t want to be the one who made it a “thing”. Everyone else was spending money and gambling, it didn’t matter that I was spending a little bit more, I knew I could go without it if I really had to.
During my second year, I continued to use FOBTs and gradually saw the amount I was staking increase, it was at this time that I also jumped into online gambling. I was into the live casino, it amazed me that you could essentially access a real casino from the comfort of your room 24/7. I ditched FOBT’s and started gambling more and more online, and for the next year or so, it became more and more frequent, with more and more money.
Did you or anyone else ever question your gambling behaviour?
Towards the end of third year, I did have a few close friends express concern, they thought that I was gambling a bit too much and asked if I thought I might be addicted. I remember almost laughing it off with them and saying that I was fully in control, I was only gambling because I was making money from it. I lied. I had been questioning my gambling behaviour for quite a while now, but when somebody else did it, I became defensive. Being someone with a lot of pride, I certainly didn’t want to admit that something as silly as gambling was controlling me.
What did you do after you left university?
I left university with a degree (performing arts) and gained representation from an agent in London, I was thrusted into the world of professional performing. I think at this point, I felt very much like life couldn’t be better. Performing is a really strange job, one minute you’re on tour travelling around the country and the next you are back at home, looking for your next job and more importantly your next pay cheque.
There was no real financial stability, and it was difficult to plan anything socially as I was unsure of where in the country I would be. I would be on tour and travelling around. I found myself getting quite bored, I would often gamble on my phone to pass the time and of course, see if I could make a little bit of money.
How did your gambling make you feel?
At my worst, I was gambling for 16-17 hours per day and sometimes depositing up to £5000 per day. I got to the point where I would turn down social occasions just so I could stay home and have a gambling session, if I did venture out then I would usually find an excuse to sneak off to the toilet and place a couple of bets.
Gambling by this point was controlling everything in my life. I would plan my day around being able to gamble and had become very good at hiding it all from my family and friends. I became so preoccupied with gambling that my performance at work slipped quite dramatically, I was struggling to remember what had happened in rehearsals and often finding myself in the toilets or outside the room on my phone.
What I didn’t realise at this point is that gambling was causing quite a lot of depression, it was unrecognised at the time but certainly there. I didn’t feel very good about myself as a person, I knew I had this problem but didn’t feel like I could face or defeat it. I very much settled into the idea that this was just who I was now.
The fear of telling someone that I was experiencing problems and having to unravel the lies I had been telling for the last few years felt overwhelming. It almost felt like I was living two different lives. There was this version of me that put on a smile and pretended life was great but there was also a version that constantly felt down, felt worthless and didn’t know how to get out.
What was your lowest point with gambling?
One night I was in the middle of a long session which had become the “norm” for me at that point. I had recently finished a job abroad which had paid really well, so I had access to quite a large sum of money. I ended up losing all of it that night and in a panic decided that I needed to win it back quickly. I took out the biggest overdraft I could on my bank account and placed it all on one hand of blackjack. I lost.
I found myself in a scary place both mentally and financially, I didn’t have a penny to my name, I had gambled everything in my bank accounts and more. Emotionally I felt numb, worthless and generally quite angry at life and myself. I decided that the only way to stop gambling was to stop me.
Later that morning, I made a decision that would impact the rest of my life. I went to the top of a multi-storey car park and jumped off, making a serious attempt on my life. In just six years, my gambling had gone from a couple of quid on a scratch card to making me feel so worthless and helpless that I’d rather not be here at all.
How did you seek support?
I was extremely lucky that I had a great support network around me after my suicide attempt. I realised I could talk to friends and family about my experiences and not be judged. This was a huge weight off my shoulders and really helped me gain clarity of the situation and what I needed to do to move forward.
Unfortunately, not everybody has the same support network that I was lucky enough to have, and this really highlights the importance of services such as BigDeal and the National Gambling Helpline. Just knowing that you can talk to a trained adviser who is there to support you through recovery is a really good thing.
If you have been affected by this story and are worried about yourself or a loved one, please contact the Young People’s Service.