Paul Fung, photo: Paul Jeffers
When I was a very young child, my parents played Mahjong in Chinatown. There were underground casinos there – things that children weren’t supposed to see – but I observed and I was infatuated by it. So, as a child does, I copied to try to get my father’s attention and he taught me the little tricks of the trade; how to be more defensive and not attack. I played cards on my own to improve my craft and tried to take my cousin’s money.
I was so infatuated that I lost sight of my own education.
Before I was even a teenager, I was taken to the Melbourne Cup. I studied the form and thought there was a strategy to win, and talking about horses was another way to spend time with my father. I bought form guides and read them in class. I was so infatuated that I lost sight of my own education.
By 16 I had a fake ID and was allowed into the casino. It was a world of entertainment – all the glitz, lights, sparkles and dingalings. By the time I was 18, it wasn’t just a weekly thing and I knew how to gamble on everything.
Running away to gamble
So, what to do with my life and my career? I became an apprentice jockey. I thought that, with all the inside information, maybe I could become a squillionaire. I’d go to work at 3.30 am, stop at 9 am and go to the TAB or casino, work again in the afternoon, then pop back to the casino four or five nights a week. I wasn’t successful as a jockey because I didn’t have the focus and I felt my career go AWOL.
People told me there was something not quite right with me, but instead of taking a gap year, I took a year off and gambled. By the time I was back working with the horses, I was stealing from my family and friends. I could spin a story and manipulate people to get money. I kept getting into debt, taking out credit cards and spending them in 12 hours. I hurt myself, my family and everyone who crossed my path.
I could spin a story and manipulate people to get money.
Eventually, I ran away to Hong Kong. A friend introduced me to Macau and I’d go on three-day benders. I felt I needed to gamble every day to survive. I needed it before food. At work we’d be gambling with dice on who would walk in the door next; it was that severe. Everything was a gamble.
When I was 30, I broke my leg badly in a horse accident and the doctor said I shouldn’t ride again. I moved back to Melbourne, but what should I do? I’m going to be a pro-gambler, but who’s going to fund it? I’d borrowed, lied and cheated my family but they stuck with me through thick and thin. My brother, especially, was the one who kept giving me a chance. He’d say, ‘I believe in you this time. Have you got it together?’ I’d put a smile on my dial and say, ‘Yes’.
Losing it all
He entrusted me with a lot of money. He gave me a credit card and we got a first home owner’s grant and a mortgage, so I had a million dollars under my belt. Within 10 days that was gone – bang! I’d come to the end of the line. I’d run out of stories and I had to face up to this. I stared my brother in the eye and said I’d lost it. When I showed him the evidence, he flipped his lid, but he also said a line I’ll never forget: ‘Don’t do anything stupid’. In such a moment of anger, he still knew that I wasn’t in a good place mentally.
He threw me out of the house, but my mother would still give me money for lunch. You’d think I would have smartened up, but no, that money was still going to gambling.
I thought I had nothing, but I saw that I had life and I had hope.
A close cousin passed and my father sat me down and said, ‘Son, you have hope’. I thought I had nothing, but I saw that I had life and I had hope. Not long after, I was having a deep and meaningful conversation with a friend and his father walked in and said, ‘Kid, I run 12-step meetings on Monday nights for gamblers. You should come along’. Friends had told me there was help available, but my ego always told me I’d beat this. Still, this father had planted the seed and I wondered what I really had to lose.
Connection brings healing
The next Monday, I got on a bus to the meeting, got off, got on, got off, got on, until the bus driver questioned whether I was alright. Finally, I got to the meeting thinking, ‘Look at all these losers’. But then I listened to their stories and something clicked. I saw that, in a room full of strangers, we could talk. I was euphoric. I could breathe. It was a huge burden off my shoulders.
For two and a half years it didn’t matter what else was going on in my life, those Mondays were the medicine I needed to recover. I wanted more help, one-on-one, so I got a counsellor and a psychologist. I joined other support groups.
In the first 30 years of my life, I couldn’t express myself. On my path to recovery, I found that I could share my feelings and my suffering. I found my hunger, my passion and my purpose, which is connecting on a deeper level with myself and others. In the heart of my addiction, there was no talking, no sharing. Recovery is about supporting others and sharing our vulnerabilities. That’s my healing.
Paul Fung is a member of our Lived Experience Advisory Committee, which provides insights from personal experience of gambling harm to inform the Foundation's work.
How to get support
If you have concerns about your gambling, or are affected by someone else’s gambling, call Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858. To find out more about getting support, including online help and self-help tools, visit: gamblershelp.com.au.
Read more personal stories from people who have experienced gambling harm.