Peter Owen, photo: Paul Jeffers
It was my ex-partner who saw the ad for the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s Lived Experience Advisory Committee. ‘You should go for it,’ she said. My gambling is one of the reasons we’re not together anymore.
In cricket terms, applying for the role was like a throw at the stumps: you might get lucky, you might hit them. When I got an interview, I was over the moon. It’s important to me to try to do something positive, because I know how big an issue gambling harm is. I’ve also got a personal interest in sports, and am concerned about the proliferation of sports betting advertising and online gambling.
A beer and a bet
My footy was my closest thing to my dad. We couldn’t talk about a lot of things, but we had a real relationship through footy. Dad passed away in 1997, and I miss going to games with him. But I’ve kept that connection with sport through most of my career, including teaching sports management.
Growing up in Melbourne’s north, the thing back then for men was ‘a beer and a bet’. Mum and Dad weren’t drinkers or gamblers, but as a young public servant in my first job, I embraced that life. I worked in the city and we’d knock off early on a Friday and go to the TAB. It was a bit of fun on weekends, and I stuck to a budget. When I got into greyhound ownership, it escalated – midweek gambling and larger bets – but I still budgeted. It was nothing compared to the pokies.
I don’t want to face the day
My partner and I were in a relationship for nine years. When we separated, the bottom of my world dropped out. I was emotionally immature, angry and frustrated, and – it so happened – working over the road from the first temporary casino in Victoria. While I’d crossed the border into New South Wales a few times to play the one-armed bandits, shoving coins into slots had never really appealed to me. But this time, with electronic gaming, all the money was on your card. And when you can’t see your money, you can’t see your losses accumulating.
I was single, in my early thirties, and avoiding going home. I’d bought my partner out, but the house was a reminder of the loving relationship we’d had. My health went downhill and my work suffered. Gambling was a place of solitude, a dumbing down, where I didn’t have to confront my feelings. I won a lot of money early on, then the losses started to blow out. After three years, I sold the house to buy a unit, but within two months of selling, I’d lost all the money, mostly on pokies.
Gambling was a place of solitude, a dumbing down, where I didn’t have to confront my feelings.
Life became a pattern of setbacks, mostly brought on by gambling and drinking, which I coped with by more gambling and drinking. I lived in numerous rentals and had unsatisfactory personal relationships. My health declined and I gained weight. I was an erratic and difficult colleague.
The first time I was confronted about my behaviour and work performance was in a training role at the Victoria Police Academy. The superintendent said, ‘We’re really worried about you’, and I just broke down. They were very supportive and organised gambling counselling. Subsequent employers were not so compassionate. Gambling harm still has a lot of stigma attached to it.
While at Victoria Police I went to my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting. I’ve been to many since, and have abstained for a white-knuckled month, two months, five months, before busting bigtime. In spite of my relapses, the message of hope and recovery from Gamblers Anonymous has, ultimately, been helpful.
Over the years, I took people hostage, my parents especially. I hit Mum and Dad up for money, to help pay my mortgage, my rent. In my mid-forties, there was me, living in the back room at Mum’s. My sister and brothers were loving and supportive, but knew the impact I was having, and begged Mum to turn me away. But to the day she died in 2012, Mum couldn’t say no to me.
I hit Mum and Dad up for money, to help pay my mortgage, my rent.
I was living in supported accommodation for recovering addicts when I received money from Mum’s estate. It was an opportunity to rebuild my life. But my housing situation was dysfunctional, and, unable to cope emotionally, I started gambling and drinking again. It went downhill from there and I lost a significant amount of what Mum had left me, before I found myself back in rehab.
Life gets better
I’ve been in rehab five times. The last time, in 2016, it was life or death. I was seriously unwell and mentally shattered, and had burnt so many bridges. When I asked my ex-partner to forgive me, she said, ‘Peter, I forgave you a long time ago. You’ve got to forgive yourself’.
In the Lived Experience Advisory Committee, we talk about stigma, including the way people feel about themselves: the self-loathing that hangs over your life and your relationships. It can be hard to break free from, but forgiving yourself is a start.
When I asked my ex-partner to forgive me, she said, ‘Peter, I forgave you a long time ago. You’ve got to forgive yourself’.
When I talk to people now, I can actually say, ‘I have a gambling addiction’. As members of the committee, our personal journeys are providing valuable knowledge, insight and expertise to help other people. And that’s a positive thing.
Find out more about the Lived Experience Advisory Committee.