Elizabeth Papettas, photo: Paul Jeffers
I was born in Germany and came to Australia with my widowed mother when I was seven. I was sent to a Catholic convent, where no-one spoke German. When I was 11, I returned to my Greek mother, who had re-married and given birth to my sister. My mum and new dad only spoke Greek at home, a third language I quickly learnt.
We soon became a family of six and I looked after my siblings during holidays and sometimes in the evenings, so my parents could go out. As we were poor, I convinced my parents to let me leave school. I worked two jobs, giving my parents all my wages so they could buy a house.
Marriage and the tight grip of gambling
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to play at friends’ places, go on sleepovers or on dates. So at 21, I eloped with a young man I worked with, and we moved in with his parents in Frankston.
My new family was from Cyprus and there was a strong tradition of gambling. My husband had five brothers and there’d be 10 or 12 of us sitting at the table most Saturday nights, playing cards until sunrise. The one and two cents we bet eventually became 10, 20, 50 cents, then a dollar and two dollars, and kept getting higher.
My husband was also gambling on the horses. He worked with his brothers in the family restaurant, and that’s all they’d talk about. I quickly learnt that if I didn't go to the restaurant as soon as he got paid each week, his wage was gone.
By the time our fifth child came along, my husband had left the restaurant and was working in hotels, where drinking also became a problem. He spent his wage on himself rather than the family, but he wouldn't allow me to work or socialise with neighbours.
I quickly learnt that if I didn't go to the restaurant as soon as he got paid each week, his wage was gone.
We started our own business – a fish and chip shop. My husband controlled the finances and even though our children started working in the business at the ages of 10, 11 and 12, and were still working in it at 23, my husband refused to give any of us a wage. He would go out drinking most evenings and eventually go with other women. After 29 years of putting up with this, I left him and found work as a live-in nanny, a job I was finally paid for.
My taste of freedom is short-lived
I had just turned 50 and for the first time in my life I was earning a wage I could keep, I could go out where I wanted, and I could spend time and money how I wanted. I felt free!
The pokies seemed a safe place for a woman my age to go on her own in the evening. As I lived where I worked, I had no household bills to pay, so most weeks I'd gamble my whole wage. This often left me without enough to make car repayments, but that didn't stop me – I knew I'd earn enough the following week. But when the next pay came, I'd gamble that almost immediately. Sometimes I’d lie to my children about why I had to borrow money from them.
The pokies seemed a safe place for a woman my age to go on her own in the evening.
I decided it would be easier if I left my job and worked in a venue, then I could watch others play, get my ‘fix’ and not be broke each week. Problem was, there were no restrictions on staff playing and I was quickly back to my old self, spending my wage as soon as I received it.
One day I stole money from the purse of a friend I was living with. I thought, ‘My luck has to change soon, I can't keep losing, next push of the button, I'll win it all back’. But it never happened. I lost all the money I'd stolen and had to admit what I had done. My friend told me about Gamblers Anonymous and I went to the next meeting.
Recovery and the rewards of helping others
Gamblers Anonymous advocates complete abstinence. I abstained for six years until I gambled in a fit of rage after I was told I wasn’t welcome at my mother’s funeral. I still attended meetings but gambled for another three years before I could stop. I haven’t gambled since. While some people can cut their gambling back, complete abstinence is the only way for me.
A few years ago, I decided I needed to know why I want to gamble, why don’t I have self-confidence, what I’m trying to avoid. I approached Gambler’s Help at EACH and with my counsellor I’m exploring these things. I’m finding out who I am, and getting a bit of self-confidence, which I sorely lacked.
I decided I needed to know why I want to gamble, why don’t I have self-confidence, what I’m trying to avoid.
Last year my counsellor asked if I’d be interested in helping – I said yes! I now volunteer for the Gambler’s Help Peer Connection program, giving phone support to people going through rough times like I did. As a recovering compulsive gambler, I can empathise with those who still gamble and struggle to live a normal life free from gambling. I hear the amazement in people's voices when they realise they aren't the only ones and help is available. One of my clients says our call is the highlight of her fortnight. That makes me feel good.
If you are experiencing problems with gambling, or someone close to you has a problem, 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.
Gambler’s Help Peer Connection offers free and confidential telephone support from volunteers who have themselves experienced problems with gambling or worked through the impact of someone else's gambling. Call 1300 133 445.
Chinese speakers can call Chinese Peer Connection on 1300 755 878 to talk to a Chinese-speaking volunteer who has also experienced gambling harm.
Read more personal stories from people who have experienced gambling harm.