Nancy gambled away the £3,000 her father had saved up for his own funeral. It’s the thing she feels most ashamed of having done during her four-year addiction to online gambling. At the time, however, she barely thought twice about what she had done.
“Female gambling addicts are just as bad as men. We will get money wherever we can and gamble it all away immediately,” she says. “The extraordinary thing is that during my addiction, no one suspected a thing. I was gambling online for hours every day. I’d sit down on the settee with my phone in the early evening and the next thing I knew, it was 3am. I hadn’t moved except to press the same button again and again to work the slots. But my bank account would be empty.”
The number of women reporting a gambling problem has risen at double the rate of men over the past five years, from 2,303 in 2014 to 2015 to 3,109 last year. The rise, according to GamCare, which runs the national gambling helpline, is directly attributable to the ease with which women can now gamble online using their phones. In the past, if they wanted to bet, women had to brave the male-dominated realm of the bookies or find the time and risk the exposure of an arcade. Now, 70% of female gamblers use apps and websites.
Nancy would never have gone into a bookies or an arcade. “I would never have even begun betting if I hadn’t been able to do it secretly, on my phone,” she says. “I had hundreds of different online gambling accounts. When I ran out of credit on one, I’d just go to another site and open a new one. I had five credit cards, multiple loans and loads of high-interest payday loans. I was entirely enslaved by gambling.”
By the time Nancy sought help she had spent £75,000 on gambling and was £25,000 in debt. She used up all her savings, wages and any other money she could lay her hands on. “It’s impossible for a rationally healthy person to understand, but I was in this bubble and couldn’t escape,” she says. “It was all I thought about: gambling and how to pay back my debts. I remember one Wednesday, getting home from work and crying and shaking in the kitchen because I knew I had to gamble. I was a slave to whatever game I was playing.”
Despite her obsession, Nancy didn’t show a single outward sign of not being entirely in control. Even today, only her two best friends know what she has been through. She can’t bear to tell her new husband. “I’m a very intelligent, sensible, caring person so it’s hard to say why I did what I did. But the fact it can happen to me means it could happen to anyone.”
Eventually, Nancy went to see a health worker about a different issue and broke down. “All it took was for the counsellor to ask: ‘What do you do for fun?’ and it was all bought home to me: where had I gone? Why was I doing these things?” She went to an NHS counsellor and GamCare and is now in recovery.
Ian Semel leads Breakeven, a charity supporting gambling addicts in the UK. He believes that the latest figures hide the true number of female problem gamblers, because so few reach out for help. “There’s such a stigma for women gamblers,” he says. “Society has very clear gender roles for women and expectations that they’ll be the caregivers.” To breach this risks “judgment, exposure, shame and guilt”, he says.
Liz Karter is a therapist specialising in gambling addiction in women. She says the way women gamble is very different to men. “At Gamblers Anonymous meetings, the men were telling women they weren’t proper gamblers because they weren’t doing it for the rush and the winnings,” she says. Instead, “women gamble to escape, soothe, reduce stress and distract themselves”.
“For women, gambling soothes them and numbs pain,” says Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale hospital in London who specialises in addiction. “Sometimes they begin gambling as a result of bereavement or because they’re a carer for someone they love, and it’s an overwhelming responsibility for them,” she says. “Many women won’t seek help because they’re afraid of having their children taken away. Many have embezzled or stolen money and fear prison if they’re discovered,” she adds.
Typically, women begin gambling later in life than men, but their problems develop more quickly – which experts believe may be because they tend to choose quick, high-stakes games such as online slots and bingo.
Kerri Nicholls, 37, had never gambled before she and her partner started making £1 online bets on the football games they loved to watch together. “It began as a way to make the games more interesting,” she says.
Then the site they used gave her £200 of free bets (“Except, of course, those bets turned out not to be free; they came with financial strings,” she says). “It was fun at first but then my partner went back to university and I was stuck, in a not-great job, in a not-great new flat. Because my partner was at uni, I felt I needed to earn more money for us and gambling seemed like a good way to do that,” she says.
Within six months of making her first £1 bet, Kerri was gambling daily. “It had stopped being fun by then. I was chasing my losses. It had become an emotional thing. I was addicted,” she says. Kerri was betting increasing sums of money and suddenly found herself seriously in debt. “Having gone through counselling, I now know that I was using gambling to escape my other problems,” she says. “I felt neglected and gambling replaced what I was missing. I could invest my time in it and distract myself from my thoughts and difficulties.”
The addiction lasted five years, cost her £50,000 and was, she says, “literally a 24-hour thing. I was setting my phone to wake me up at night with notifications of matches being played around the world that I’d bet on. My partner, sleeping right next to me, didn’t notice a thing.
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“I don’t know how I still had a job. I used to get up from my desk constantly to take my phone outside and gamble. I used to gamble on my phone while sitting opposite my dad in restaurants.
“It made me feel very lonely. I was living a separate, secret life that completely obsessed me and it seemed no one cared enough to even notice. That made me feel even more alone,” she says. “I’m mostly ashamed of the lies I told everyone. I’m a very honest person and it was scary that I could lie so well. They just rolled off my tongue.”
When Kerri first tried to stop gambling, she managed only six weeks. “I thought that once I admitted it, it would get better. My dad paid off my £25,000 debt, but because I hadn’t addressed the underlying issues, him clearing my debt just meant I could start again. In no time at all, I had doubled the debt he had cleared.”
Kerri was close to killing herself after a row over gambling with her mother, her partner and her partner’s mother. “I felt my life was crumbling around me. I had had thoughts about different ways of ending things a few days before. That day, my feelings of hopelessness escalated. I was in a daze. I didn’t want to be here any more. I couldn’t see how things could be turned around.”
She was sitting on the edge of a canal when an elderly lady stopped and talked to her. She asked if Kerri was OK and it made something “snap back to normal” in her head. Kerri contacted GamCare and the gambling-addiction charity Gordon Moody Association and arranged weekly, remote counselling by video link. She attended Gamblers Anonymous meetings every week.
“I’ve never gambled since,” she says. “I’ve handed my credit cards to my mum, got a phone with no internet access and stopped watching sports. The most important thing was to start talking to people about it. I’ve become very open and reflective. I no longer bottle things up.”
Kerri wants to urge other women gamblers to ask for help. “To any gamblers out there, I’d say they should talk to someone. Ask for help because help is available – and it really does work.”
Some names have been changed.
For free help and advice about problem gambling, go to BeGambleAware.org or call the national gambling helpline on 0808 8020 133.
Contact the Samaritans for free from any telephone on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.