A liar, a thief and a cheat is what gambling turned Owen into. It was hard for him to feel good about himself when he was lying to the ones he loved the most.
Owen was driving home once after losing a lot of money gambling again. He looked through the windshield and thought, "I have life insurance, if I just swerve over that yellow line in front of the oncoming semi my wife and kids will have enough to pay off the debts and be OK."
Although he got very close to crossing the line, he didn’t.
Problem gambling has come before the courts several times in the past few years.
Here are some interesting examples:
• April 2014: A 54-year-old woman was sentenced with nine months house arrest after stealing $6,000 from apartment building residents.
At the time she was treasurer of the association, she wrote herself the cheque and spent the money on VLTs.
• January 2014: A 59-year-old man was sentenced to 44 months behind bars for trying to sneak drugs into the Stony Mountain Institution.
His defense lawyer said his client was desperate for money to pay off extensive gambling debts.
• June 2013: A 54-year-old man was ordered to complete community service after being caught raiding his neighbour’s refrigerator.
He didn’t have money to pay for food because he had gambled it away and hadn’t received his social assistance cheque.
• June 2012: A residential school survivor spent his $10,000 settlement in less than a week on gambling, according to his mental health case manager.
• August 2010: A problem gambler was sentenced to two years in prison after a violent robbery.
The 32-year-old man robbed a woman of her $500 VLT winnings in the Trails West Motor Inn parking lot.
» Brandon Sun
"At that point in time, I had a wife and three kids all under eight, but I thought my life was no longer worth living," he said.
"Although I got home that night I couldn’t be sure I would the next time."
Owen is a compulsive gambler. The Sun is using a fictitious name to protect his identity. He is one of many Manitobans dealing with gambling addictions every day.
Between April 1, 2013, and March 31, 2014, more than 2,000 calls were made to the 24-hour gambling helpline run by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM).
Owen was introduced to gambling at a young age, coming from a large family there was almost always a card game going on. As he got older, he was always the first one sitting down at a poker game and the last one to leave the table.
"For awhile it was OK, I had a small business, got married and had kids," he said. "When VLTs came out, it was a different story."
By the time Owen got help for his compulsive gambling, he was committing illegal acts to finance his addiction and spending more than five times his income in a given year.
"I knew in my heart I had a problem, but in my head I kept justifying my actions," he said. "I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, this was my fun, but it wasn’t fun anymore."
On Jan 11, 1996, Owen attended Gamblers Anonymous for the first time and hasn’t gambled since.
Gamblers Anonymous is a meeting group for anyone dealing with problem gambling. They hold meetings in Brandon twice a week.
Even after almost 20 years without gambling, Owen continues to go to meetings regularly.
"It helps me to realize how bad things were," he said. "I very, very rarely have any urges to gamble, but I know that if I place that first bet I won’t stop."
Owen’s recovery has been long and difficult, but he had help from Gamblers Anonymous, AFM and his family to get him on the right track again.
Julie Hockley works in Brandon as the client services manager for AFM. She has been working with the foundation for nine years and said the best way to recover is to have family involved in the process.
"Fixing the person with the problem isn’t enough," she said. "Everyone’s behaviours need to change, too."
Figures show from April 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014, 36 people took part in an intensive 14-day residential program offered in Brandon by AFM. It is the only residential gambling program in Canada.
An additional 52 people took part in other counselling programs in Brandon.
"We are really focused on having the client drive the treatment process," Hockley said. "Every person is different and it is up to the client what would work best for them."
All the programs run by AFM are voluntary and free.
Funding for AFM comes from a portion of the revenues the province makes off of gambling.
In the 2012-13 fiscal year, Manitoba made a net revenue from gambling well over $405 million.
Less than one per cent of the revenue was allocated to problem gambling and none was put toward research.
Comparatively, casinos run by First Nations groups — including the recently opened Sand Hills Casino — are required to put two-and-a-half per cent of their revenues toward resources for problem gambling.
Owen is concerned that the opening of a new casino in Westman will increase the risk of problem gambling, but he doesn’t think that will ever change.
"The government is addicted to the revenues the casinos make, just as much as I was addicted to playing the machines," he said.
AFM is keeping its eye on the new casino, according to Hockley, as any new gambling establishment can lead to issues of problem gambling.
Barbara Czech, a spokesperson for the casino, said they are taking their commitment to responsible gambling very seriously.
"All staff on the gaming floor receive training on how to recognize the signs of problem gambling and where to refer patrons for help," Czech told the Sun via email. "They also learn how to tactfully suggest to a player that he or she take a break or call it a day."
Some of the signs casino staff are told to look for include irritated players, banging on the machines or complaining loudly.
Unfortunately, unlike some other addictions that have visible signs, problem gambling can be more easily hidden.
Underground or private gambling continues in many cities.
One source told the Sun about private poker nights that occur regularly in Brandon.
Two or three times a week, players get together and gamble without being overseen by a government establishment. Anyone from a business owner to a farmer can play.
The average win or loss for a night is in the hundreds, with the highest coming in around $1,500 to $2,000.
This type of unregulated gambling has been going on for years, but the number of gambling addictions are seen increasing as governments made it more accessible.
"Because gambling is legalized it is often seen as not being an issue," Hockley said. "It’s pretty obvious when someone is drinking too much, but gambling can be pretty easy to hide."
This is one reason that people facing this type of addiction can feel an increased sense of shame.
Clients coming into AFM are seen to have a huge increased chance of a mental health disorder, suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety, according to Hockley.
"We look to create a sense of comfort and safety in our programs, so clients don’t have to feel the stigma or shame," Hockley said.
The programs focus on building up the clients’ sense of hope, self-esteem and respect.
Hockley enjoys seeing people leave the program with the tools and skills to continue to rebuild their lives.
"The difference from when they come into the residential program and when they leave is really night and day," she said.
For Owen, getting past his compulsive gambling was difficult.
He restricted all access to money, cut up his cards and transferred everything to his wife.
"She gave me allowance every day to buy a coffee," he said. "Because I knew even if I had $10 in my pocket I would gamble."
Now he has finally been able to pay off the last of his gambling debt and life is good for him and his family.
He shares his story regularly to help others dealing with struggles similar to his.
"It isn’t about the money you lose, it is the real valuable things that go away," Owen said. "Your self-esteem, your self-worth and your self-image."
Owen encourages anyone who is facing issues with gambling to reach out. Whether that is to Gamblers Anonymous, AFM or just a family member or friend, that is the first step. But it will be a difficult step for most.
"The compulsive gambling is so isolating," Owen said. "No one knows how much you’re hurting inside."
Anyone dealing with problem gambling or someone with a gambling addiction should call AFM’s gambling hotline at 1-800-463-1554.