Laois man tells Baz Ashmawy of gambling addiction disease that caused suicide thoughts

Podge Bannon's experience of gambling addiction features on RTÉ programme All Bets are Off

Conor Ganly

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Conor Ganly

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news@leinsterexpress.ie

Baz Ashmawy gambling

Baz Ashmawy speaks to Podge Bannon at his home in Laois.

Laois man Padraig 'Podge' Bannon considered suicide to escape from his gambling 'disease', he revealed to Baz Ashmawy on RTÉ documentary All Bets are Off.

Baz visited Podge at home in Killenard to discuss a facebook post in which the Laois man revealed the impact of his gambling addiction. Baz said Podge was an example of those worst hit by gambling - young men. 

He told Baz that he was motivated to tell his story on social media highlight the simplicity of the problem.

"When I was gambling nothing else mattered. My family didn't matter, my friends didn't matter. To certain extent everything was about how I was going to get money to gamble and how I was going to have that next bet," he said.

Now aged 25, Podge began gambling in his mid-teens. He said he began to gamble frequently aged 19. Podge initially wagered small amounts, mainly horses and greyhounds.

He said he would spend all day in a bookie shop only leaving to go to the ATM for money to bet.

"It just shows where my life was at. I had big wins and big losses. Sometimes I would spend it most times it would go back into the bookies. Compulsive lying goes with the gambling. You'd lie about everything and anything. The only way you can keep gambling and keep feeding habit is to lie about nearly everything," he said.

Eventually, Podge ended up stealing. He took about €5,000 from his job.

"I ended up in trouble with the guards. I was taking money from work. In my mind, it was borrowing because I always had the intention of when I had that win I'd put it back.

"It could end in three ways. One, that was never going to happen, I would win all the money and put it back. The second was what happened - getting caught. The third way was to end it for me was to end my life because it is hard to own up to something like that because when you know what you're doing is wrong and you keep doing it is wrong. It is hard to say when you hit rock bottom when do you say enough is enough.

"It is a lot more common than people think. If you are in a group of lads and they are all gambling you don't see it as a problem," he said.  

Podge told Baz that he does weights six times a week sometimes twice a day to help with his mental health. He also attends gambling addiction meetings.

"The meetings are my medicine. If you have any kind of disease - that is what gambling is it is a disease - like when I started to go to meetings first meeting there was lads 10 15 years going I would ask why are you still go to meetings every week. I can see now why they do it. Would you stop taking your medicine if it was working for you? No, you wouldn't you'd keep taking it?" 

http://www.gamblersanonymous.ie/

This is the facebook post which led to Podge's appearance on the documentary.

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, I was asked would I be willing to talk about my own experience, my ongoing battle. I thought long and hard about it, but in the end decided if my story could help someone else, then I need to do it. So here it goes...

Gambling - My "Secret" Addiction

I suppose I'll start at the start. I grew up just outside Portarlington, with my mam, dad, sister and brother. By all accounts, I had a "normal" childhood. There were good times and bad times, but nothing I couldn't manage. I had (and luckily still have) a fantastic family, great friends and a huge love for sport. From as early as I can remember, I had a ball in my hands or at my feet, and between GAA and soccer, played sports all year round.

I was fairly good in school. I got decent Junior and Leaving Certificates with minimal effort or stress (at least on my behalf). All in all, I was a normal young lad growing up in Ireland. I enjoyed a few drinks, watched a lot of sport and had a lot of friends. Life was good. But little did I know that beneath the surface there was a serious issue just waiting to be released. The gambling bug hit me at an early age, but it stayed hidden, dorment, for years. But when it finally did erupt, it hit me and my life hard. Very hard.

Gambling has been around a long, long time and as an industry, is growing each and every day. Bookie shops are in most cities, towns and villages in Ireland, not to mention the addition of online bookmakers. Casinos, slot machines, poker machines. They're everywhere. Even the lotto and scratchcards are available easily in the majority of shops in Ireland. For the majority of people, this isn't an issue. They play the lotto, have a bet on the Grand National or during Cheltenham and the like. But they then go on with life as normal, win, lose or draw. For a compulsive gambler, such as myself, everything revolved around the next bet, and how I could get the money to finance it! I was dragged in by the bright lights, the free bets, the chance of winning enough money to set myself up for life. I stayed because I couldn't leave. It began to take over my whole life. Every sub conscious and conscious thought was how I could get money to gamble, where I could gamble, what I would gamble on, and what I would win!

The say 1 in 8 people who gamble will develop a compulsion to gamble. You're twice as likely to develop this compulsion if you play competitive sports, and three times as likely if you play a competitive team sports. An average GAA panel has 24 players. You do the Maths. So many sports people try so hard to stay awake from alcohol and drugs that they end up with gambling as their hobby, their release. And this definitely happened to me.

Lies, secrecy and disception go hand in hand with a compulsive gambling addiction, and I was an expert in all three. I lied, cheated, scammed and pulled every trick I could think of in order to get money to gamble. Some of the excuses I came up with to get money were just crazy, imaginative, but absolute madness. Car problems, not getting paid properly and card/bank problems were just some of the "problems" I invented to get a loan of money from family and friends, which usually wouldn't be paid back. The amount of time I'd get myself a new phone or Playstation or whatever only for it to "break" a few weeks later. In reality, I would have a big win, splash out, then have a run of losing days and have to sell these new possessions again to get money to gamble. This happened all the time. I'd say I bought 4/5 new iPhones on prepay at different stages.. Maybe even 6 or 7. The worse of it all, I resorted to stealing on numerous occasions, and this is probably the aspect I struggle with the most.

When I think back on what I did, I feel physically sick at the thought of it. It feels like it wasn't even me a lot of the time! I was brought up with good morals and a respect for people, but during that time, the height of my addiction, people didn't matter; they were secondary in my life. Gambling was the most important thing, all that mattered. I lost people I really and truly genuinely cared about because all the lies fell apart, and all trust and respect was gone. I avoided people because I was ashamed and embarrassed. But I didnt stop gambling. These feelings passed. I was never one for showing too much emotion, and I could hide my feelings expertly. So well in fact, that they basically disappeared. I didn't care about anyone or anything, myself included. All I could think about was getting money. Either cash in my hand, or money in my account, so I could have a bet. Just so I could feel that rush for a few minutes. Like a heroin addict getting his fix, I was getting mine.

They say a gambling addiction ultimately ends in one of three ways if not treated: Homeless, in Jail, or death. At different stages, I was close to each of these. But none have happened to me, not yet anyway.

My personal breaking point came in January of this year. In all honesty, I had had enough warnings on previous occasions, but I did what I did best and danced around the messes I had made, manipulating people to do things the way I wanted. But this time, that couldn't and wouldn't happen. It wasn't me who decided I had enough, it was basically an intervention after some shameful things came to light. In truth, I had wanted to stop gambling for a long long time, but my ego wouldn't let me ask for help, and I was powerless over my addiction to stop on my own.

On January 25th, I went to my first Gambler's Anonymous meeting in Cuan Mhuire, Athy. I instantly made a connection with the people in the room. There was a comfort in knowing I wasn't alone. There was a glimmer of hope in seeing people further down the road of recovery, to see that life can change for the better. I continued with these meetings in Athy, as well as GA in Portlaoise and Newbridge, for several months. I was also going to an addiction counsellor for a more in depth look at myself. The support I have had from my family, friends and the wider community during this time has been absolutely phenomenal and over whelming. Lifts to meetings, a friendly text and chat, advice and everything else. For a long time I thought I was alone. My addiction and my mind made me believe that. But that couldn't have been further from the truth. I had amazing support around me, both professionally and just people that knew and cared about me. All I had to do was ask. I had lied to myself and others for so many years, I found one of the hardest things in my recovery was to trust myself and others enough to be open and honest. But when I finally did, I felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. I no longer had to remember all the lies I was telling, I could be honest with people and trust them not to judge me or throw it back in my face. People can be amazing and so supportive if you just give them a chance.

In July of this year, I went to a treatment centre called Aiseiri in Wexford. Four weeks that I didn't particularly want to do (especially in the middle of Championship) but four weeks that have changed my life. I will never be able to thank the staff and people I met there enough for what they did for me. The best thing I can do is too not go back to that life again. To live a more "normal" life instead.

In the two months I've been home, my life has changed immeasurably. It's far from perfect, but it's a far cry from where I was mentally a few months ago. I'm starting to enjoy the simple things in life, like time with my family, chatting with the lads, watching a game on a Sunday afternoon. I've learned to be more open and honest, and that it's okay to take a step back sometimes and have a bit of time for myself.

I guess if I want to help people, maybe these are some of the warnings signs you could look out for; either in yourself or a loved one.
- Spending a lot of time alone in bookies, casinos, or online.
- Never having money despite working 5 days a week.
- New possessions on a regular basis, only for them to disappear a short time later with no real explanation 
- Isolating from others
- Denial about amount of bets, time in bookies/casinos etc
- Betting your last €10 rather than getting yourself food
-An obsession with form of horses, teams etc and spending hours studying for the perfect winner

If you find yourself answering yes to one or more of these questions, maybe try a GA meeting. They're free, non-judgmental and easy to find. You may or may not have a problem. But better safe than sorry.

Well that's basically it. I'll put a list of numbers of different organisations at the bottom of this. If you're struggling and feel you can't talk to a family member of friend, I'd strongly urge you to use a number from below. Even send me a message and I'll help in any way I can. Even if it's just directing you to someone else. Every life is important, but you only get one. What you do with it is up to you. Don't throw it away over your ego. Ask for help. Remember, you're never alone!

GA 018721133

Samaritans 116123 (Freephone)

AWARE 1800804848 (Freephone)

CADS 0578692516 (Portlaoise) 0579315801 (Tullamore)