When did I cross the line and become "an addict"? Perhaps during my final year at high school. Day after day, I’d play hooky from class to join a covert clan of gamblers playing card games in the seniors' common room.
It didn’t seem like an addiction at the time — as a good bluffer, I’d regularly turn a healthy profit. But it wasn’t the money that drew me; it was the buzz of pitting my wits against my peers'. However, the fact remained that the writing was on the wall. On days when luck ran out, I’d still carry on until I lost everything, including my bus fare home. Thankfully my father never asked why he had to pick me up.
Despite my lax approach to classes, I got into University. For a few years, an array of extracurricular activities kept the gambler at bay, hidden within. So did a couple of cash-light years following graduation, as I pursued a vain dream to be Britain's answer to Bob Dylan.
But the desire to gamble remained and quickly resurfaced when I finally got a job at a video production company. Instead of saving my money, I immediately began feeding it to voracious slot machines in London.
Victories were short-lived. Instead of pocketing my winnings, I’d swiftly plough them back from whence they’d come until I’d end up with nothing but the lingering guilt of having given in yet again … robbed of both my self-respect and my cash. I desperately needed to turn my life around, yet I was still so good at bluffing that although I never isolated myself from either family or friends, they never picked up on the habit and what it was doing to my self-esteem.
I tried quitting using willpower, sometimes succeeding for days or weeks at a time. But I couldn't will myself to stop wanting to gamble. And as long as the desire remained, I’d always reach a point at which I’d once again succumb to self-indulgence when my real need was for self-examination.
An underlying fear of rejection was holding me back from finding a profession or a partner — and the gambling just bolstered that feeling of being unworthy.
Still, it never occurred to me to ask for help. And even though I believed in the power of God’s love, neither did I think to pray about it, because religion just wasn’t my thing. As a Jewish teen, I’d refused a bar mitzvah and I reached my 20s wary of religious institutions. Systematically seeking an understanding of the divine was not a priority; in fact it wasn’t on my radar at all.
Yet despite my failure to seek a spiritual solution, one seemed to seek me.
Some time after we’d graduated, my best friend Frank and I were in a thrift store, scoping out one-of-a-kind clothes. On a bookshelf was a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, a book by Mary Baker Eddy that Frank had been reading.
During some of our late night chats he had shared ideas from this “textbook of Christian Science,” which presents the idea of prayer based on a dependable divine Principle, rather than blind faith or a vague hope in a mercurial God that dips in and out of human affairs.
So when I took the book home and cracked open its covers, I was blown away to find myself reading something spiritual that made sense. It clarified spiritual moments I’d previously had which had a practical impact on my life and it promised more of the same. This in turn gave me fresh hope that I could actually turn my life around and break free of the addiction.
Although based squarely on the Bible, the book wasn't about the promise of a far-off heaven or the menace of a literal hell (two concepts that had always seemed frustrating to me). To my surprise, it was about Jesus’ sweet assurance that the kingdom of God is within us. In other words, harmony and health are “within reach of consciousness here."
This opened my eyes to the idea it wasn’t being true to my spiritual nature to let myself be driven by material urges.
As I came to recognize that I could challenge this, the good in life no longer appeared so arbitrary, but I started to realize that happiness and self-worth were within my grasp. Heart-warming experiences occurred that I couldn't possibly have engineered for myself. Central London, where I worked, changed from the seemingly chaotic heart of an impersonal city to feeling like a friendly village. I’d regularly bump into people I knew or else help a stranger and make a new friend — lost tourists were certainly plentiful in those pre-GPS days!
I found myself feeling increasingly at peace with who I was and also gained confidence in what the future would hold. I started to really believe that life affords us “fresh opportunities every hour,” as Eddy has stated.
Compared to all that, the pull to gamble slowly but surely lost its hold on me. I not only stopped giving in to the habit, but stopped wanting to. Indeed, the desire hasn’t tugged at my thoughts even once in the three decades since.
Of course, spiritual growth is always a work in progress. Yet progress has prevailed to the degree I’ve (1) stayed true to my values; (2) gleaned fresh inspiration daily from my sacred texts, and (3) lived the less self-centered life to which both invariably point.
To me that’s meant striving to have unconditional love guide my words and actions, more humbly and gratefully accepting love from others, and subduing self-promotion as the main motivator in making key choices, particularly in regard to my career.
When I was stuck in the gambling rut, I believed my thoughts and actions were beyond my control. Now I’ve come to consider that there is power in trying to live a humble, spiritual life. Doing so enables us to take charge of our lives.
It's enabled me, a former addict, to finally say: “I’m free!