Published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer Jan 22, 2017 By Fe Zamora @amfezam

“I got caught in the thrill of the chase. The more I lost, the stronger my motivation got to play again”
Reagan Praferosa Gambling addict turned recovery coach

Gambling is legal and supported by the government and it’s fueled by hormones produced by the body. No wonder gambling addicts find it tougher to shake off the habit. “I managed to quit drugs and alcohol, but not gambling,” says a victim.

Of the three addictions “Charlie” (not his real name) wrestled with for decades, he found gambling the most formidable. “I managed to quit drugs and alcohol, but gambling lingered,” he said.

It took him more time to beat gambling, Charlie said, adding that keeping his hardwon sobriety was even tougher.

But thanks to his weekly sessions at Gamblers Anonymous (GA) a support group for recovering gambling addicts, he has kept away from the vice for over three years now.

“The urge is still there,” Charlie admitted. “I see a poker game on TV, and I can feel the excitement rising. But that’s about it,” he added.

To passersby, the GA meeting at a cafe in Metro Manila seemed to be just a gathering of friends bantering after a hard day’s work.

But they are actually society’s “forgotten” addicts, clasping each other’s hand lest they return to that consuming behavior that once drove them to despondency and, in the case of some of their friends, even suicide.

Medically known as “ludomania,” problem gambling afflicts an undetermined number of middle class Filipinos “with a little extra for luxury,” said psychiatrist Dr. Randy Misael Dellosa, a consultant for responsible gaming with the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).

Loss of control

“There is a natural addictive potential to gambling. It’s like good food that you enjoy. But you (have to) stop at a certain point,” Dellosa explained.

Failure to do so could lead the gamer to spend more time—and money—at the casino or in online games despite negative consequences. There is a perceived loss of control, and attempts to quit or even stay away from the game could make the player restless, jittery, and even violent.

“The gamer may lose every time, but the thrill of winning outweighs the losses,” said Dellosa. “It’s the thrill of the chase to win back the losses (that drives the gamer on). There’s the hope not only of gaining back the losses but also of winning more,” he added.

The psychiatrist noted that professional gamblers, who usually belong to mafia-like crime syndicates, know when to quit. They also gamble using other people’s money.

“Gambling is very similar to substance dependence but the substance is internally produced,” Dellosa said. He identified these substances as the hormone adrenaline, which gives the player a burst of energy and excitement, and the feel-good chemical dopamine produced by the brain, which induces heightened pleasure. Former gambling addicts swear the high it produces is “better than orgasm.”

“That’s why among the forms of addiction, gambling is the most difficult to fix,” said Rene Francisco, program director at It Works! chemical dependence treatment center in Ozamis City.

Sharp and smart

First, the gambling addicts do not show physical deterioration. “They strive to look sharp and smart to show creditors that they can be trusted,” Francisco said.

Second, gambling is legal and the government even supports it, he said, adding that some people hide their addiction and pass it off as just a past time.

To hardened gamblers, the issue isn’t about winning or losing anymore. “It’s (all about) getting money to bet, to play, and feel the adrenaline rush, that feel-good moment in time, that inexplicable high,” Francisco explained.

Recovery coach and addiction consultant Reagan Praferosa was 24 years old when he experienced his first high at a casino in Las Vegas more than a decade ago.

“I won $18,000,” Praferosa said, smiling at the memory of that night of unexpected windfall. He had never played seven cards before and was a virtual virgin gambler who beat the pros and the aficionados.

Suddenly, everybody in the casino seemed to know this lucky Filipino. Gorgeous women smiled at him and dapper men in suits patted his back. Even the guards saluted him on his way out of the game room.

Back in a Manila casino, Praferosa was pleased to find he still wielded a winning streak. But it ended soon.

“I got caught in the thrill of the chase. The more I lost, the stronger my motivation got to play again,” he said.

He started borrowing money to finance his gambling, sinking deeper in debt with each passing day. He thought of quitting, but the desire to recoup his losses kept pulling him back to the casino. Away from the casino, he became restless.

“Gambling became my dreamworld, my easy way out. I did not do drugs or alcohol, I was a purist gambler,” Praferosa said.

Fantasy

In 2010, Praferosa’s family had him admitted to the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Makati City. On Aug. 1, 2010, he was flown to Ozamis City for treatment at the It Works! Treatment Facility.

Away from the gaming crowd, Praferosa was confronted with the bare facts: that gambling is about the odds, and the odds are always against the gamer. Everything else is fantasy.

Praferosa quit gambling altogether, and did more. He took formal training as a recovery coach under the Drug Advisory Program of the Colombo Plan. He felt that with his experience plus professional training, it was time to help gambling addicts and even the government through proper agencies.

“(My) gambling addiction has been forgotten. I want the government to pay attention to us,” said Praferosa, who cele- brated his sixth gambling-free year with an announcement on Facebook.

Praferosa’s move came in an auspicious time. Dellosa, who runs Life Change Recovery Center, a treatment facility for all kinds of addiction, noted the rising number of women midlifers who are hooked on gambling. “Many are going through the empty-nest syndrome. The kids are grown up and they have discovered gambling as a new activity,” he explained.

Then there are the children who are hooked on online gambling. “This is the hidden addiction. Nobody can know about it except those who play. They have less chances of being caught,” he said.

Self-exclusion

A few years ago, Pagcor started implementing its guidelines on responsible gaming. Gamers who feel they have become addicted can apply for exclusion from the casino. Spouses and immediate family members of a gambling addict can also ask the casino not to admit their kin. The names of the banned gamblers are entered into the National Database of Restricted Persons or NDRP, which can be accessed only by the security department of Pagcor casinos nationwide.

But Praferosa wants the government to do more. What about those addicted to cockfighting, “jueteng,” lotto, bingo, even the basketball game fixing schemes that prey on college students?

“They are the forgotten addicts. We have to raise awareness about their existence,” Praferosa said.