For five years now, says Mike, "I've been clean."
They've been good years he takes pleasure in recalling. Not like those before 1976: "It was horrible, a nightmare."
Mike (not his real name) is a "complusiver gambler," he tells you, "no longer gambling."
A grandfather, his hair is lightly graying. Though he looks feisty, his manner is relaxed, gentle. On this warm evening, he is dressed in a neatly pressed shortsleeve leisure jacket. He looks anything but a racetrack loser out of "Guys and Dolls."
But back in the "bad years, I went from one phase of gambling to the next. If I lost at the horses, I'd go to football. My money went down the drain. i
"I was going to have an airplane, women. That's what I thought about. What I had in my mind was "The Big -- he draws out the word slowly to emphasize just how big -- Pot ."
"Then I would get in my car with the bald tires. All I could think about was that the horses were running.
"I lost thousands of dollars. I didn't have two pennies. I was broke. But I wanted to go back and win all I had lost.
"My kids were unhappy because Dad wasn't paying attention to them. I got involved with bad checks."
To avoid creditors, Mike hid "behind the curtains." He was afraid of doorbells, of the telephone ringing.
"If I had continued, I would have wound up at Arlington Cemetery, because that's how bad I was."
What rescued him, he says, is that his daughter finally told him: "You are sick. We know where to go for help. Please go."
She had contacted the D.C. chapter of Gamblers Anonymous, a 23-year-old organization with 280 chapters in this country and 100 abroad.
It was, he now says, "the best thing that happened to me since I was put on earth."
Because he no longer had his car, one of the members picked him up to take him to his first meeting. "That's how interested they were in me."
Another helped him find a job at higher pay and showed him "how to meet my obligations." That meant apologizing to the people to whom he owned money and asking them "to bear with me" while he paid them back.
"I came to every Monday-night meeting my first year.I could see visions of me in society again. Respectable."
Mike remarried: "I have a wonderful wife who has faith in me that I won't go back to that vile world."
And, he adds, "I can watch a football game now like entertainment -- like a ballet on stage -- without needing to gamble."
That last remark sparks hearty applause from the 20 men attending the weekly meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. Retelling these stories is part of Gamblers Anonymus therapy.
Patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous, it's a mutual-support network for men and women who have gone through the same thing. Some members have been coming since this chapter was founded 20 years ago. Compulsive gamblers can quit, says the orgainization, but they "can never be cured." There's always the possibility of falling back into old habits.
Others are newcomers, like the man who's there because a judge suggested he attend.
Also there, a small-business owner, a property manager, a schoolteacher. Their stories have a common thread.
An uncontrollable urge to bet -- on anything, sports, cards, the racetrack, numbers -- plunged them into a downward spiral of lost jobs, bad debts, a trouble homelife and, somethings, white-collar crime (a cashier dips into the till; a lawyer borrows client's funds).
With the help of Gamblers Anonymous, they've made the hard climb back. For some, it has meant the prosperity they never got from gambling. They talk now of beach condos and "property in the mountains," earned, not won.
"Nine out of 10 times, it's the wife who phones," says the founder of the Washington chapter.
Members maintain their anonymity, using only first names and the first initial of their last names even at their meetings. Gam-Anon, a support group for spouses, parents and other family members of gamblers, meets in the adjoining room at the same time.
For the wife whose husband is afflicted, it's a "life of uncertainty and fear," says one Gam-Anon regular, whose husband quit 10 years ago. "If you're at home, you wonder: 'Where is he? How much trouble is he getting in? Is a policeman coming to the door because he's passing bad checks?'"
Another adds: "Week after week there's no money for groceries. The car is repossessed. The bookmaker is at the door."
"It's much easier," she says, when you can "sit here with people who have had the same experience."
For many, it offers the first hope that their spouse can stop gambling.And many learn for the first time to quit blaming themselves.
Estimates vary, but some experts believe there may be as many as 10 million compulsive gamblers in the United States. Gamblers Anonymous claims about 6,600 active members in this country and abroad. Women make up only about 1 to 2 percent.
The medical profession recognizes the addiction as a "progressive behavior discorder" in which, says Maryland's Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center, "an individual has an uncontrollable preoccupation and urge to gamble."
The new center -- the only one of its kind in the country -- works closely with Gamblers Anonymous. "We consider them one of the greatest resources that we have," says therapist Joanna Franklin. "They'll take you by the hand."
Franklin thinks there are far more male complulsive gamblers because women, until only recently, did not have high-paying jobs or easy access to loans and charge accounts to finance a gambling habit.
The National Council on Compulsive Gambling, an educational group formed to promote community services for problem gamblers, also praises the work of Gamblers Anonymous."So far," says council vice president Arnie Wexler, "I think they're the most proven, effective force for help."
As various forms of gambling become legitimate -- a lottery referendum is on the November District of Columbia ballot -- Wexler anticipates the number of compulsive gamblers will grow. Illegal teen-age gambling appears to be on the rise.
Compulsive gamblers, says Gamblers Anonymous, tend to be unwilling to accept reality -- "hence the escape into the dream world of gambling. They also often are emotionally insecure and immature, subconciously they feel they can avoid mature responsibility by wagering on the spin of a wheel." There's also "a strong inner urge to be a big shot."
The gambler, says the orgainization, must make " a progressive personality change" from within his or her self. The spouse may also have to grow up emotionally.
Some compulsive gamblers quit after their first meeting. For others, it takes years. Many never make it.
The program "will always work for any person who has a desire to stop gambling," says Gamblers Anonymous. "However, it will seldom work for the person who cannot, or will not, face squarely the facts about this illness."
It takes a step at a time. As one poker addict, attending only his second meeting puts it:
"My wife made me come last week. This week I came on my own. I went a week without gambling."
For help with a gambling problem or more information :
Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon. 585-2151. Both meet at 8 p.m. Mondays, Montgomery Hills Baptist Church, 9727 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, and 8 p.m. Fridays, Bells United Methodist Church, 6016 Allentown Rd., Camp Springs, Md. There is no charge, but contributions are accepted from those who can pay.
John Hopkins Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center, Thomas Wilson Center Building 17, Mt. Wilson, Md. 21122. Phone 301-653-9702.
National Council on Compulsive Gambling, 99 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. Phone 212-686-6160.