When the hard-driving Baltimore businessman was desperate for money, he would go to a deli and order a $2 corned beef sandwich. "I'd write a bad $10 check for the sandwich, grab the change, throw away the sandwich and head to the race track," he said.
Although he was earning as much as $30,000 a year as a salesman, "it wasn't enough and I was stealing money from the business and running to Laurel, Bowie, or Pimlico every afternoon. I had every credit card known to mankind and I had to meet the mailman every afternoon so my wife wouldn't see the bills. I was constantly lying and cheating my family and my friends to get more money to gamble. We had no money for rent or food, yet I was scheming and conning to get money to lose at the tracks.
"I didn't go to win; it was a predetermined plan to destroy myself."
His gambling, which began when he was in college, lasted for about 20 years. During that time his compulsion brought him two broken marriages, a suicide attempt, $60,000 worth of debts, the loss of almost every job he held and scores of legal problems.
On Nov. 29, 1980, he went to the track for the final time, gambled away his last cent and bounced his last two checks so he could pay his way into the Johns Hopkins Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center in Mount Wilson, Md.
"I was a pile of garbage," said the former gambler, recently turned 40, who hasn't made a bet since he entered the clinic.He goes to the center three times a week, has reorganized his life and has started a new business. "I am number one in my life now. I will never become like I was again, but I won't forget who I was," he said.
The Johns Hopkins Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center opened in November, 1979, as a three-year pilot program sporsored by a $100,000-a-year grant from the state. The state contract to operate the center was awarded to Johns Hopkins University. Maryland has an estimated 40,000 compulsive gamblers, according to a survey conducted by the federal Commission on the Review of the National Policy Toward Gambling.
Despite the promise of funds for three years, the center's operation was threatened this spring when the legislature first cut and then restored its appropriation for this fiscal year. The center's work will again be in jeopardy in June, 1982, when the three years of the pilot program are up. Each year, the legislature has defeated bills to make a permanent allocation of 1 percent of the state's gambling revenues to the treatment of compulsive gamblers.
The center is in a three-story, brick colonial house in the tranquil, rolling countryside northwest of Baltimore. During the past year and a half, the staff of nine has treated 200 gamblers, men and women who lost their money on horse races, sporting events and lotteries and in the casinos of Atlantic City.
Staff members said their average client loses $43,000 a year and has an annual income of $15,000 to $20,000. While in the program, project administrator Sandra Leavey said, "gamblers are saving an average of $3,575 per month that they would have gambled. And 90 percent of the clients have stopped gambling while they are with us."
Persons interviewed at the center requested that they not be fully identified, since many of them are embroiled in legal problems and court cases stemming from their gambling debts.
The Mount Wilson facility is the first such clinic in the state and one of few in the country to offer help to compulsive gamblers and their families. Dr. Robert Politzer, the executive director, said he has answered many queries from other states interested in forming similar programs.Connecticut recently passed a bill to create a counseling program later this year.
The Maryland center has treated a number of out-of-state residents who were willing to pay $1,100 a week to live at the center and receive. counseling.Maryland residents pay an average of $8 to $12 a visit, with fees based on a sliding scale according to income.
"We were interested in starting on the ground floor in a new area," said Politzer. "Doing original research excited me. There was no precedent and no model here. We need vigorous research and surveillance, like in alcohol and drug abuse treatments, and we must evaluate as we go."
Pathological gambling was first classified as a mental disorder in 1979 by the American Psychiatric Association. According to Dr. Robert Custer, chief clinical consultant to the center and an expert on compulsive gambling, "Once an emotional disorder to recognized, society has to learn about it and be educated about it. The same thing happened when alcoholism was recognized as a disease in the 1950s. . . . It's a slow, agonizing recognition of the problem and responding to it."
As to what causes people to gamble to excess, there are no pat answers, said Leavey. "There are several characteristics that we find in many gamblers. They often come from broken homes; there is usually. some sort of gambling in the family, whether a father or an uncle, and there is an early win, usually at age 14 or 15."
Counseling on how to stop gambling is part of a broader treatment program at the center.
"Compulsive gamblers victimize every aspect of society," said Politzer, explaining that help covers legal, financial, vocational and personal matters. "Even if he stops gambling, no matter how he may be doing on a personal level, there may be loan sharks or courts after him. The compulsive gambler leaves a string of victims."
Gamblers and their victims tell a variety of stories.
"I was aware that gambling was a problem with Bob before we were married, but I didn't know it was a sickness," said Mona R., wife of a reformed compulsive gambler.
"It started when, at church carnivals, he would go off by himself and come back with eight or nine stuffed animals and I found out he had spent $30 to $50 on the wheels. Later I began finding slips of paper with horse numbers on them and other numbers. I didn't know that when it said 50 or 100 it meant dollars. Our income at the time was barely $200 a week. It's hard to deal with; you want to trust this person but he's lying to you.
"It made me a nervous wreck," she continued. "And it affects the kids, because if you argue with him about money, it makes Mom look like the bad guy because they don't see how Daddy has done anything and Mom keeps getting on his neck all the time. . . . I found out there was nothing I could do. It was entirely up to him. I could support him, which would be a help, but there was nothing I could to do make him stop."
Mona came to the end of her patience when she discovered Bob was taking money from their small business. They called for help from two organizations with nationwide branches, Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon, which helps gamblers' families. Bob hasn't gambled for seven years and is now a peer counselor at the center. (Gamblers Anonymous currently has four Maryland chapters; one in Silver Spring has about 35 members who attend meetings regularly.)
Though women are most often portrayed as the victims of compulsive gambling and only two of the center's 200 patients have been women, statistics have shown that as many as 40 percent of compulsive gamblers are women. According to Leavey, women usually gamble smaller amounts of money and have more limited access to funds than men. Custer feels many women choose to see private therapists rather than go to the center.
"For a woman to be (a compulsive gambler) is viewed as being more horrendous by society because they are the nurturing, saving type of person, supposedly, and to be spuanderers is not acceptable. We need programs designed specifically for women, as those that were adapted for women alcoholics," he said.
Custer characterizes the typical compulsive gambler as "highly energetic, vigorously industrious, competitive, remarkably athletic, bright -- people destined for success at a young age. . . . It is so risky for them to return to gambling. Unlike alcholics, who might damage the family a little bit with a bout of drinking, gamblers can devastate their savings in a day or two. . . . Our treatment is to encourage them not to gamble again, but to develop a substitute behavior which they find as stimulating."
Vic L., a fiftyish, athletic-looking who made his last bet on Dec. 20, 1976, and is also a peer counselor at the center, describes himself as "a high achiever." He still remembrs his first bet in 1953:
"In college, I didn't know there was a race track a mile and a half away until a friend took me. At my first race, I bet $2 to win on Copper Medal. I'll never forget his name. The horse had never raced in his life and he won and I got $84. As it was pushed from the teller's cage into my hand, the thrill I got in receiving $84 for nothing was such a high! I still remember it. From then on I was strictly a compulsive gambler."
While the lotteries run by 15 states don't usually entice compulsive gamblers, there are exceptions, according to Politzer. He told of one Prince George's resident under treatment at the center who received a large check in an insurance settlement and spent it on $30,000 worth of Maryland lottery tickets.
Maryland State Lottery figures show that one-third of all Maryland lottery tickets are sold in Prince George's County. Sales to District of Columbia residents who travel to the county to buy tickets account for a substantial portion of the sales.
Last year the Maryland State Lottery added $166,702,471 to the general fund. Politzer and Custer point to this figure, plus state revenues from horse racing, to justify arguments for the continued existence of the center.
"There's a good possibility that we will be cut next year," said Politzer. He suggested that D.C. Mayor Marion Barry consider contributing funds to the center to make it a joint project after the District lottery goes into operation this fall.
The hotline phone number at the Johns Hopkins Compulsive Gambling Counseling Center is 301-653-9700.