It was a fight against kings and queens. A battle Dave and Karen won with the help of a mysterious stranger and the Gamblers Choice counselors at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
A struggle for attention
Dave’s father was a successful lawyer and an alcoholic. “My dad worked hard and played hard,” Dave says. “He was gone a lot, so as a kid I struggled to get his attention. When my Dad was home, he was angry – probably because he was waking up with a hangover.”
It didn’t take long for Dave to follow his father’s example.
“I started losing money playing carnival games when I was 11. I was drinking by the time I was 14. At that point, I wasn’t addicted, but I was certainly on my way,” Dave says. “Alcohol gave me confidence and helped me escape the anger and insecurity I was feeling.”
Life of the party
Karen’s parents were also heavy drinkers, but drinking never turned into an addiction for her. “I drank and partied because that’s what everyone around me did,” Karen says. “My parents weren’t physically abusive, they just had me do crazy things, like drive them home from the bar when I was only 12. My father was always the life of the party. I saw that same characteristic in Dave. I guess that’s what attracted me to him.”
A chaotic life begins
Karen and Dave met, got married and were expecting their first child by the time Karen finished her first year in college.
“As a new mother, my maternal instincts kicked in big time,” Karen says. “I became the responsible one. I dropped out of school and got a job so Dave could finish college and get his law degree. Partying became less important to me, but not for Dave.
After law school, Dave joined his father’s law firm back in their hometown. “Dave was very busy and traveled a lot,” Karen says. “He had business partners and friends from law school throughout the state, so when he wasn’t working, he was partying. Meanwhile, I was home with the kids, growing angry and frustrated over what I was seeing. I knew I needed to do something, so I finally went to Dave’s parents for help.”
Dave’s father had stopped drinking and had gotten involved in Alcoholics Anonymous years earlier. Dave’s mother helped Karen connect with Al-Anon, a support group for family and friends of alcoholics. Karen gave Dave an ultimatum. “Either the booze is gone or I’m gone,” she said.
“Thankfully, Al-Anon was an answer to my prayers and probably saved our marriage,” Karen says. “It helped me see how out of control Dave’s addiction was and that it was his addiction, not him, that was causing all the problems in our family.”
“Thankfully I made the right choice,” Dave says. “The next day I went to talk to my father’s friend, who was also involved in Alcoholics Anonymous. That was it; I quit drinking.”
We didn’t have a clue
“I was happy, Karen was happy and the heat was off.” Dave says, “I had quit the booze. Problem was, I was still gambling.”
“We didn’t have a clue,” Karen says. “I was so relieved that Dave had stopped drinking, that it didn’t occur to me that he might also have a gambling problem.”
“In those days, people didn’t understand that there was an addictive element to gambling,” Dave says. “Even my dad, a recovering alcoholic, was into high-stakes gambling. Nobody thought about the possibility of someone having a dual addiction.”
Looking for action
“In the beginning there weren’t many places to gamble,” Dave says. “Before the casinos, the opportunities to gamble were seasonal – a game of poker after golf or trips to Winnipeg to bet on the horses.”
It wasn’t until Karen and Dave started taking golf vacations that Karen started to see a problem develop.
“Over time, the golfing vacations we took to enjoy time together turned into a trip where I sat in our hotel room by myself while Dave gambled in the casino all night.” Karen says. “It finally got so bad that I refused to go anymore.”
“About the same time we stopped going to Nevada, casino gambling was starting in North Dakota,” Karen says. “I remember telling Dave, ‘We’re in trouble now.’ He tried to assure me that it wouldn’t be a problem, but I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”
Dave no longer had to wait for summer poker games at the country club or vacation trips to Vegas to get his fix. Gambling action was available to him year round, right in his own backyard.
Gambling takes over
It was starting all over again. Dave was never home. Karen, the ever vigilant caretaker, was busy with the activities of their four children and caring of her mother who was developing Alzheimer’s. “It was a crazy, chaotic time in our lives,” Karen says.
Because there was no help for gambling addiction available locally, Karen went back to what she had learned through Al-Anon to help her cope with the anger and hurt.
By this time, Dave was also starting to realize how out of control his gambling had become.
“I eventually ran out of energy,” Dave says. “I was tired emotionally, I was tired physically and depression was starting to set in. I knew I’d lose everything we had if I didn’t quit.”
The coffee shop
By December 2001, Dave’s gambling had slowed down, but he hadn’t stopped completely. “I’d still sneak some in, just to relieve the pressure of my addiction” he admits. His epiphany was about to happen.
“During a trip to Winnipeg to celebrate Karen’s birthday, the couple stopped for coffee. While Karen went to the counter to order, Dave sat down at a table. When Karen returned, she saw Dave deeply involved in a conversation with a strange woman.
“As I sat down to join them, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Karen says. “There’s Dave, the guy who never opened up to anyone, telling this woman whom he didn’t know, everything about his addictions, his family and his frustrations. He had never opened up to anyone like that, not even me.”
The woman’s name was Morgana. She was an addiction counselor. The name of her business: Serene Counseling Service.
As their conversation ended, Morgana looked at Dave and said, “Give your family a Christmas gift this year – give them the gift of abstinence. If you can manage to do that, you may have a chance of helping future generations.”
‘Future generations’, Karen thought. ‘This addiction will affect our grandchildren also.’
As Morgana got up to leave, she said, “You know it’s funny. I’ve been coming to this coffee shop every day for five years and have never once sat down here in this section of the shop. But today, for some reason, I found myself sitting here next to you.”
“The three of us looked at each other and felt that something amazing had just happened,” Dave says.
Becoming human again
It took a of couple months before Dave finally took Morgana’s advice, but finally he called Lutheran Social Services and met with a Gamblers Choice counselor.
Four months into it, Dave had stopped gambling and told his counselor, Lisa Voeller, “I don’t need to meet with you anymore, I’ve got it under control.”
“No, Dave, you still have more work to do,” Lisa responded.
“I knew what she meant,” Dave says. “The last thing I wanted to do was talk about my feelings, but I knew I had to do it. I’d spent so many years not caring about anything or anyone except me. It took me two years of individual counseling to get my humanness back.”
Karen supported Dave’s recovery by accompanying him on the weekly 80-mile drive to meet with his Gamblers Choice counselor, and later the Gamblers Anonymous support group, that Karen helped start.
Eventually both Dave and Karen started working as Peer Mentors for the Gamblers Choice Program – Dave working as a mentor for compulsive gamblers and Karen working as a mentor for the family group.
It affects the whole family
As with any disease, a certain percentage of the population will be affected. The average addiction rate for alcoholism is 12%. The addiction rate for gambling is higher. It is estimated that 20% of the population will become problem gamblers and 5% will become pathological, compulsive gamblers. These percentages generally increase for people who have grown up in an addictive household.
“People typically think of an addiction as the individual’s problem, but it’s really a family illness,” Dave says. “Addiction – be it alcohol, gambling or codependency – turns good, honest people into liars.”
“Hopefully, by providing the education and creating awareness, through programs like Gamblers Choice we can help those people before they become too deeply involved.”
Strength through trials
“When Dave and I walk side by side I feel strengthened by the challenges we’ve faced together,” Karen says. “We don’t have all the answers and there are no guarantees for our children or our grandchildren. All we can do is share our experiences and try to model honesty, openness and a willingness to ask for help if we need it.”
We’ll meet again someday
“We tried to reconnect with Morgana to thank her for her help and update her on my recovery, but the e-mail she left with us never worked. We couldn’t find her counseling business in the phone book either,” Dave says.
“We’ll find her someday. Until then, we’re thankful for the gift she gave us and our future generations during that chance meeting at a coffee shop.”