The first time Gabriela Byrne walked into a poker-machine venue she remembers feeling bored. The tinny noise, the flickering lights, people sitting silent and uncommunicative while pressing button after button … Byrne couldn’t see the attraction.
“It was a routine at work on Friday night with my workmates. We’d get a drink, sit and talk and then go into the gaming room,” recalls Gabriela, 55.
“We then pushed buttons and I remember thinking ‘how boring is this?’. But I did it for three or four weeks and then one day I had an argument with my boss. I left early for lunch and the pokies seemed the perfect place to forget about everything for a while.
“That’s when it started … and it got worse each day. I’d drop my kids to school, drive straight to the pokies venue and wait for them to open the doors. Each day I played a little longer and I started thinking about gambling from the time I woke up. When could I play? Where would I get the money to play? Poker machines took over every aspect of my life.”
Gabriela, with the support of her husband, Peter, has beaten the all-encompassing addiction and has not played poker machines for more than a decade. But the well-spoken, intelligent mother of two keenly remembers the serious impacts of gambling. At her lowest point she contemplated suicide.
Since conquering her addiction Gabriela has counselled hundreds of men and women who are battling their own pokies demons.
“I’ve heard so many stories, and the despair and the consequences are getting worse and worse,” she says.
Gabriela and her husband are advocates of plans by the Australian government and Andrew Wilkie, the independent Member for Denison, to introduce reforms to curb poker machines. Wilkie backed the ALP at last year’s knife-edge federal election but demanded the government introduce poker machine reforms by 2014. The government is now trying to garner support and commitment from state and territory governments.
A 2010 Productivity Commission report into gambling found 40 per cent of poker-machine revenue comes from the losses of people with a gambling problem. To help combat this, the government wants to introduce a pre-commitment scheme – essentially a smart card where individuals set a limit on the amount they are prepared to gamble when gambling.
In return, the gaming and pub industry has launched a $20 million advertising campaign to fight the reforms.
But German-born Gabriela is encouraging people to write to their local MPs expressing support for the pre-commitment scheme.
“The Berlin Wall came down, and there is a saying that a lot of small people, doing small things, created that change. That’s my philosophy,” Gabriela says with quiet determination.
“I could not do any of this without the support of my husband and family, because it’s not a great thing to be known publicly as a former problem gambler. But I never forget the day I swore that if I ever got out of the addiction I would tell the world and do anything to help others get out of it too.”
Gabriela met her Melbourne-born husband in Cologne, Germany, in 1973. Peter, who has a background in IT and project management, competed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich as a member of the Australian basketball team. He remained in Germany to play basketball and met his wife when he coached her team. They married in 1974.
After Gabriela completed a degree in physical education, she and Peter started an IT consulting business in Germany and remained there until 1988.
Peter says: “We always said we’d return to Melbourne, and Chernobyl was the catalyst. The nuclear cloud came over Cologne and Gabi was pregnant with our first child, Jennifer, so we sold the business and the house and came back here.”
Peter resumed his IT career and his wife, after also having a son, Julian, found work as a PA. They had a comfortable home in the eastern suburbs, a busy social life and good incomes. But life began to unravel in 1993 when Gabriela discovered poker machines.
She stole time to gamble by telling Peter she was working late, starting work early, going out with friends or that her car had broken down – again. She managed the household budget so had free access to funds. During her addiction she gambled about $40,000.
“You want to feed the beast and you’ll do anything. You’ll find money and you’ll lie and cheat and steal,” Gabriela says quietly.
After six months, Peter found an unpaid bill that Gabriela swore she’d paid. So he combed through the couple’s bank accounts and found numerous unexplained ATM withdrawals. He thought someone was stealing from the account and Gabriela had to confess.
Peter says: “We were fighting about money, which had never happened before, and Gabi had become withdrawn. And there were the unexplained absences … I was becoming a bit incredulous of Gabi’s stories about why she wasn’t home. Her car couldn’t break down that many times!”
Gabriela says Peter thought she was having an affair: “I wasn’t at home as much and I didn’t want Peter to be close to me because I felt I didn’t deserve him being close. I couldn’t stand him being nice to me because I felt so guilty.”
Winners: Gabriela and Peter Byrne are helping others with gambling problems.
Peter says: “That evening when I looked at the bank statements, Gabi told me she had a problem with poker machines and I said, ‘Well, don’t go to those places’. I know now it’s not that easy, of course. But I’m a pretty calm and rational person and I tried to look at how we could fix this. What did we need to do?”
The couple stopped her credit cards, Peter took over managing the family finances and they went to Gamblers Anonymous meetings together.
But it was three years before Gabriela finally broke the addiction. During that time she stopped gambling but relapsed, and the couple told their children what was happening, too.
“My daughter once said to me she never had an issue talking to me about things she did wrong because she never put me on a pedestal. She knew I was as vulnerable as she,” says Gabriela.
“When I first told Peter about the pokies, we also told Jenny that mummy had a problem with the pokies and it wasn’t her fault that I was moody. I think that was the right decision.”
Gabriela studied neuro-linguistic programming and had counselling, but there were still times when the lure of poker machines overtook her.
“I learnt you could get cash out from the bank without needing a card, so Peter and I then had my signature taken off the bank account. I’d go to the doctor for an appointment, pay with my Bankcard and then get the cash rebate to gamble. I pawned our jewellery and borrowed money,” she says.
What kept Peter by her side during these painful and turbulent relapses?
“As long as I could see Gabi was trying to get better – with GA meetings and therapy and counselling, I could tolerate the occasional relapse,” he says.
“But my trust was severely tested, and at one stage towards the end of her gambling I came very close to saying ‘it’s over’. But an addiction develops over time and I had to accept it would take time to get rid of that addiction. It would have been a similar process if Gabi had a disease. You work through it, stick by that person, come out the other side and move on. I felt our marriage was worth saving.”
The breaking point came in late 1996 while Peter was in Sydney on business. After a lengthy period of abstaining, Gabriela relapsed. Bitterly disappointed, she felt she’d never be able to put the addiction behind her.
“I lay on the kitchen tiles and thought about ending my life by taking all the pills I could find in the house,” she says. “I remember screaming and crying out to God. At some point I called Peter. But in that time something happened and I only explain it by saying that I found the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. We’re all jigsaw puzzles – I’m a mother, a wife, a sportsperson … If those pieces are all nicely arranged I feel complete. But during the years I gambled there was a piece missing. I’d have times when I woke up and thought, ‘I wonder why I am here’ but I didn’t address that.
“Then gambling came along and it was a bit like looking for the missing piece of blue sky in a jigsaw and you find a piece and you know it’s not really the right piece but it has a bit of blue sky on it so you squash it in and make it fit.
“While I was gambling I felt OK. But when I walked out of a venue I had to take out that ill-fitting piece of the puzzle and things crumbled. I needed to fill the void in myself and to find that missing piece of blue sky in the jigsaw puzzle.
“For me, that has been my belief in God and filling a spiritual void. For other people who gamble, their missing jigsaw piece might be to do with childhood trauma, a bad relationship or unresolved grief.”
Peter remembers walking into his home that day and sensing something different about his wife.
“There was a different aura about her. It took that massive relapse and Gabi getting to the edge, and almost going over the edge, to achieve that. I just had that feeling we’d managed to beat it that day,” he says.
Not long after this Gabriela founded Chrysalis, a support organisation to help problem gamblers. She’s just finished a year-long trial of a program – (Re)Making Meaning – to prevent former gamblers from relapsing. The Problem Gambling Research Centre has recommended the program be rolled out Australia-wide, and Gabriela and Peter are now looking for funding.
The program took 30 problem gamblers in Melbourne and helped them reconnect to different types of recreational activities such as bowling, barbecues, winery tours and relaxation classes. An online network has allowed people to stay in touch.
“There are a lot of programs to do with counselling and addressing issues while people gamble, but there’s nothing to address the black hole when they stop gambling,” says Gabriela.
“Gamblers have socially isolated themselves. They have lost friends and family, they’ve lost motivation to engage in other things and they’ve lost self-respect. This program helps them reconnect with people and places.”
Gabriela looks back on her years of gambling with mixed emotions. “My family has forgiven me and I have forgiven myself. But there were four years where I wasn’t the mother or wife or person I should have been. That’s my regret and I feel very sad about that. But every weakness and every bad thing you do in your life is an opportunity to grow and make a better life.”
Peter agrees that their family and relationship have only grown stronger. Their daughter, Jennifer, is now 24 and running her own cabaret show in London while Julian, 21, is a barista and lead singer in a local band.
“I believe in the idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” says Peter.
“I would rather not have gone there, but Gabi and I are even closer and Gabi is using what she has learnt to help other people see there is a way out and that they can get off the merry-go-round and free themselves of a gambling addiction. There is a silver lining.”
» For details on Gabriela’s organisation, visit www.freeyourself.com.au and for details of
the government’s proposed reforms go to www.problemgambling.gov.au