September 01, 1975 12:00 PM

They shoot horses, don’t they, but obviously no such final solution is available for helpless horseplayers. In fact, mental-health researchers and practitioners have lagged on any solution at all to gambling addiction, which afflicts an estimated eight million Americans. Though they get less notoriety (and have tended to stay in the closet), the people hooked on gambling, stunningly enough, outnumber junkies about 6 to 1 in the U.S. and virtually equal alcoholics (nine million).

Finally, two years ago, Alida Glen, 44, a doctor of psychology whose previous speciality was problem drinkers, founded a trail-blazing therapy program at Brecksville Veterans Administration Hospital some 20 miles south of Cleveland. To date, she has worked with 50 cases—half of whom, when admitted, had pending legal action (usually bad check charges) and a quarter of whom had attempted suicide. Most have been released after one month of in-patient status, then continued weekly visits. But Dr. Glen claimed no permanent cures when she spoke recently with Dick Wootten of PEOPLE about the lowly existence of the compulsive high-roller.

What’s wrong with gambling per se?

Nothing. At least nothing is wrong with gambling for people who can control it. It’s wrong only for a small minority of gamblers, those who use gambling in a misguided way to cope with painful emotional situations.

When does problem gambling get started?

In youth. One gambler I’ve worked with realizes now that he started pitching pennies as a child to get away from his bickering parents. Sometimes it’s a sort of family tradition. The grandfather and the father of another of my patients both left their wives and children to play the horses. Of the gamblers I’ve treated, 96 percent had begun gambling before they reached the age of 21.

How does gambling grow to become an obsession?

A person gambles more and more because of environmental influences or some psychological problem. As the compulsion grows, the habit consumes more and more free time and eventually takes up time that would normally be spent with the family and on the job. Instead of a means to relaxation, gambling becomes a full-time preoccupation.

Do compulsive gamblers have a subconscious desire to lose, to be punished?

No. That’s an old psychoanalytic theory that I and most doctors working with gamblers don’t agree with. Most compulsive gamblers start out as winners. But at some point they begin to lose emotional control. Frequently they complain, “When I tell others how to handicap, they pick winners. When I do it myself, I pick losers.”

What is the appeal to the habitual gambler?

The enjoyment is all in the anticipation of winning. It builds up as he places his bet. That’s the great time. The outcome—whether he’s won or lost—doesn’t matter. It’s all that anticipation. If he’s won, he’s got to place another bet. If he’s lost, he has to recoup.

Why is it that you keep referring to “he”?

Women do play cards and bingo, but traditionally gambling has been a masculine pastime. I think we’re going to see more women gamblers as the sanctions and social restraints continue to be lifted from women. With women’s lib there will be more opportunity. But I also think that the compulsive women gamblers of today remain largely undiscovered because Gamblers Anonymous is such a heavily male-oriented group.

Do horse players differ, say, from crap shooters?

They both gamble for the action, for the emotional thrill. Some people try to make class distinctions among gamblers, but I’m not convinced of that.

Then are there similarities between gamblers and skydivers, for example?

Yes. Both are high-risk types. When a gambler is involved emotionally and intellectually in gambling, other things—no matter how important—tend to pale. The same is true of skydiving. The activity is used as an emotional release.

What will an addicted gambler forsake for his habit?

Nearly everything, including food. One patient at Brecksville came in extremely underweight. I thought he was an alcoholic. He had been subsisting on coffee and hamburgers and was tremendously undernourished.

Can some problem gamblers maintain the appearance of a normal life?

Yes. One young patient, for example, had been gambling periodically for 10 years. He would religiously give his wife his paycheck, but he would borrow money for gambling. When the gambling debts started piling up and the wife found out, it put a severe strain on the marriage. She felt she had been made a fool of. The patient, a man of about 30, would stay clean for a while and then get the gambling urge again and go into debt again.

Is it common for these men to turn to loan sharks or the Mafia?

Relatively common. They run out of legitimate sources of credit and have to go someplace else. Unless they are pretty well recovered, most gamblers are not willing to admit any dealings with loan sharks or the Mafia. They are ashamed of having to resort to these people. One man I have worked with implied that he had been beaten for not paying up. Another sought out my help because he had been threatened with physical harm. Many of my patients say that one reason a lot of famous entertainers play the clubs in Las Vegas is to pay off gambling debts.

What is the biggest problem you face in treating gamblers?

The gambler is frequently used to that lovely feeling he gets of flying high. A real problem we have in treatment is created by the fact that the pleasure of gambling is so great. Once a gambler recovers, it’s very difficult for him to find a substitute high. They’ve built a life on thinking that there’s some magic somewhere, and they come into the hospital thinking we have some magic too. They have to learn that there’s no golden ring out there to reach for, and we try to tell them that. We do our best to disillusion them without making it such a tough fall they can’t get up.

How do you go about treating them?

I believe in the Gamblers Anonymous group therapy approach. Gamblers are very good in group therapy. They have a tremendously high energy level and, with their fantastic knowledge of odds and probabilities, tend to be above average in intelligence. Their Gamblers Anonymous meetings sometimes go on for three or four hours, while Alcoholics Anonymous meetings many times last only one hour. In Brecksville, the patients have a voice in recommending each other’s discharges and weekend passes. One will tell another, “You don’t want to go home this weekend, you’re still mad at your wife.” When they were gambling, they thought of nothing else. At Brecksville, they start thinking, “Maybe I do love my wife.”

Is the medical profession sufficiently aware of the problem?

The profession is coming around very slowly. Just as views on alcoholism have changed, more doctors are beginning to recognize compulsive gambling as a medical problem as well as a social one.

Looking to the future, do you fear that legalized gambling such as state lotteries will increase the number of problem gamblers?

No. In lotteries there are few fast payoffs. Lotteries don’t appeal to compulsive gamblers, really. But when a lot of money is involved in anything, there is always abuse.

What about off-track betting and casino operations?

I think they present more of a problem. I understand that Michigan is considering casino gambling. That puts the fear of God in me. As for off-track betting, I am not in favor of it.

Can compulsive gamblers ever be completely cured?

I think half of my patients have managed to stay away from gambling. But no, they can never really be “cured.” They have to stay away from gambling. Once they have experienced that high, they can never trust themselves to place “just one bet.” Once you’ve experienced sex, do you go back to only necking?

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