Gabriela Byrne

In 1992, Gabriela Byrne was living in Melbourne, a large city in southern Australia. She was thirty-six years old. She was married and had two young children. She also had a well-paid job. She didn’t like her job, but she was earning too much money to quit. One morning she had a fight with her boss. She was so upset by this that she almost did quit. Instead, she went to have lunch in her favorite pub. She had been going there for a long time, but it was only recently that ‘pokies’ had been installed.

Pokies are a special kind of slot machine: you put a coin into a slot, pull a lever, and, if you’re lucky, you win money — the ‘jackpot’ as it’s called. But pokies are faster than ordinary machines and easier to play. And, unlike ordinary machines, there’s no limit on the size of the jackpot. They are more addictive than any other sort of gambling.

Pokies were illegal in Australia before 1992. Then the government legalized them, and soon there were many thousands of them in bars, hotels, and casinos across the country. Every year, Australian governments get about one billion Australian dollars in tax money from the pokies. But there is a price to pay for this: Australia has the world’s highest percentage of ‘problem gamblers’ — people whose lives have been damaged by gambling. And it has been proven that increases in crime and homelessness since 1992 have been caused by the pokies.

Gabriela had noticed the new pokies in her pub, but she hadn’t been tempted to play them. She had never gambled in her life. On that day however, perhaps because she was so upset, the machines suddenly seemed attractive. Their lights were flashing and music was coming out of them. She wanted to play, but it seemed shameful.. Finally she could resist no longer. She told herself no one would notice. No one would think she was doing anything wrong. So she started to play.

When her lunch hour was over she left the pub and went back to her office — but she was hooked. Within a few weeks she was playing as much as five hours every day. She spent less and less time at work. Before long she was fired.  She soon got another job, but this didn’t help because her office was close to a casino. She gambled there before and after work. A few months later, her family’s bank accounts were empty.

Gabriela and her husband, Peter, agreed  that she shouldn’t have access to the bank accounts. But that didn’t work. Gabriela started selling health products in her spare time and spending the money she earned in casinos.

Gabriela realized she couldn’t control her addiction by herself. She knew she needed help. She joined a group of compulsive gamblers who were trying to help one another escape addiction. But going to group meetings didn’t work. She still couldn’t control her urge to gamble. Sometimes, after a meeting, she went directly to the pokies.

Gabriela left the group and began going to regular counselling sessions with her church minister. After about a year of counselling, she felt she was cured. She had stopped going to casinos. The urge to play the pokies had disappeared. Her husband felt he could trust her with money again and gave her back her credit cards.

One day — after Gabriela had gone for three months without gambling — she had some gift shopping she wanted to do. Her husband had gone to another city for a few days, so she left her children with her sister-in-law. She said she’d be back in two hours, but to her surprise, it only took a few minutes to find the gift she was looking for. Suddenly she decided to go to a pub and have a drink. Later, she said that she was feeling completely confident at that moment. She was sure that she could sit beside the pokies without being tempted to play them.

But as soon as Gabriela got into the pub, she started to put money into the machines. When she couldn’t get any more money with her cards, she left the pub and went to a casino where she was well known. For a while, that casino lent her more money so she could keep on playing. When she couldn’t get any more money, she called her sister-in-law and asked her to keep the children. She phoned her husband and asked him to come back to Melbourne right away. Then she went home.

When she got home, she knelt on her kitchen floor. She cried and screamed. She asked God to forgive her. She was filled with guilt and shame. She even thought of killing herself because she had lost hope. She had tried as hard as she could to escape, but she was still an addict.

However, that night Gabriela did finally escape. Her husband says that when he got home and saw the expression on her face, he was sure that Gabriela wouldn’t gamble again. He was right. After more than four years of addiction and after losing more than $A40,000 of her family’s money, Gabriela stopped gambling for good. And she went to work in the anti-gambling movement trying to help people who were going through the same things she went through. She created a successful counselling program called ‘Free Yourself’. She worked on educational materials for teaching high school students about the dangers of gambling. And she got involved in campaigns to get the Australian government to regulate gambling more strictly.

- information from: The Guardian, (London, England) 03.02.12, (Max Daly); The Guardian, (London, England) 04.08.31 (Simon Mayhew); AliveMagazine, 00.03, (June Yu);