Carolyn Crawford, photo: Paul Jeffers
If you go into a pokies venue, day or night, you’ll find plenty of older people playing the machines. I was one of them, a grandmother. For seven years, I stole money from my employer to pay for my addiction: $400,000 in total. When I was sent to prison for 18 months, I was 64 years old. I met other grandmothers inside. They had also stolen money to fund their gambling. One of the women stole millions.
We all loved our grandchildren. I have six grandkids. They visited me in prison. Imagine that. The other women had their little visitors too. We had all been good people in many ways, but here we were. And this is the message I’d like to share: gambling addiction can happen to the nicest, sweetest people. And when it happens, they’ll do bad things just to keep on playing. And I think people my age can be particularly vulnerable to getting hooked.
Lonely and looking for something to do
I started gambling in the company of my boss, the man I eventually stole from. He’d say, ‘let’s go out for dinner’. We were just two lonely people who had nothing else to do at night, so we’d have dinner and end up playing the pokies. This was in 2000. My sons had moved out of home. My boss ended up getting a girlfriend, but I kept going on my own, two to three times a week. I liked having people around me.
I think people my age can be particularly vulnerable to getting hooked.
By 2002, my gambling was getting worse. I made sure I paid the bills, but sometimes I didn’t have anything to eat due to losing all my money. The first time I stole from the business was when I was taken by my employer on a business trip. I didn’t have enough money to go, and I knew I would be gambling, so I stole the money from the company account. It made me feel sick – every time I took money I told myself I’d never do it again. I also told myself that I was right to take it: I felt I had been taken advantage of at work. I worked long hours and it had been years since I’d had a pay rise.
By 2009, I was gambling every night after work for about four hours and up to six hours a day on the weekends. I’d come out of the venue after losing everything and think how stupid I was, or ‘I’m useless, I’m worthless’. Many times, I contemplated suicide. I thought about driving into a tree on the way home. I believed it would be easier on my children, and that they would be better off without me.
It made me feel sick – every time I took money I told myself I’d never do it again.
My employer’s daughter-in-law started working at the business and was in charge of checking the accounts. When my boss learnt I had been taking money from the company, I was dismissed immediately. I felt like I had a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t eat or sleep and I was just crying all the time. My doctor increased my medication for depression (I’d suffered depression for years) and gave me sleeping tablets. I was having thoughts of suicide and the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CATT) had to be called out to my home.
My employer pressed charges and it was during this time my father passed away from lung cancer. He had been sick for many years and we were extremely close. My psychologist gave evidence at my hearing and provided the court with a report stating she believed gambling was a way of coping with my depression.
I had never been in trouble with the law before and was terrified when I first went to prison at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. But I needed to go through this experience, as I may not otherwise have sought counselling and could still be gambling. I now say it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I know I can do a lot of good through spreading the word about how gambling can ruin your life. It is a terrible addiction.
The first thing to do is make amends. By cashing in my superannuation and using money inherited from my father, I paid my employer back, more than I was required to. It’s left me with nothing, but I don’t owe money to anyone.
I needed to go through this experience, as I may not otherwise have sought counselling.
My other advice is get help. Don’t sit back and think you can do it on your own because you can’t. Turn to your friends and family first. When I was suicidal, I’d think my children would be better off without me. They’ve been my rock. If you can’t turn to your family, then go to Gambler’s Help or get a counsellor who understands problem gambling.
How to get support
If you have concerns about your gambling, or are affected by someone else’s gambling, call Gambler's Help on 1800 858 858. To find out more about getting support, including online help and self-help tools, visit: gamblershelp.com.au.
Read more personal stories from people who have experienced gambling harm.