Bill Veerman, photo: Paul Jeffers
I’m a little bit different from most addictive gamblers: for a good while, I was very successful. Gambling enabled me to live extremely well and to travel first-class around the world. I travelled to the big race meetings. Why am I telling you this story? Because most people dream of a winning streak. But I can tell you that it ends the same way if you stick at it long enough. You end up losing big. And along the way you don’t really know yourself.
I’m also here to say that you can end up with nothing – and I mean scraping by on the pension. That’s my situation. And yet I’m the happiest I’ve been in my life because my priorities have changed. You can end up feeling good about yourself, perhaps more than you ever did.
The 50-year ride
I was 17 years old when I had my first bet. It was on a Saturday, at the end of my first week working. A friend and I were just roaming around the city, and we ended up at Caulfield Racecourse. I had my first bet and I lost. But it changed my life. When the horses came around, at the top of the straight, with the horses’ hooves and the crescendo of the crowd, I had this adrenaline rush that actually frightened me at the time. It was such a buzz that from then on, I was looking forward to Saturdays.
Eventually, I started betting during the week. Now, when you’re 17, living away from home, with rent, food and train travel to pay for, there is very little left. I started risking money that should have been for necessities. But everything became secondary to having money to bet and being able to get to the races. As time went on, I went to the trots after the races if there was money left. I went to the greyhounds on Monday and Thursday nights at Olympic Park.
I can tell you that it ends the same way if you stick at it long enough. You end up losing big.
By the age of 29, having gone through 15 jobs, I was homeless. I spent six months in a government-funded residential rehab program, with a group of people mostly experiencing mental health issues. I was the only person with a gambling addiction.
You’d have thought I’d quit. But after rehab I started work for the Sporting Globe, revising their form guides. I was seriously studying horses, and in 1976, I started winning. I had a unit paid off in two years. When you start winning you build a certain confidence. In 1983, I went full-time as a professional gambler. I wasn’t chasing losses. If I had a bad day, the next day was a clean slate. I had a structure that went on for years and years.
The turning point
It all ended with Sue, my partner. One day, we went together to the races and somebody called out that racing and socialising didn’t mix. I knew what they meant: if you’re concentrating on someone having a good time, you start to drift.
I met Sue in 1989. We were a couple for 17 years. In 2007, she died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. I sold up everything in Brighton and went to live in an apartment in the city. I put all the receipts from the sales, close to a million dollars, into a telephone account, and for the next four years, my life was gambling, from morning until early the next day.
When you get home at two o’clock in the morning, you might sleep, but when you wake up, you have to go back: it feels better than the reality of losing a partner.
My life was gambling, from morning until early the next day.
I decided to take an 11-week cruise to get away. I spent hours and hours playing card games in the casino, betting $1000 a hand. I ended up blowing $115,000 on that trip.
Money meant nothing to me, until the day I had $20,000 left in the account. That was 2011.
I went to the Salvation Army because they were familiar with gambling. They gave some good advice: to pay my rent as far ahead as possible, to give myself time to think.
I joined a program that helped people addicted to gambling avoid relapse by providing alternative leisure and social activities. It got me to focus on my wellbeing and how I could make a better life for myself. After finishing the three-month program, I wanted to give back. I volunteered as a contact for people interested in joining the program to talk to about taking that first step.
I came home one day and suddenly felt so different. I felt good about myself. I lost all that tension; the fear you live with and that you try to escape from, through gambling.
I'm the happiest I've been in my life because my priorities have changed.
For the past three years, I have been a community educator at ReSPIN Gambling Awareness Speakers Bureau. My speaking engagements have included the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Men’s Sheds across Melbourne, groups of people experiencing homelessness, and audiences affected by drug and alcohol dependence.
The bottom line of my advice: get people in your life and do them some good.
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