Financial Therapy: A Secret Gambling Addiction
ANNA SALE: This is Financial Therapy, from Death, Sex & Money.
CORA: It did not fit into my narrative for my life or how it could go. That I would have a husband who would gamble. Like that just didn't even occur to me as a possibility, you know?
GARRETT: I felt that I had just really let Cora down and then I wasn't in a good place, uh, with my professional life, because everything was, has been and was so uncertain at the time that it was like, I don't have a purpose. And I’m an addict? This sucks.
I’m Anna Sale.
Late last year, we got an email from a listener we’re calling Cora.
C: My husband and I recently hit a pretty intense rough patch regarding our financial life, mental health, and the trust in our relationship in general. It's brought about a lot of important growth for both of us, but at great expense, literally and figuratively.
Cora is 26. She lives near Detroit, with her husband. And that rough patch she mentioned? It was really rough. Cora and her husband, whom we’re calling Garrett, both struggled to find work during the pandemic. Then Garrett secretly got into online gambling...ended up deeply in debt…and tried to kill himself. And just a heads up, we will be talking more about that, later on.
I want to emphasize here—this whole series is about the importance of getting help when you’re struggling with your mental health. We have resources in our show notes, including where to call if you’re having thoughts of suicide yourself. Please reach out.
Cora and her husband, Garrett, have been getting a lot of professional help since going through all of that last year. Garrett’s been getting ongoing mental health treatment, and he goes regularly to recovery meetings. Cora goes to therapy, and together they go to couples counseling, too.
But none of that help has been focused on money. Specifically on their tensions around money, and their worries about paying off their debt, and the financial trust that’s been lost between them. That’s all still very present. And that’s why Cora wrote in to us, when we asked our listeners how money is or isn’t working in your relationships.
C: I'm figuring out a plan while my husband works on healing, which is all I want him to have to worry about right now. But the debt is truly daunting. It could, of course, be much worse, and I am grateful every day and every minute that he is still alive. But we're in a really difficult space with money. We could use some financial therapy in whatever form.
That is where Amanda Clayman comes in. You might know Amanda from the Financial Therapy series she did with us last year. She’s a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in helping people reflect on, and sort through, all of the emotions that are wrapped up in money.
AMANDA CLAYMAN: Our money sort of creates something that we need to deal with or something that we need to talk about. And in dealing with it and talking about the financial issue, we end up getting to talk about all of these other really, really important issues as well.
Over the next three episodes of our show, we’ll get to listen in on Cora and Garrett’s financial therapy sessions, as Amanda helps them have hard and really important conversations about money, mental health, and their relationship as a whole.
G: I didn’t make a decision that was based on valuing our marriage or the time we’d spent together. I made a decision out of pain and just shame.
C: I'm like, I want to trust you, but then I'm like, this thing happened and I'm really struggling with it still.
G: I was just like, hey, I understand if you want to leave. I did not have any presupposed idea of like, everything's going to go on normal.
Amanda’s first financial therapy session with Garrett and Cora, after the break.
This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money. I'm Anna Sale.
Garrett and Cora met when they were both in college, and got married three years ago. Today, Cora’s an artist and a classroom teacher. She just finished her masters degree in fine arts. Garrett is an iron worker. He works in construction. And together, they bring in about $90,000 a year, although a series of layoffs and gaps in employment last year meant that their take home pay went down by about a third.
Financial therapist Amanda Clayman’s first session with Cora and Garrett was over Zoom. That’s pretty much how she’s seeing all of her clients these days. Amanda was set up in her recording studio… her closet. And Cora and Garrett were sitting side by side on the couch in their living room.
A: Is this a place where you guys have spent a lot of time over the last year?
C: Yeah. We were living in a much smaller place before, when the pandemic started. And then we moved, um, mid-pandemic out of that apartment because it was very cramped and we were on top of each other. Um, because we were like, you know what? We're grownups, we're not both in school anymore, we can, you know, be in a house. So we, we found this place and have a little more room.
A: And what has work been like for you during the pandemic?
C: Do you want me to start?
G: Yeah, yeah.
C: So when the pandemic started, I was in grad school, finishing up. I graduated and then I was unemployed and I was on unemployment for the summer. And um, and then I ended up getting a job, being a teacher, like in a homeroom, teaching math and social studies and writing and reading. And it's been really amazing.
A: So Cora you're a first year teacher and your first year of teaching is teaching in the midst of a pandemic?
C: Well kind of. [laughs]
A: That’s amazing. And Garrett, how about for you? What has work been like for you over the past year?
G: Yeah, I work in construction, so there was a three year long period, which is really kind of uncommon, where I worked consistently and didn't have any layoffs. And then when the pandemic hit I was laid off for two months and then I was back to work again. And then I was laid off again for about a month. And then I was laid off again. And then I worked for consistently for about four months and then I was laid off again. Yeah, it was, it was, it was definitely a drastic change. I read a lot initially. But then I was just sitting in a hammock all the time.
A: It sounds like you’re a person who values structure and consistency.
G: I really - I've always really liked working, I've been working since I was about 12 or 13 years old. So I like really value work ethic and going to work and getting up early and showing up and doing my best during that time. 'Cause I guess I just really like money. I mean, ultimately I, it's not as cut and dry as all that, but that's how probably where it's focused, 'cause money provides, you know, a certain amount of, um, freedom. Definitely. And so I guess that's always been kind of ingrained in me. A lot of the things that happened during the pandemic or a lot of the things that have happened in our relationship as of late are probably, um, not only because of, but as a result of a lot of free time. And that's when I that's, when I just, yeah. Kind of went off the rails a little bit.
A: What had been building up for you?
G: In the first layoff was when I, uh, was the buildup, I guess. So that was in March of 2020, I started to get into online gambling. 'Cause, I don't know, I was really bored and I have a, I have an alcoholic addictive tendency, um, which I'm in the process of continually dealing with, now in a healthy way. But at the time I just didn't have, I had been sober for, uh, uh, since - at that point I had been about four months sober. It was, uh, just kind of the, the channeling of my alcoholic brain or the channeling of my addicted brain to do something that would kind of give me like a, like a spark. And I'm - nobody really knew about it at all. I don't think I really mentioned - the only time I ever mentioned it, um, anything about it, was when I did win some money. 'Cause cause my lizard brain went off. It was like, oh my God, this is amazing. You know?
A: Did you identify or recognize any of those behaviors or the, the way that you - the sort of need that this was fulfilling for you? Did any of that read as a red flag or did it all seem okay?
G: You know what? It did not seem okay. It didn't seem okay to me at all. Uh, but what it did seem was like a little bit of my, um, uh, you know, as somebody who was like an addict and a alcoholic and just all those things, I was kind of patting myself on the back, like, oh, I'm not drinking. So, you know, I'm doing pretty good. [Laughs]
C: So I can do other stuff?
G: Yeah, exactly. So I, yeah, that's, that's where your mind can trick you into thinking that you're, I mean, you're not doing the thing that you're trying really hard not to do, or you really want to do. I really did want to drink the whole time. But I did not think it was okay. I thought that I was going to be able to catch up to myself. Because I did win money early, which is, if you think about it, probably kind of algorithmically set up so that, that happens, but in one hand I won $5,000. So then just like lights and fireworks went off in my head, 'cause I was like, oh, well, this is working out. So it's not a big deal. And then it progressively got worse or it progressively sped up to the point where I was doing it every day. Like a lot every day. So that went on for about six months. And then it became kind of an, uh, an addictive thing. It really satisfied something in me for a short time, until it didn't.
A: Let's go back to last fall when things were in a really tough place for you guys. Can you tell me what was happening then?
C: Well, there was just a huge distance between us emotionally during that time. And there had been for quite some time. And honestly, like, I mean, when we lived in the super small apartment, you know, until the summer, we did feel like we were on top of each other and it was just, you know, getting difficult. Um, and so when we moved to the house, it was really nice, but you know, it was more expensive to move to a house. And again, we're on off, your job, and then my job had just started. And so I was like really, really in it and like liking it and like, really invested in it and like spending a lot of my time and energy on that.
And then in November, we got an email at school that the school was shutting down and, um, I like, I had to stay late at work to like pack up our whole classroom, basically, to move it home. And I had tried to call him going - like after work. And I like almost ran errands afterwards and then I like something told me to come home and I did. And um, and yeah. And you were, you were in the bathroom with the lights off and the door closed. And I thought, honestly, that you were like just stressed out from the day. I think I just said like, "Hey I'm home, what's up!" You know? And you were like, "Just give me a minute, like give me a minute." Like you kept saying that you needed me to give you a minute and you were like - but it was weird. It was like you just kept saying the same thing in response to me being like, you know, but I feel like we were so in this weird, emotionally distant place that I didn't have an alarm bell sooner. So like five minutes went by or something. And then I was like, "If you don't come out of the bathroom," 'cause the door was locked, which was not normal, "I am kicking the door open. And you’re gonna have to fix the lock." [Laughs]
G: She had to like bust the door down. And yeah.
C: And you were like, you know, almost dead. Had tried to kill yourself. And, um, it was like, yeah, it was really horrifying.
A: And Garrett, for you, like, was there anything significant about the breaking point then? Where something happened?
G: I'd lost, um, like $10,000 in like a week. I couldn't believe how behind I was, um, financially, behind. And how much I had sacrificed, and that was when I really - that was my turning point. That's why, that is why I tried to kill myself.
G: Because I felt ashamed. And because I felt that it was unmanageable. Like I was looking at myself from the outside saying this is a sucky person to be with. Like I would not want to be with this person. Um, so that's how, and that's how I felt.
A: Oh Cora, Cora, that look that you gave him just now. What were you expressing with that look?
C: [Sniffles] Just that, I do want to be with him, the person you're describing, you know? 'Cause I love you. No matter what.
G: I love you too.
C: And it's hard for me to think that you tried to like leave the world, or leave yourself. 'Cause I love you. So.
G: Yeah. Yeah. I love you too. First of all, for the, for the record. I was in a place of so much selfish behavior. That's, you know, that's what it is. It's like selfish behavior. I didn’t think that I was capable or that this was the kind of person that I would be.
A: Garrett was far from alone in getting into online gambling during the pandemic. While most types of gambling went down last year, online gambling is booming—it's becoming legal in more places around the U.S., and last year revenue was up 250%. Self-reported behaviors like lying about gambling, or feeling irritable when trying to quit, have gone up too. That’s according to the National Council on Problem Gambling. And studies in recent years have found that people who struggle with problem gambling...have a significantly elevated risk of suicide.
ANNA: Coming up, Amanda talks with Cora and Garrett about what happened when Cora finally found out about Garrett’s gambling problem, and the debt they were in.
C: I was just like, like, holy shit, is this like, am I like, what do I do? Like I thought maybe the next step was that I had to like run away.
This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money. I’m Anna Sale.
Garrett ended up spending a week in the hospital last year, after his suicide attempt. It was the start of a lot of professional help for him.
And, it was the start of more honesty with Cora, too. She didn’t know about his gambling while it was happening, or about the debt he accrued, about 18-thousand dollars. She only found out the day she kicked down the bathroom door, and an ambulance rushed Garrett to the hospital.
C: When I figured out what was going on, I - well, I, you know, the whole situation was so shocking and I was like, do I like, should I be in this relationship? Am I safe? Am I, you know, is this like, should I be going through this? You know, like I had those thoughts and I was really angry. And then I'm like on the phone with my mom and like my, you know, I'm like, I don't know what to do. Like, this is just horrible, you know what I mean? Like, it was just like so many crazy feelings and then like the gambling thing, but I still didn't really know what was going on, and -
A: I mean, Cora, how did you, just in a really basic sense, like how did you find out?
C: How do I start to answer this? You, he, Garrett, wrote...a note. I hesitate to even call it that. [Laughs]
A: Why do you giggle? Why do you giggle as you say "a note?"
C: I can’t believe I’m laughing about it. It was a series of very erratic sticky notes on the bathroom wall.
C: Which, like you have made fun of it now. So I feel like I guess I can laugh about it, but at the time it was honestly like, a part of me was like, this is what you're going to write me? If you're gonna kill yourself?
G: You said as much, really.
C: That's what you got?
G: I was on a like, uh, probably like the seventh hour of like a pretty - like a bender basically.
G: Uh, so I was not, uh, necessarily lucid for the whole experience.
C: It was really horrible. I mean, I had a friend come over that night and help clean up and I like, she was like, do you want to keep this? And I said no. So I don't even have a real record of what it said, but it was basically along the lines of, I love you. And you're like, amazing. And I don't deserve you and you should be happy. You'll be happier without me, which again is like, so - such a load of crap. Um, and then you wrote that you had a gambling issue, you had a gambling problem or something, and that there was some debt. And then I was like, he's exaggerating. Like he lost, you know, $200 or something. Like that was where my brain went. It went it like went to denial. That's just, you know.
A: Well, are you - tell me how comfortable you are talking about the specifics of your financial situation. Are you comfortable saying numbers or, or roundish numbers?
A: So, first of all, before this happened, did you, was there any debt that you guys carried that you knew about?
C: Yeah, because I had just gotten out of grad school. And so we had a little over $30,000, which we still have, in school loans for me. We had not too long before that paid off Garrett's school loans. So we were like, you know, okay, here's the new ones. And then we, um, what else? There's like, you know, credit cards that I thought were kind of fine, but over the past many months up to this point have just kept not being paid off. And I wasn't sure why. And then I thought, well, it's because I'm in school. It's because I'm unemployed it's because like da da da, you know, again, I was like making excuses for what was happening and he was, you know, pretty much doing the money thing. And I really should've stepped in, in retrospect, more, but it had always been a thing where like, whenever I came into the picture with money, I have a more conservative viewpoint on how we should spend our money. And then you are like, if anyone is like, don't buy a thing that you want us to buy, then you're like, "You think we're starving! Why?" And so I was like, you know, and then I felt bad being that person like to make you feel like I thought that we were failing in some way. So I was like, okay, I won't, you know, we're fine. It's fine. I'll just let you deal with it. So I had like avoided it.
Yeah, so then once the gambling thing started, we'd had like a loan that he had consolidated credit card debt into. And then there was a maxed out credit card and there was another credit card that I didn't know was being used. And, um, and then, we had car loans too. Which together all equal to about 30. So it was like suddenly the debt that has already been over my, you know, the cloud over my head, but I'm like, "It'll be fine. We'll be fine. Everyone in America has debt." Was like doubled and it was, it could have been a lot worse. But it also, to me, it was like, it should've never happened at all. So it's, you know, it's a big thing to contend with.
But it's kind of like, now, I'm dealing with all the money stuff. And it's like, you know, it's getting taken care of, but it's still there. A lot of it because we don't make that much. And we have like a life to pay for. So it's just really like, it's like a weight. There's this awareness of this thing that's always there.
A: You bring up a really good point, Cora too, about like, maybe you worry what it means in terms of safety and control to have Garrett have his hands in the finances at this point. And Garrett, you may be worried about that yourself.
G: Yeah. I've thought I've thought a lot about, about how much I can be trusted and how much, um, uh, you know, impact or how much of participation I should have in these financial matters.
G: I've made it pretty clear that I'm not the most responsible person or at least I wasn't the most responsible person when it comes to these financial matters. So I, I'm just here to be supportive in that way. In whatever role kind of makes sense right now. But.
A: What do you worry might happen?
G: Um, I trust myself, um, right now. Um, but I, I don't, I don't want to give Cora any reason not to trust me. Um, or any reason to think that I might be up to no good, or like just my, that my behavior’s leaning towards the way that things were before this. Um, so I, I feel, I feel like I just want to be in a position of transparency and, and not a, uh, a place where there's any question of that as well.
A: And Cora, how has your trust in Garrett been affected by what has been happening with his health and with money and your financial lives?
C: I guess I have been struggling with that a lot because I thought, I don't know, there were like different categories of trust, I think. Like, I trust him completely and fully, like, as like an emotional partner and like, as a, like, as a romantic partner or like, you know, as my - yeah. But, um, I, and I thought, yeah, the money thing, I don't even know how I feel about it still. I feel like I can't really say yet or define it. And maybe that's just because I'm uncomfortable with it. But, um, yeah. So that has been a hard thing for me to even say for myself.
A: And that’s good information in terms of, um, in terms of thinking about how to move forward, because not only are we considering, um, how to build something healthier, but there's also the recovery from the crisis which has brought you here. And we don't want to just sort of say, like, here's the picture of financial health. Now let's move toward that. Like, like we're just starting from a clean slate. It is so important to give ourselves time to really think carefully about the feelings that come up around all of these changes and around this subject, because this is, I mean, this is really where, where I think financial therapy in particular, um, offers us an opportunity. Because things that are happening in the relationship often come up in our money.
So almost always there's one partner that has a particular way of sort of approaching money and approaching life. And that may be very different from the way that the other partner operates and sees the world. So, um, sometimes that comes out in conflict. One of the ways that it, it feels like it, it was coming out for you guys was, um, not conflict, but rather a real sense of avoidance and, and initially, protection. Like Garrett, you were trying to, on the one hand, really protect Cora. You'll just take care of it and sort of spare her from that. But on the other hand where that kind of breaks down or where we run into a limit on how effective that is, is once things go wrong, you're kind of stuck out there all by yourself. So now we've kind of swung the other way where it's like money had belonged to Garrett and then that didn't work in those circumstances. Um, and there's, there's a crisis and now it has swung back all the way over to Cora. And ideally what we'd like to put together is something that feels constructed in a really, um, holistic way that takes into account both of your strengths without letting that individual point of view run the whole show.
C: Yeah, I love that. Yeah, that's really because you're right. Like, it has totally swung the other way. And like, I feel like in order for us to feel like a sense of shared ownership over the things. It is really important for us to have that, you know, dual thing, but I think it feels scary for, you know, to go in the middle without, you know, that really intentional groundwork. So.
A: And some of it, by the way, maybe like there's an initial plan where like, like Garrett, you get sort of like you come back in in stages as that feels comfortable for both you guys, the two of you feeling safe and that feeling safe in terms of where you're at with your recovery, and we’ll try to then set up, um, for coming out of this process with both of you really knowing yourselves better and knowing each other better and knowing how you can work together. For this to be an area of your life that supports your togetherness instead of feeling like it drives a wedge between you.
G: Great. That would be excellent.
C: Yeah. That would be wonderful!
AS: At the end of their first session, Amanda gave Cora and Garrett some homework: to each think about their individual strengths when it comes to managing money, and what they’re not so good at. And then to talk about it. On the next episode of Financial Therapy, we hear how that went.
C: Like, I perceived him to get really angry with me and I got really angry with him for getting mad at me for freaking out because I just needed to freak out.
G: I kind of don’t really want our life to be completely dictated by every little thing that could and will maybe go wrong.
C: We've just found money to be a source of conflict for us in a pretty big way. And it was like, it's just been something that has been easier to avoid.
AS: If you are struggling with a gambling problem, get help. Call the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700. Or to get peer support, go to gamtalk.org. And if you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, tell someone. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255. And thanks to Brett Wean at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, for your guidance on reporting about suicide.
A: This special series was produced by Yasmeen Khan and Katie Bishop, with the rest of the team at Death, Sex & Money: Anna Sale, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn, with additional editing by Anabel Bacon and Jenny Lawton. Our interns are Kristie Song and Mardy Harding.
Original music by Isaac Jones.
You can find me, Amanda Clayman, on Instagram @amandaclayman, and on Twitter @mandaclay.
AS: You can check out all of our past Financial Therapy episodes at deathsexmoney.org/financialtherapy. Look out for our next episode of Financial Therapy with Amanda Clayman next week. I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.