Serious gambling can begin innocently. Between 35,000 and 105,000 pathological gamblers live in Oklahoma, experts say. People accessing state-sponsored gambling treatment services has grown about 150 percent from 2007 (139 clients) to 2011 (347 clients).
While he stole a million dollars from Oklahoma schools and gambled most of it away, Roger Q. Melson couldn't imagine one day wearing a gray uniform stamped with “inmate” and scrubbing toilets for $7.50 a month.
Everyone thought for years that he was just a lucky gambler.
“It was really tearing me up,” Melson said, sobbing into a prison phone.
“I kept telling myself I would finally hit the big one — whatever that is — and it would take care of everything.”
Then he decided something really could take care of his lies and the hurt he caused others. He met a man in the parking lot at his workplace at the Commissioners of the Land Office to buy a gun.
“I was going to kill myself ... when I was caught,” he said.
Months before a grand jury in June 2009 handed down a 174-count indictment for embezzlement, to which he later pleaded guilty, the former state-employed auditor chose not to join the 13 percent of Gamblers Anonymous members who try suicide.
He confessed to one of his sons that he'd embezzled and gambled for years. He mentioned the gun and handed it over to his son.
Melson, 57, is one of the estimated 35,000 to 105,000 pathological gamblers living in Oklahoma. In 2004, voters authorized gaming at racetracks and expanded gambling at tribal casinos, as well as the state lottery, to help fund education. The number of people accessing state-sponsored gambling treatment services has grown about 150 percent from 2007 (139 clients) to 2011 (347 clients).
“It's a brain disorder. What happens is people really do get hooked on gambling. People who don't understand it underestimate the strength of it,” said David Swope, Nationally Certified Gambling Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor.
“I've heard stories of people so engrossed in gambling they wore diapers. They didn't want to leave the machine.”
People sometimes get into serious gambling by innocently joining friends at a casino, said Jo Ann Pearce, A Chance to Change Foundation executive director.
The innocent roots of Michelle's gambling addiction began at age 16 in a sweaty gym in El Reno, where she first joined her mother to play bingo.
Her addiction was sealed with a kiss at age 26. She married her second husband, a heavy gambler, and after the ceremony, they went straight to a casino. “We didn't leave for our honeymoon until two days later,” she said.
She picked up almost $1,000 for their honeymoon — and an addiction she's still fighting at age 38.
She once found a MegaMania machine with a glitch that kept giving money back. At one point, she put her children in day care and treated her machine playing as a job, devoting eight to 10 hours a day to it until the casino fixed the gusher.
“It's like giving a cocaine addict an endless supply of cocaine,” said Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used.
Swope said a big win can be like crack cocaine to a problem gambler.
“One of the worst things that can happen to a gambler is they win. Once that happens, it's an exciting event. It's thrilling. It gives them such a sense of euphoria they want to repeat that again,” Swope said.
Lies and deception
Though most are upstanding citizens, they'll often begin lying and deceiving as the habit grows.
At the worst of times, Melson would say he was going to a meeting but sneak off to gamble three or four days of the week.
He said he's miserable about deceiving family, co-workers and the state over the more than five years he covered for his gambling. It went hand in hand with his creation of bank accounts where he deposited checks intended for the Land Commission and then helped himself to the money.
Michelle ditched hairstyling classes to gamble. After becoming a stylist, she had cash and excuses handy. She'd claim a client canceled, and she'd go play the machines.
Once she was 15 minutes late from gambling and found her daughter, who was in second grade, sitting on the porch.
“What does that do to a 6- or 7-year-old? You can't go back and fix it. All I can do is do better in the future,” Michelle said.
She used to leave the porch light on when she left with the children in the morning so she'd know that evening whether the utilities had been turned off without upsetting the children. “I didn't have to explain why we were going to their grandmother's house to spend some time,” she said.
They got evicted from homes and had cars repossessed for lack of payment, Michelle said.
The Melson family had to move to a smaller home and sell many possessions. His wife continues to work at their church's child care facility and takes on baby-sitting and other jobs to supplement their income.
“A person out of control with gambling can, and many do, use all the funds they can get their hands on, usually in the belief that they're going to win it all back,” said Pearce, with A Chance to Change, which has a gambling treatment program under contract with the state.
Gambling clients often are broke, have mortgaged their homes several times or lost them to foreclosure and don't have insurance. So, the program there costs just a $3 co-pay per treatment.
Michelle credits the program, along with divorcing her gambling husband and establishing a relationship with a man who never gambles, with her road toward good health.
Melson is getting addiction treatment as he serves his 10-year-sentence in minimum security at the Jim E. Hamilton Correctional Center in Hodgen in southeast Oklahoma. He said inmates and prison personnel are nice, but he thinks constantly about what he's done to others.
“I will be making (restitution) payments again, when I can, until I die,” he said. “I regret the harm I've caused ... every day,” he added tearfully.
Michelle said excessive gambling can be devastating, but addicts shouldn't give up.
“There's hope. No matter how desperate anybody is feeling and thinks there's no way out, there is help,” she said.
$7 billion — Last year's estimated social cost to families and communities from gambling-related bankruptcy, divorce, crime and job loss. 48 percent — Gamblers Anonymous members who considered suicide. 57 percent — Gamblers Anonymous members who admitted stealing to finance their gambling. 85 percent — Approximate percentage of adults in the United States who have gambled at least once. 60 percent — Approximate percentage of US adults who gambled within the last year. 100 percent — The presence of a gambling facility within 50 miles roughly doubles the prevalence of problem and pathological gamblers. Number 5 — Oklahoma's ranking among states with the most casinos. More than 80 — Tribal casinos in Oklahoma, three Oklahoma racetrack casinos and the statewide lottery. About 60 — Number of casinos each in Canada, England and Central America. About 50 — Number of casinos in both France and Germany. About 13 — Number of casinos in Australia. Problem gamblers also: Have high rates of co-occurring substance abuse and mental health disorders.
SOURCES: OKLAHOMA DEPARTMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH AND SUBSTANCE ABUSE SERVICES; NATIONAL COUNCIL ON PROBLEM AND COMPULSIVE GAMBLING; OKLAHOMA ASSOCIATION OF GAMBLING ADDICTION AWARENESS; NATIONAL GAMBLING IMPACT STUDY COMMISSION REPORT.