From Thoughts of Suicide to a ‘Real’ Life Helping Others
Sunday, September 22, 2013
She’s a contemporary single grandma…looking younger than her years, taking care of her daughter’s children once a week, going to dinner and movies with friends, maintaining her home, walking for exercise, enjoying stage shows in Las Vegas and buying Groupon offers for occasional massages and facials. Life is good….in fact, Angelina George says life has never been better.
Five years ago, however, life couldn’t have been worse. Angelina was facing a judge because she had taken $10,000 markers at each of six Las Vegas casinos and couldn’t pay them back. She had also burned an important bridge by being so absorbed with gambling in recent years that she told her husband, a “good man”, to leave. She had also taken a “secret” second mortgage on the couple’s house to fund her gambling, and she had maxed 11 credit cards.
Angelina always considered herself a good person. She had raised two children successfully. She hosted holiday parties to help local charities. She had owned a successful business; she had always had enough money to satisfy her whims. Yet, at a time in her life when she should have been older and wiser, she had lost more than $1 million gambling on video poker. Her six-casino weekend was her final gambling binge. She was trying to win enough money to pay her ex-husband money she owed. She gambled three days straight; didn’t sleep or eat. At weekend’s end, she was tapped out and worn out. Suicide seemed the only answer. “I went on line trying to find a way to end my life,” she said. “The pain was worse than any physical hurt I’d ever had.”
What stopped Angelina from suicide? “I was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic schools. I believed if I committed suicide I would go to hell, and I wanted to see my mother again in heaven.”
At Angelina’s lowest point, when she owed so much money she couldn’t possibly see a way out, a friend took her to a Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meeting. More than 100 such meetings are held in the Las Vegas valley every week. At the meeting, she heard sadder stories than hers, though she cautions that, “It’s not about the money. Some of our members have lost very small sums – but if it’s money they couldn’t afford, that counts. In the meetings, each of us has to look inward, at how we’ve been living our lives. I cried at every meeting for the first two years.” she said.
Two friends from GA accompanied Angelina to court when she went on trial for her debt to the casinos. She expected jail time “because I owed the money”, but instead the judge gave her three years probation, an order to repay $100 a month toward her gambling debt which by now had risen to $70,000, and an order to complete community service once a week for three years. “My community service was at the UNLV recycling center,” she explained. “Barrels and barrels of trash were dumped on huge tables and we sorted through the messes. The experience was humiliating, and I was the oldest one in the group.
“I prayed to God to help me get through all this,” Angelina continued. “I took on odd jobs to earn enough money to pay the $100 a month and I did everything the judge told me to do for two years. I never missed a payment or an appointment with my probation officer. I did my community service. I attended GA meetings and had the signatures to prove it. Gradually, because of GA, I learned to see my life more clearly. At the end of two years, because I had followed all the rules, I was told my probation would end a year early. I had paid back $2400, but the rest of the debt was erased.” Why did Angelina continue to go to GA meetings after the two years? “I have an illness and GA is my medicine.”
Angelina had worked in Las Vegas as a poker dealer, and even though she was past age 60, she was offered a job at a new poker room in Las Vegas. Among the miracles in her life, that job gave her the full-time status she needed to participate in one of the recession-based government programs to assist homeowners with mortgage difficulties. With a loan modification, her second mortgage was completely wiped out. The new poker room closed shortly thereafter.
Angelina couldn’t afford health insurance, but a gall bladder problem resulted in a
$12,000 hospital bill. Catholic Charities paid the bill.
Angelina also declared bankruptcy, and that took care of the credit card debt. Her father advanced her $25,000 which was used for a new roof on her home after rats were found in her attic, and she had no credit of her own.
Making amends to all the people her addiction had hurt because of gambling is a necessary part of GA’s 12-step program. For Angelina, that included conversations with her father and her children who actually were initially unaware of the extent of her gambling. Apologizing to her ex-husband was the most important apology she had to make. “When I was gambling, my ex-husband couldn’t do anything right. One night he was sleeping, not snoring, just breathing. I woke him up screaming. ‘Do you have to do that all night?’ and I sent him into another room.” Her ex-husband continued to be “a good man” and a divorce debt she still owed, he declared, had been paid in full.
And today? Angelina still gets called for occasional tournament work in Las Vegas; she receives Social Security and she has housemates to help with expenses. Money is no longer important to her except as it allows her to pay what’s left of her mortgage and her utility and grocery bills. “I am suddenly sensible with money and don’t buy anything I can’t afford,” she says. This year, she also was able to mark something off her bucket list. She took a “bargain” trip to Italy. She went to the Vatican and as part of the crowd, had a cross blessed by the Pope. She believes to this day that God intervened many times on her behalf. This year, she celebrated her five-year “birthday” with GA.
In explaining how her life got out of control, Angelina says, “I grew up on the East Coast in a family where Mom played bingo six nights a week and Dad played cards. Family ‘entertainment’ involved gambling. For most of my adult life, I had enough money to live well and to gamble. I was also around a lot of gambling as a dealer. I would play video poker to pass the off hours. I had no idea that the ‘high’ of gambling would lead me to admit now, ‘I am a grateful compulsive gambler’.”
By the way, don’t ask Angelina to go to dinner or a movie on Thursday nights. That’s the night she leads a gambler’s anonymous meeting at her church. She has been a sponsor for other GA members and she feels a genuine obligation to somehow pay back the community of friends and programs that took her in when she needed it. She knows her gambling illness can come back any time, but she says she loves Las Vegas, her friends here and the weather, so she’s not leaving town. She says she’d love to gamble again, but knows she must on a daily basis choose not to gamble. With a hint of a gleam in her eye, she adds that at one time she “thought” she might need yet another man to make her life complete, but that thought is fading. She’s become, at last, satisfied with just being Angelina.
PS: Angelina George is not our story subject’s real name, but that really doesn’t matter, does it?
Nevada Problem Gamblers Helpline: 1-800-522-4700.