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Tony O’Reilly – Christmas in Recovery

They say Christmas is a time for reflection and the New Year a time for new beginnings. When I was asked to write this blog I started reflecting on my last few Christmases, some while I was gambling and others when free from Gambling.

When I was preparing for a talk I gave at a gambling seminar in September this year I was going through my online betting history for some power point slides. The scale and frequency of the bets were two things that really stood out; however, another thing that caught my eye was that over the years when gambling I had been placing bets on Christmas Day. Not for events on that day, but for events on St Stephen’s day, such as racing and football. On a day when I should have been enjoying spending time with my family I couldn’t help but
check in with my best friend at the time: ‘Paddy Power’. Maybe knowing that I had the bet placed, helped me get through that day, or made me feel normal.

In 2011 my gambling finally caught up with me. I had stolen money from my employer in order to fund my gambling addiction. In July that year this had been discovered and I went to treatment in Cuan Mhuire, Athy. It was a 3 month residential programme and I celebrated my Daughter’s first birthday there. Not the ideal setting for a birthday party but I knew that I needed to be there. I finished the programme in October but the relationships with my wife
and family were extremely strained. That Christmas should have been a joyful time, as it was my daughter’s first real Christmas: she was 16 months old at the time. For me, it was tinged with sadness, guilt, regret, shame and the fear of what was to come. I remember that, although I was free from gambling, it was not a happy time. I was still numb. Anger and resentment were very evident as my family were still getting to terms with what I had done. I had embarrassed both myself and them with my actions.

Christmas one year on: my actions were rightly punished as I was sentenced to 4 years in Prison with 1 suspended for false accounting and theft. I spent Christmas week settling into my new environment and cell in the midlands prison. The highlight of that Christmas in C wing was the Eastender’s Cliff-hanger when it was revealed which one of the Branning brothers had been having an affair with Kat Moon. Such is the need for escapism in Prison that the soaps are hugely popular. The following week I rang in the New Year with Imelda
May amidst the surreal noise of brushes and dinner trays banging off cell doors. I recall this being a happier time for me even though I was away from my family. There was a real sense of relief that I had reached this part of my journey. I had been waiting over a year for sentencing and now that I knew my fate I could get my head down and try get my life back on track. I felt back in control.

I spent the following Christmas in an open prison and on my own. I had lost my marriage at this stage but was still bet free. I was really starting to rebuild my life and even though I was still in Prison I was content. I had starting my counselling course that September and was aware that the following year there was a good chance that I would be out on Community Return and get to spend Christmas with my family.

The following year I did get to spend Christmas with my family. However, my mother had lost her brave battle with cancer and passed away on the 13th of December. It was a sad time; especially for me personally. I didn’t get to rebuild the damaged relationship with her as I wasn’t long out of Prison when she died. Even to this day it is a huge regret that she didn’t
get to see me turn my life completely around. I can only hope that she is looking down and feeling proud. Christmas that year was really tough and my feeling of loss was huge. I was now over 3 years free from gambling and studying to be an addiction counsellor. My relationship with my daughter was getting stronger and this bond was the real driving force for me in my recovery.

Christmas 2015 was when I met my current partner and this was my happiest Christmas for well over a decade. I really felt that 2016 was going to be a good year. Positive things were starting to happen for me. I was starting to reap the rewards for all the hard work I put into my recovery. I had my challenges and obstacles but discovered new ways of coping and dealing with what life threw at me.

Talking and being open and honest was a new concept to me but today it is what keeps me from not going back to my old ways. In March 2016 I started my new role in Dublin as an addiction counsellor. I have been working there since and am seeing a lot with clients with gambling addictions. I am using both my training and my own personal experience to try help people who are struggling with this horrendous and growing problem.

I count myself as one of the lucky ones who have managed to break free of the shackles of problem gambling. I am looking forward to my 7th Christmas bet free and am very grateful to be able to enjoy it for what it is supposed to be. However, I am also very aware that there are tens of thousands of people out there struggling with the fallout of their gambling or that of a family member, friend or work colleague. For them, Christmas this year will be a time of extreme stress, hurt and money worries. I have been there and it is not a nice place to be
especially at this time of year.

The good news for anyone reading this that is affected by problem gambling is that there is help out there. Organisations such as The Rutland Centre and Cuan Mhuire provide residential treatment for people suffering with gambling problems. Other Organisations such as Problem Gambling Ireland provide all kinds of support for both the problem gambler and their families. Also, Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon (Family & Friends) meetings are available,
nationwide. I know that going to treatment saved my life and helped me cope with going to prison and with getting my life back on track. It has been really hard at times but the support I have received over the years has played a huge part in my recovery. I wouldn’t be in such a good place had it not being for the kindness and help from numerous amazing people.

For me personally, the most important aspect of recovery and my first step in dealing with this addiction was accepting that I had a problem. I then had to take responsibility for my actions and really want to change. I had to find new ways of coping and make a new life for myself that didn’t have gambling as the focal point. I have managed to this because of sheer determination to have a better life for myself, my partner and my daughter. I had to get past the ego, pride and fear and ask for help. This isn’t an easy thing to do and my one real regret
is that I didn’t look for help earlier. I had to really hit the ‘rock bottom’ before I was open to the healing process. If I was to offer one piece of advice to anyone this Christmas who is suffering either directly or indirectly with a gambling problem, it is to reach out to someone and ask for help.

I remember being asked the question at the Gambling Conference- “How are you now?” I replied “I have never been in a better place, but it is a pity that I had to go to hell and back to get here. “