Mike Ryan stared at the ceiling above his bed. He had just gambled away the last of his money—how was he going to make the rent?
Ryan had been in many similar situations throughout his time in the gambling world. Addiction took over his life and blazed a vicious path of destruction and loss through his relationships, finances and possessions.
The seeds were planted when Ryan was still in high school. He began playing poker with his friends, and that soon led to gambling—nothing crazy, just nickel or 50-cent games. And then, it did get crazy.
Ryan found sports betting and began to throw serious money on parlays, betting a series of teams to win games. By 2007, he was betting on sports every day.
“It got to the point where I was betting on WNBA games, because they’d be the only thing on,” Ryan said.
When he really started to win big in 2007, the roots of his gambling addiction took a grasp on his life. Within a two-week period, Ryan collected $30,000 on a 10-team parlay and $25,000 on a 6-team parlay bet.
“Then it got crazy,” Ryan said. “I’d bet $300, $500 on games like it was nothing.”
On the outside, Ryan appeared to be a grounded, successful individual. He was bringing home a six-figure salary to a big house and a beautiful wife. Later, he would realize that he felt guilty about his success, which he believes was at least one cause of his gambling addiction.
“I had been a model employee so far at my company,” Ryan said. “But I couldn’t stop gambling.”
After Ryan fiddled away numerous small personal fortunes on late-night throwaway games and befuddled picks, he began turning to his company’s finances.
“Later in 2007, I was starting to borrow money to bet on games using company credit cards,” Ryan told the Times-Mirror. “I was going through payroll advances.”
Finally, Ryan reached the point where most gamblers eventually land – his luck ran out.
Ryan’s company found out, and he was forced to resign. He lost his home. His wife left. This perfect storm of calamity came down on Ryan’s head and pushed him into treatment. His former company decided to pay for gambling rehab.
“I was very lucky in that regard,” Ryan said. “When you’re a gambler and realize you have a problem, it’s when you’re broke. You don’t have the money to pay for that.”
He went into treatment at Williamsville Wellness, one of the nation’s leading gambling addiction rehabilitation centers and, with help, was able to slowly piece together his life.
“They were great,” Ryan said. “Without them, I’d still be gambling. Who knows where I’d be now?”
And he says it took hitting bottom, heck, below bottom, for him to get rid of his gambling habit.
“As a gambler, it doesn’t matter if you win,” Ryan said. “You’re going to keep gambling till you can’t go anymore.”
Now, Ryan has decided to share his experience, using the knowledge he’s gained to help others.
After a stint as a director at the California Center for Problem Gambling, Ryan returned to the area in 2010 and started working on the Virginia Council of Problem Gambling, or VACPG, which launched this April.
“It’s important that Virginia residents have a resource to help them get through the pains of gambling addiction,” Ryan said. “In Virginia, 180,000 adults and 24,000 adolescents suffer the consequences of compulsive gambling, and the number is growing.”
The VACPG offers speaking engagements, training and interventions, educational materials, referrals, peer counseling and a helpline for those struggling with the issue.
Ryan has become so serious about not participating in any form of gambling that he refuses to fill out brackets during NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament. Once, he won a promotion by putting his business card in a fishbowl, and gave it away. He didn’t realize that it was for a prize, and saw it as a form of gambling.
“I’m done with gambling,” Ryan said. “Period. I can’t do it, that’s not me anymore.”
As bad as it was to throw away all the money and relationships, Ryan said he might have lost something even more valuable.
“The time I wasted thinking about gambling,” Ryan said. “Instead of watching my daughter’s basketball games, [I was] sitting on the bleachers checking scores on my phone. Laying in bed at night – I can never get this time back.”
Industry of change
“I’m not opposed to gambling at all,” Ryan said. “My beef is that in the gambling business they should have a responsibility to provide support for problem gamblers. Basically, the states want to be the bookies.”
Ryan has worked with delegates to provide funds for others fighting a gambling addiction.
In February, Del. Thomas “Tag” Greason (R-32nd) introduced House Bill 1977 to the Virginia House of Delegates. The bill attempted to create a special fund referred to as the Problem Gambling Treatment Fund and outlined a plan for prevention, education and treatment of gambling addiction throughout the Commonwealth.
While the bill didn’t meet the required majority needed to move forward, the issue has been put on the map.
“The General Assembly has failed to care for those suffering the ravages of gambling addiction,” Ryan stated in a release. “An unfortunate stance considering the Virginia Lottery grosses $1.4 billion annually. We must ask the question, who is seeking the benefits of this massive income?”
The bill tried to finance the Problem Gambling Treatment Fund by re-allocating 10 percent of the state lottery’s annual advertising budget — $26 million. According to Ryan, bordering states like North Carolina and Maryland spend significantly less money on advertising, but make almost identical, if not higher, revenue.
The failed bill requested just $2.6 million.
“Together, the General Assembly and Virginia Lottery have left problem gamblers in the dark,” Ryan said.
Other legislators have jumped on the bandwagon against the state’s lack of services for problem gamblers.
“Despite [the] increased reliance on gambling-related revenue to fund government operations, many states, including Virginia, provide no funding for individuals who develop gambling addictions,” Rep. James P. Moran (D-VA) stated in a letter to Tag Greason. “The federal government, unfortunately, does not set an appropriate example.”
The real deal
Ryan stresses that while compulsive gambling is a very real threat, many don’t take it as seriously as alcohol or drug addiction.
“Gambling addiction is often linked to depression, emotional disorders and substance abuse, and has the highest rate of suicide of all addictions,” Ryan said.
Even the Virginia Lottery agrees, addressing problem gambling on its website.
“Problem gambling is an emotional problem that has financial consequences,” the site states. “If you pay all of a problem gambler’s debts, the person will still be a problem gambler. The real problem is that he or she has an uncontrollable obsession with gambling.”
But the Virginia Lottery maintains that it is not their responsibility to provide funds for problem gamblers.
“The casino or lottery provides the opportunity for the person to gamble,” the website states. “It does not, in and of itself, create the problem any more than a liquor store would create an alcoholic.”
For more information, or to contact Ryan, visit http://www.vacpg.org
|The Loudoun Times-Mirror
is an interactive, digital replica
of the printed newspaper.Open the e-edition now.
Historic Downtown Leesburg