A recovering gambling addict says lockdown has created the ‘perfect storm’ for relapses.
Matt Blanks became so addicted to gambling that he lost over £ 700,000, worked in gambling shops for 16 years and chased away ‘everyone who ever cared about him’.
But the 35-year-old eventually kicked the habit and became a gambling awareness charity and project manager, BetKnowMore UK.
The father of two Matt from Southend-on-Sea, Essex, keen to raise awareness about the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on recovering addicts and gamblers, said, “Relapse often comes from an imbalance in life.”
He continued, “The current situation is not good for an addict in recovery.
“Losing work or income changes the life balance, causes stress and increases the desire to make up for the drop in income.
“On the other hand, people with more money – not commuting or going out less – will feel the urge to gamble because they have extra money to splash.”
He continued, “Combined with general stress and worry, boredom, and a lot of time on our hands, it’s the perfect storm and setbacks.”
Matt’s parents, David, 73, and Heather, 65, broke up in 1996, and he found comfort when visiting his grandfather, Frederick, who died at the age of 80. Matt was only 11 when he placed his first bet after his grandfather first suggested gambling.
Matt visited every weekend after his father and grandfather moved in and remembered, “When I came to visit my grandfather made bets and one day he asked me to choose a horse and it won – despite the odds of 33: 1. “
He continued, “He gave me £ 30 as a treat and that was my first gambling reward experience – and it stayed with me.”
From then on, he helped his grandfather make bets at home every weekend before going to the betting shop together.
Feeling “ part of something ” for the first time, this continued for the next four years before he started gambling for himself at the age of 15, despite being three years younger than the legal minimum age for gambling at 18 the UK.
“I started betting independently,” he said. “It was always on horses, and no one really doubted it, despite my age.
“When my friends played soccer on the field, I played card games I learned from my grandfather for money at school.”
Until then, Matt thought his gambling was just a hobby to pass the time.
But all that changed when he turned 17 and received a £ 1,000 inheritance from his grandmother, Elsie, who died in 2001 at the age of 70.
Matt described how she wanted to spend the money on riding lessons and instead put £ 1,000 on a horse at Royal Ascot.
“I had been looking at the horse all year and thought it couldn’t be beaten,” said Matt.
He continued, “But he was beaten – right on the line. That was the first time that I thought I should recoup my money and reclaim my losses. It was a turning point. ‘
When Matt turned 18 the following year and was eager to make as much money as possible to fund his habit, he applied for a job at his local betting shop where he had shown such flair within three months that he became a store manager.
“It was a dream job for me,” he said. “I decided from the age of 15 that I wanted to do this and I enjoyed it for a long time.”
He continued, “I knew everything there was to know about gambling and that’s how I got through the ranks so quickly.”
Before starting to work full-time, Matt was limited to weekend gambling, but now found himself placing bets every day.
He continued, “I was surrounded non-stop by gambling. I befriended some high-stakes customers.
“They were going to bet big, so I felt I should bet big too.”
Matt admitted that he could easily blow up his entire pay package in one day and had to figure out alternative ways to pay for his habit.
Relying on overdrafts, credit cards and loans, it wasn’t long before he started asking for help from his loved ones.
“I would make all kinds of excuses,” he explained. “I’d say I’ve lost my wallet, been robbed or not paid.”
And by the age of 21, Matt had incurred tens of thousands of pounds of debt while trying to reclaim his losses.
“I told my mom I was going to quit. But in reality I manipulated her, and although she tried to save me, I ended up ruining it all,” he said.
He continued, “I felt like I had ruined my life by the time I was 21, but the gambling went on.”
Not long after that, in 2007, he met his ex-partner, within a year the couple moved together to their new home, yielding Matt’s “big win”.
Although she knew that Matt loved gambling, she didn’t know how big his addiction was.
He said, “The cracks were always there because of the gambling.
“We had a joint account and money would be lost. I knew which days the statements would arrive, so I pretended to go to work, put on my uniform, and intercepted the mail.
“It got so bad it looked like I was having an affair. I pretended to go to the toilet, but I watched races and placed bets. “
He continued, “I always thought I’d get the money back. I was always on the hunt for that last life-changing victory. ”
The tension of Matt’s addiction was too much for the couple, and their relationship broke up in 2016.
Working long hours, coming home to an empty house and gambling debts getting out of hand, on June 17, 2018, it was all too much for him.
He said, “I made up the millionth excuse for my dad to get some extra money and it dawned on me, why couldn’t I stop?
“Everyone knew I had a problem. I had damaged all relationships in my life. I thought the only way to quit was to end my life.
“I made a failed attempt that evening and then I realized that taking my own life would only lead to more destruction.”
He continued, “I had to reach this bottom before I could work my way up.”
Matt came clean to his employer – then worked for an independent bookmaker in Southend – Matt was introduced to BetKnowMore UK CEO Frankie Graham.
During a three-month intensive treatment course for gambling addiction, he had one-on-one sessions with recovering addicts, cognitive behavioral therapy, and peer group therapy.
After completing his grueling treatment – where he was training and lost £ 700,000 in gambling – Matt volunteered at BetKnowMore UK to talk about his own experiences helping others, before joining a full-time community outreach in December 2018 employee.
“Within a few months, my life had completely changed,” he said. “I had developed coping mechanisms for my urge and spoke at conferences and gambling operators about my experience.”
He said: “Anyone who is referred for gambling treatment will have the opportunity to speak to someone with experienced experience through the service – like me.
“It is a buddy system. It is an opportunity for everyone to discuss their addiction with someone who has come from the other side.”
Matt applauds the government’s decision to remove all radio and TV ads for gambling during the lockdown and still firmly believes that more needs to be done to fight addiction.
Particularly concerned about pop-ups on social media, in apps and on the internet, which encouraged gambling, he said, “More needs to be done. Unfortunately, it sounds like recent government action is only a temporary measure and the problem will not go away.
However, there are free guarantees you can take. Free self-exclusion software, such as GamStop, prevents you from opening accounts at online gambling sites and prevents you from logging into your old accounts.
Likewise GamBan, another piece of blocking software, prevents you from viewing any gambling website. ”
He continued, “But my biggest advice to anyone struggling right now is to talk to someone.
“You don’t have to be ashamed of anything and a shared problem is actually a halved problem.
“As for anyone who knows someone is having a hard time – please let them know you’re there.”
Matt concluded, “Helping one person may not change the world, but it can change the world for that person.”
If you have any issues with gambling or feel vulnerable while taking out, you can call the national gambling helpline for advice and support at 08088020133.