Written for the NY Daily News
JAIL, INSANITY, DEATH OR RECOVERY
by Arnie and Sheila Wexler
It was a rainy Friday afternoon in 1983. The late Dr. Robert L. Custer , whom was the “father” of treatment for compulsive gambling, asked me to drive him to Long Island, N. Y , to visit one of his patients. This patient had entered an in-patient treatment center for compulsive gambling. As we drove along the bumpy Long Island Expressway, I had no idea whom we were going to visit. It didn’t matter to me, as I would have done anything for Dr. Custer, since by now we had become personal friends. As a compulsive gambler , in recovery for about 15 years, I had learned the only way I could keep my recovery was to reach out to another suffering compulsive gambler. Even though it was a long time ago, I could still remember the pain that gambling caused me and my family and friends. I always loved the time I spent with Dr. Custer , but this particular time was really special, since most of the discussion focused on recovery from compulsive gambling.
We arrived at the treatment center and went to see Dr. Bob’s patient. We talked for about an hour. He was a young man, about 21 years old and very handsome. He had the body of an athlete, seemed very intelligent and appeared to have quite a lot of potential. Yet, there was no doubt that he was a compulsive gambler and already had many losses including his career being in jeopardy. He was very likable and we hit it off immediately. For the next couple of weeks many of the conversations I had with Dr. Custer were about this patient. About three months later, in Bethesda Maryland, in the home of Dr. Custer,we met again. In the following year we met and spoke on the phone frequently. It seemed to me that we were becoming good friends. Even though he relapsed a few times over the next few years, we still kept in touch, often. During that time he still had the ability to perform in his career but his employers were afraid that the gambling addiction might interfere. Unlike alcoholics and drug addict, who get second chances, it is more difficult for compulsive gamblers to get second chances . In the meantime, the young man got married and got a job in another field. He had his own radio show, and as most compulsive gamblers , he was able to succeed at this new endeavor. However, recovery continued to elude him. His pain was getting greater and greater. He wanted to stop, but couldn’t. The need to gamble was stronger than his power to stop by himself. No compulsive gambler can stop on his or her own. He needed the help of other recovering people, but he was still struggling with this concept. The addiction had him by the throat and was destroying him little by little .
The death of Dr. Custer (in the mid 80’s) was a terrible loss to me and I know it had to be a tremendous loss for this patient. A few years later, his wife gave birth to their first daughter. Now they had become a family. Over the next few years we were still having contact over the phone. Often he would talk about his wife and his daughter and how much he loved them.
Last year, before the Super Bowl, I was a guest on his radio show. The discussion was about compulsive gambling. Even though he hadn’t stopped gambling himself, he was still eager to carry the message about the devastation of compulsive gambling to his audience. Shortly thereafter he took a “geographical cure” and moved to Las Vegas, the Mecca of gambling in America. For most gamblers this town is Heaven, but for compulsive gamblers it’s Hell. Again he was a host of a successful radio show.
With all the phone calls over the years, we had not seen each other for about five years. Last week was the first time I saw him, again. I was on one side of a glass partition, he was on the other. The visit took place in the North Las Vegas Correctional Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. As with all compulsive gamblers they will pursue their gambling into the gates of prison, insanity or death. As we talked over the prison phone, my life, prior to recovery, flashed before my eyes. Thank God I had stopped when I did or I could have been on the other side of the partition. At this time I am fortunate enough to have had recovery for twenty-six years, one day at a time. My friend told me that he had eight nine days without a bet. He said that now he believes he can stop and he wants to. That’s how recovery can begin. You admit you are a compulsive gambler and you have the desire to stop.
The next day I saw him in Court for sentencing on the charge of bank fraud. I had the privilege to be asked by him and his attorney to explain the issue of compulsive gambling to the court. Not in my wildest dreams could I have believed that in my recovery I, or anyone else would ever be asked to speak in a Federal court about compulsive gambling.
With a room full of reporters, a family member, friends and some recovering compulsive gamblers, the Judge sentenced him to twenty-four months in jail. When I heard the sentence I got a pain in my stomach, my hands started to sweat and I could feel his pain. When the defendant stood in front of the Judge, his only request was to serve his sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, so he could be closer to his wife and his two children.
Although we have come a long way in the area of compulsive gambling awareness, there is still virtually no help in the Federal correctional system. It seems to me that it would be very difficult for a compulsive gambler to find recovery or stay in recovery in this type of setting. I believe the federal correctional system should provide some of the following services: counseling services, Gamblers Anonymous meetings within the facility,and education and reading materials on compulsive gambling and it’s recovery. I believe strongly, that incarceration time should be reduced in lieu of alternatives like halfway houses or in-patient treatment facilities. In addition I think that sentencing should include making full restitution(within a realistic budget), community service, continued attendance at Gamblers Anonymous and on-going counseling services
It is ironic that he was sentenced two days before the Super Bowl because if not for the fact that he is a compulsive gambler ART SCHLICHTER might have been the starting Quarterback in the game.