Fear & Self-Loathing in Las Vegas: My Gambling Addiction Story

On my Facebook profile, there’s a photo — posted on July 16, 2017 at 6:59 AM — of a stunning sunrise with the following caption: “Waking up at the crack of dawn has its visual benefits!”. Although the image was unfiltered, the narrative was fabricated. I took that photo from the parking lot of a Las Vegas casino after a brutal overnight gambling binge in which I gambled away half a paycheck and maxed out two credit cards.

In the span of five and a half years, my gambling addiction led me to open twelve credit cards, plunge from no debt to five-figure debt, cash out my 401K and health savings accounts, and never have more than $100 in my savings account. I regularly received overdraft text alerts from my bank.

I recall the trepidation I felt in April of 2012 when, while living in Seattle after completing a ten-month dietetic internship, I was offered — and accepted — a job in Las Vegas. Vegas was not on my job hunting list; but, six months into an unsuccessful job search, an acquaintance notified me of an onsite health coaching position there that epitomized my ideal first full-time nutrition job.

The reality of moving to Las Vegas awakened vivid gambling memories.

I made the first slot machine bet of my life in 2007 during a vacation to Las Vegas. I was instantly hooked. Before moving to Seattle in 2010, I traveled from New York City (where I lived at the time) to Las Vegas once or twice a year exclusively to gamble. Even in Seattle, while completing an unpaid internship, I managed to scrape enough money to take a weekend gambling trip.

Whenever I flew to Vegas, I packed a carry-on suitcase full of snacks. After all, why spend time away from the gambling floor — or chip away at my modest $400 three-day gambling budget — by eating at restaurants? That budget, by the way, never made it past the first night. Once it was gone, I was off to the ATM without a second thought.

It wasn’t rare for me to completely forgo sleep at least one night during my Vegas sojourns, my brain awash in dopamine — hypnotized by slot machines’ flashy graphics and bombastic sounds.

Every push of a button was a thrill. Would I win back 300 times my bet? Would I get a free spins bonus? Would Glinda the Good Witch unexpectedly float down in a pink bubble in the Wizard of Oz slot machine I was playing and, with a flick of her wand, award me ten wild symbols that turned a $5 win into a $400 win? I was a sweets-deprived child in a vast candy store inside the Las Vegas Strip’s 100,000 square foot casinos.

Table games never interested me. Slot machines, on the other hand, allowed me to enter a trance that was fully mine to experience. No waiting for other players to participate, no need to make small talk with a card dealer, and the ability to play at whatever pace I wanted.

The slot machines at the Las Vegas airport were my last-ditch attempt, minutes before boarding my return flight, at winning back some of my losses. The only thing those machines did was take more money — often my last $20 bill. If I managed to win something (even five dollars), I kept betting until I ran out of cash.

While those memories unequivocally pointed to a problem, “this will be different,” I rationalized minutes after accepting the job offer. “I’m moving to Las Vegas for a job. I won’t be on vacation on the Strip.”

Little did I know I had just agreed to enter a ravenous lion’s den with raw steaks in hand.

Once in Las Vegas, I didn’t have a social life. The city’s highly transient nature aside, my sole acquaintance lived 45 minutes away and my job required me to maintain a professional distance from clients and coworkers. Fraternizing with the people I coached was, understandably, frowned upon.

The occasional two hours of “gambling fun” on weekend afternoons rapidly devolved into weekly eight to twelve-hour binges. I lived alone, so I didn’t have to answer to anyone about my whereabouts. My gambling expeditions deprived me of sleep, but I never missed a day of work.

I vividly remember my first extended gambling stint as a resident of Las Vegas, roughly six weeks after arriving. My checking account had $2,000 when I walked into the casino at five o’clock on a Friday afternoon and $200 when I walked out at two in the morning — the first of hundreds of ‘walks of shame’ to my car.

I was up $600 at one point but didn’t want “the fun” to end. Winnings weren’t an opportunity to treat myself to luxurious meals or extravagant shopping sprees; they just bought more time at the machines (where, in my mind, an imminent jackpot win was around the corner).

The time-space continuum temporarily melted when I sat in front of a slot machine. It’s what I imagine alleged UFO abductees mean when they describe the concept of ‘missing time’. That night’s nine hours of gambling felt like an hour and a half. I didn’t register hunger, thirst, or the need to use the bathroom. Five minutes after leaving, I felt parched and famished. It was as if my body had turned on again.

“I was just burning off some steam,” I rationalized as I drove home, still processing the night’s events.

“It won’t happen again,” I simultaneously chastised and reassured myself.

Too tired to cook or prepare a real meal, I got home, ate an entire bag of corn chips and crashed on my living room couch while still in my work clothes from the day before.

For someone like me, who thrived on keeping a façade that all was well, gambling addiction fit me like a glove. Unlike alcohol or drugs, gambling was easy to hide. You couldn’t smell it on my breath. I could walk in a straight line and drive safely after a binge (my drink of choice while playing slots was sparkling water with a twist of lime). Gambling didn’t leave track marks on my arms or white residue in my nostrils. Several times, I met up with friends for dinner or to see a comedy show twenty minutes after losing a thousand dollars at the machines. I simply put on my happy social mask and carried on.

At times, that mask slipped. On one of my parents’ annual visits (they live in Argentina), my mother asked me if I had considered buying a new car since the one I had at the time — and still have today — was basic (manual windows and locks) and, while dependable, small and relatively vulnerable.

That inoffensive question awakened the sleeping giant: my disastrous financial situation. I could have bought a new car if I hadn’t gambled at least half of every paycheck for years. My angry response — a rant on materialism, simplicity, and how I felt safe in my car — hid immense shame and pain. My reaction, though extreme, didn’t expose me. My mother chalked it up to me having a bad day. The topic was never broached again.

As time progressed and my feelings of isolation increased, slot machines became my therapists, best friends, lovers, confidants, and mood regulators.

If I was angry, anxious, bored, elated, lonely, overjoyed, or worried, I sought the company of slot machines. They never asked questions or judged me. As long as I provided money, they happily whisked me to a dream world where I could forget how disconnected, alone, unsatisfied, and deeply flawed I felt.

In my mind, at thirty years old, I was supposed to be a world-renowned nutrition expert with a book deal, a six-figure salary, a mini empire, a McMansion, and a relationship to rival any Hollywood rom-com. Rather than recalibrate my expectations and question why my goals were so dependent on externalities and validation, I felt like a failure with nothing to look forward to. The more shame and disillusionment I felt, the more I gambled to escape. The more I gambled and spun out of control, the more shame and disillusionment I felt.

My standard forty-cent slot machine bet no longer felt thrilling after my first year in Las Vegas. Eventually, $1.20 per spin seemed like child’s play. It wasn’t long before wagering up to four dollars per spin, or “max bets” as they are known, became the norm. I justified riskier bets as the only way to potentially crawl out of the financial abyss I had started to dig for myself (the higher the bet, the more I could potentially win). Yes, I was convinced gambling would fix my dire financial situation.

It didn’t help that my first forays into high bets resulted in large wins. The worst thing that can happen to a compulsive gambler is a significant win. The memory of winning $3,000 on a $1.60 slot machine bet provided hope through months of continued disastrous losses. “Hey, it could happen again!” I reasoned.

Since casinos never close, my cocoon was open twenty-four hours a day, seven day a week. I spent Thanksgiving of 2013 playing slot machines for thirteen hours. Toward the end of my binge, I checked my cell phone and read the many text messages from friends wishing me a happy holiday and asking how I had spent the day. I replied that I had a “nice and chill Thanksgiving” (I left out the part about losing eleven hundred dollars and not eating).

Responsibilities, worries, anxieties, and fears disintegrated as soon as I fed a slot machine money. The sound of that first bill being sucked in, the machine lighting up to indicate it was ready for action, and the initial smack of the plastic button that got the reels in motion felt like Novocain to my soul.

On a logical level, I knew gambling was slowly robbing me of everything that was important to me. Financial dissolvement was the tip of a colossal iceberg. Friendships and relationships stalled as I increasingly isolated and put up “everything is fine, life is great; don’t get too close!” walls. I had a gym membership but didn’t set foot in the gym for years (prior to living in Las Vegas, I worked out three to four times a week for a decade).

The frequent all-night gambling binges left me sleepless and exhausted. The smallest inconveniences irritated me, and I harbored intense jealousy and resentment toward most anyone who enjoyed life without the bondage of addiction. Gambling drained me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

But, wow, was gambling effective at numbing my pain. The warm glow of the screen, the smiling illustrated characters, the celebratory music, and the ergonomic chairs enveloped me in a warm embrace that briefly made me feel like I belonged, had a purpose, and was “somebody” who mattered. Cocktail waitresses at casinos I regularly frequented didn’t know my name, but they saw me frequently enough to greet me as if I were a close friend.

The accoutrements that accompanied my gambling addiction were also temporary balms on my emotional wounds. I gambled so much at one casino that I quickly obtained a “chairman” player’s card; the highest tier one could get (among the perks: access to gated VIP parking, extra entries into slot tournaments, and the ability to skip the line at the casino cage — the land of my personal favorite: credit card cash advances).

At one posh Strip hotel and casino, my slot play earned me two free nights a year, with check-in at the VIP lounge.

These were psychological red herrings; the amount of money I put into that hotel’s slot machines the night I gambled away a four-figure retention bonus equaled a ten-day stay. These ‘comps’ (as they are known in the industry) gave me the illusion that I wasn’t flushing my money down the metaphorical toilet — I was getting something for my gambling (and treated like a special person, to boot).

My favorite games were ones where, when certain high-paying combinations hit, a booming voice announced: “Terrrrrrrr-rific!”, “EX-cellent!”, “Ah-MAY-zing!”, “Unbelieeeeeeeevable!”, “Inconceeeeeeeivable!” as celebratory music played. A shower of confetti and diamonds would also fill up the screen, accompanied by spotlights and “CONGRATULATIONS!!!” banners.

My life didn’t feel like any of those uplifting words. It felt so bleak and hopeless that I desperately needed someone — a pre-recorded voice sufficed — to tell me I was worthy, loveable, and successful, even if it was at sitting in a chair and tapping a button.

One night, a group of spectators gathered behind me as I turned $100 into $1900 in minutes on a slot machine that awarded me back-to-back high-paying bonuses. The booming celebratory sounds that emerged from the machine’s speakers quickly attracted onlookers.

I cashed out at $1900 and, feeling powerful while on a dopamine high, I enthusiastically handed out hundred-dollar bills to onlookers, “just because”. People gasped in shock and thanked me profusely; you would have thought I was Oprah Winfrey. Little did these temporary fans know that “Mr. Big Shot” had, weeks before, dumped a jar of change — some of it scrounged from his car’s cup holder and underneath his couch cushions — into a CVS CoinStar machine just to have a few dollar bills in his wallet.

Having spent my early twenties devouring every episode of Suze Orman’s weekly CNBC financial advice show, I never thought that a decade later I would frequently sit in my car in a casino parking lot, checking my banking app every few minutes awaiting my direct deposit to hit before midnight on pay day. As soon as the money was in my account, I’d dart through the casino doors, withdraw money from an ATM, and sit at “my machine”.

One night — roughly eight months after moving to Las Vegas — I came across Suze Orman’s show while flipping channels. This time, rather than listen intently, I felt shame. Her advice on financial security and freedom didn’t empower me; it reminded me how far I had meandered off the responsible path and into a murky swamp of self-sabotage, despair, and misery. I changed the channel and never watched her show again.

My shame was compounded by the fact that, as a dietitian, a significant part of my identity revolved around helping others live a better life. It wasn’t rare for me to coach a client on the importance of self-care and self-love in relation to their food choices and, hours later, retreat into a casino and destroy myself emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. I felt like a fraud.

In front of others, I downplayed my obsession with slots.

When my parents visited me, I would convince my mom to try her luck at the slot machines after dinner. I perfectly played the role of apathetic observer. At times, my mom would ask me if I wanted to play. I shrugged off the suggestion, saying I wasn’t interested. In most cases, after saying our goodbyes, I would drive to a different casino and play for hours.

About three years into my addiction, a friend who produces a radio show for one of Argentina’s most popular radio stations asked me if I wanted to be interviewed for a segment that interviews Argentines who live abroad.

I agreed. Suspecting that I may be asked about gambling, I didn’t alert any friends or family about the interview. Sure enough, the host asked me about my relationship with gambling. Two days prior, I had gambled manically. My response to his question? “I don’t really care for it. I rarely even think about it. It just fades into the background here,” I said, trying my best to sound disinterested in the topic so as to avoid a follow-up question.

As time went on, my casino stays lasted as long as it took until I lost all the money I could afford to lose.

On two occasions, I gambled away my rent money. I immediately went into panic mode. On each occasion, I texted a friend the next day with the addict’s trusty tool: the sob story. One time it was a lie about unexpected vet bills (both friends, like me, will do anything for their animal companions). Another time it was a lie about my company’s payroll “messing up” and my direct deposit not going through. Both friends lived in other states and hadn’t seen me since I moved to Las Vegas. In that way, they were the perfect people to reach out to; they had no reason to suspect I was in the grips of a gambling addiction.

I felt like the biggest sleaze ball in the world after sending those emails and text messages. Although I paid both friends back as soon as I received my next paycheck, that smidge of financial ‘responsibility’ wasn’t enough to erase the fact that I had reached a new rock bottom: lying to friends to get money.

Those two situations aside, I mostly had enough ‘sanity’ to always have enough money to pay rent, utilities, and car insurance. I believe that was a subconscious attempt to “prove” that I didn’t really have a gambling problem. After all, my electricity was never shut off, my landlord never hounded me about paying rent, and my car insurance was always up to date.

Some nights, my playing money would only last an hour and a half. On luckier days, that same amount would last until I had to leave the casino to go to work. I would drive home, change (most times without taking a shower), and head to work. Every time I left a casino with money in my pocket (one night I lost $1300, only to hit a $2600 jackpot at 7 AM after deciding to try one last machine on my way out the door), I would go back later that evening and lose it all.

On December 16, 2017, the jig was up. I was in Los Angeles for a weekend meeting with my boss (I left the onsite health coaching job in February of 2016 and was now working at a health care startup). That night, when he dropped me off at my hotel, I sat in the passenger seat of his car and tearfully croaked out an ego-crushing sentence: “I have a gambling problem.”

The confession wasn’t planned; it was prompted by a passing remark he made about me seeming like “a financially responsible guy”. Those four words generated a nauseating tsunami of self-disgust at my core. I was the antithesis of financial responsibility. The weekend before, I blew $1500 at a casino to gain additional entries into a slot tournament (I ranked 68th and ‘won’ $50 in free slot play; I turned that into $300 in cash and proceeded to put it all back into the machines).

I could have agreed with my boss’s inaccurate assessment, said my goodbyes, and gone up to my hotel room. But, at that moment, time stopped. I was chained to the passenger seat, and the key to freedom was speaking my truth.

As I explained to him over an emotional hour-long conversation, a cycle of insanity had become my new normal. At least half of every paycheck was going into slot machines — plus a hefty amount of cash advances from a dozen credit cards. I would often drive away from a casino emotionally pummeled, promising that had been “the last time” and that the next day would be “a new start”. Lather, rinse, repeat.

After especially bad binges, I would drive back home bleary-eyed at dusk and often fantasize about turning my car into the highway median to end it all. The only reason why I didn’t was because I had no guarantees I would die. For all I knew, I would end up paralyzed with medical bills that would only add to my financial hell. I often wished I would be “lucky enough” to die in my sleep.

The last few months of my gambling addiction felt like treading water in the middle of the ocean at three in the morning with nothing to grab on to, slowly realizing that drowning was inevitable.

I saw no way out of the interminably deep hole I had dug. Toward the end of my gambling addiction, I recall sitting in front of a machine after having lost $1,200 and thinking: “Is this it? Is this how the rest of my life is going to be?”.

The last few months of my gambling addiction, I no longer had the patience to let a machine’s reels actually spin. I repeatedly tapped the spin button in a hypnotic frenzy, hungering for a bonus round or a big win. Whenever I won anything — small or big — I would press a button to bypass the machine’s credit tally (those five seconds of “non-action” felt like an eternity).

The longest gambling-free stretch I managed on my own was eight white-knuckled days. And, truly, that was because I didn’t have access to money for those eight days. Gambling was on my mind constantly. Days before I got paid, I often thought about what games I would play and would even watch other people’s slot machine wins on YouTube to psych myself up.

At one point, I decided the ‘solution’ was to download slot machine games on my iPad. Alas, I quickly racked up hundreds of dollars buying credits to gamble on a tablet from my couch.

Upon hearing my struggle, my boss suggested I try a twelve-step program. My job didn’t require me to stay in Las Vegas but, as he wisely noted, leaving Las Vegas wasn’t the answer; facing my addiction was. Besides, my abysmal finances and credit score dampened any plans to move.

I walked into my first gambling addiction twelve-step meeting three days later — spiritually bankrupt, emotionally shattered, and financially destitute. I entered an unfamiliar room adorned with motivational posters where I was welcomed by a friendly face who hugged me and told me I was going to be okay. In many ways, it felt like the first day of preschool, but this time the first group activity consisted of baring my soul to strangers.

There were four other people at that meeting. When it ended an hour later, I had amassed a Mount Everest of wadded-up tissues. I didn’t cry when I shared my story; it was hearing the stories of others that elicited tears of relief and hope.

In these days of Instagram filters and carefully curated public personas, there is an expectation of perfection and having it all together. Many who have followed me on social media, seen me quoted in national news media, read my nutrition articles, and heard me speaking at national conferences probably thought I did.

I carefully controlled what everyone saw. I shared healthy meals I cooked, my friendly demeanor burying the despair I felt earlier that day upon waking and realizing I had maxed out yet another credit card at a casino the night before. I excitedly shared healthful new snacks I found at the grocery store, omitting that I had to charge those four dollars to a credit card because my checking account was in the red.

Now, a year into recovery, the fog of gambling has lifted. More importantly, I no longer harbor a “dirty secret”. As I have shared my story with close friends and family over the last year, I have received an outpouring of love and support.

Many people almost immediately follow their reassurances of love and compassion with: “So, when are you leaving Las Vegas?” I understand why they ask that question. For years, the dominant thought in my mind was: “I need to get the hell out of here!”. I perceived Las Vegas as an emotional and financial sinkhole that would eventually swallow me whole.

Now, leaving is no longer a priority.

Sure, I’m surrounded by gambling. One of my old haunts is a two-minute drive from my apartment. Slot machines are in grocery stores, drugstores, and gas stations. When friends and family visit from out of town, I meet up with them on the Strip. Any high-profile concert and comedy show is on the Strip.

Although I avoid casinos unless I have a reason to be in one, the sight of a slot machine isn’t a big trigger. My addiction was fueled by secrecy, shame, loneliness, and isolation. Over the past year, however, I have met many wonderful people in recovery who have become real-life friends and who I meet up with regularly “outside the rooms”. I am in frequent contact with my sponsor. I prioritize self-care and try to foster emotionally healthy habits — from acknowledging and sitting with uncomfortable emotions to setting healthy boundaries.

I am a work in progress, of course. For approximately the first three months of recovery, I grieved gambling. Recovery, though positive, felt like breaking up with an emotionally toxic partner. I knew I needed to call it quits with gambling, yet sometimes found myself reminiscing about the huge payouts, as infrequent as they were. Out of nowhere, the music of a certain game’s bonus round and images of high-paying symbols in perfect formation would pop into my head. I knew better days would be ahead if I closed that chapter of my life, but I processed my farewell to gambling like a death.

About five months into recovery, I drove past one of my old haunts on my way to the gym and thought, “Hmmmm… what if I just play $20 every five months? I mean, maybe I didn’t have a gambling addiction… maybe I was just bored.”

Fortunately, common sense paid a visit about fifteen seconds later and the memories of my uncontrollable and reckless behavior came back, as did the harrowing emotional pain it brought.

I greatly appreciate newcomers at twelve-step meetings, as well as those who ‘go back out’ (relapse) and return. They remind me of addiction’s insidiousness. I haven’t heard anyone at a twelve-step meeting I’ve attended share the wonderful things gambling brought to their life.

While I like to tell a story of recovery and hope, it is also important for me to remember the miserable side effects of my addiction. It isn’t about digging through emotional trash for the sake of suffering, it is about acknowledging — and having a healthy respect for — what I allowed to take my sanity and, almost, my life.

I’ve decided to publicly tell my story because I am sure at least one of the roughly five million Americans who have a gambling disorder likely feels, as I did, at the mercy of their addiction with no way out. And, to that one person, I say: there is a way out. No matter how deep of a hole you’ve dug, it is possible to re-emerge and write a new chapter. I didn’t think it would be possible. I thought I was beyond repair. I thought I was alone in my addiction and that no one, no matter how much they loved me, would understand or be able to help.

In many ways, addiction recovery is very similar to managing a chronic disease. I now do what I have recommended to patients who have been diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension, or cardiovascular disease: embrace lifestyle changes, one day at a time.

My tweaks don’t involve counting carbohydrates or eating more fiber; rather, it’s attending twelve-step meetings, communicating with my sponsor, journaling, and, if placing a bet ever comes to mind, ‘thinking it all the way through’ and realizing all it will help me achieve is self-destruction.

As a compulsive gambler, I can’t guarantee or promise that I will never make another bet in my life again. I can, however, focus on not placing a bet for the next twenty-four hours and prioritizing my recovery. My last bet is a year behind me, but the next one is always seconds away. That doesn’t frighten me. Rather, it motivates me to do whatever it takes to make each day a bet-free day.

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