In my corner of the woods, Valentine’s Day will not be a celebration of love. As the day nears, irregular bouts of introspective reflection are overwhelming. The date is a cold reminder of what could have been lost, a year ago - on Valentine's Day.
My wife and soul mate is just an arm’s length away, as I write this - healthy, a bit of a baby bump, and in bubbly moods. A year ago, though, to expect a smile would be a little far fetched. In place of flowers and chocolate, she gave me an ultimatum. A little, like the Declaration of Independence. No two-ways about it.
She said: It’s either me, or the sports betting.
I was hopelessly addicted to sports gambling. It affected every aspect of my life. No control on my life, my finances, my relationships, and, God forbid - my future. The only soul alive with an inkling of how messed up it was? Victoria. And, here she was giving me an ultimatum - STOP GAMBLING, OR, I WALK AWAY.
How Did My Gambling Addiction Start?
I was only 18, fresh from high school. It all started when a betting company opened a betting shop in my neighbourhood. Lots of free time on my hands, the run of the neighbourhood. My folks left for work early morning, to late evening. The locality was neighbourly, everyone knew everyone. I could easily earn a bit of pocket money. I mowed lawns, walked pets and cleaned cars.
One evening, I followed a much-older friend into a sports betting shop, newly-opened. I was hooked. There was an expectant, adrenaline-filled aura in the shop. One stretch of the wall hung a row of TV-screens. A shiny pool table in the empty middle stretch, and a row of tall stools on the far end. Not that was perched on those stools.
A degree of disorder. A group haggles for the attendant’s attention on the counter. Another cranes upwards - transfixed on the hanging screens. A clutch, a slip of paper on every other hand in that room. It’s the betting slip.
I neither knew any surgeon, nor been in a theatre - but, it felt like a high-stake, life-saving surgery was going down!
The Gradual Metamorphosis
That first day, Ksh200 brought forth a Ksh1200 reward, courtesy of my friend staking a bet - with my money. We split the reward, though it was entirely my stake. No, I deserved better. I didn’t know then, but - that was my first night of gambling-induced insomnia.
I cleaned cars. I mowed lawns. I gleaned a bit from my mother. I had Ksh600 at the end of that week. I walked into the betting shop, and placed the first bet. Just follow the cue, see what’s popular on the virtual live bets - said a friend. I lost my first Ksh100.
I placed the 2nd bet. I lost. I placed another. I lost. All of these were Ksh100, live bets. The third bet won! I recovered Ksh200. I won. I lost. I lost. I won. I lost count. Good thing with virtual soccer bet? The games last only 3 minutes - as compared to the conventional 90-minute match.
All I remember is the attendant calling out closing time a few minutes to 11pm. Never before had I ever not been home by 8pm.
Worse, my pockets held a little over Ksh200. As I walked home, I swore revenge.
A decade later, I was still caught up in it. I’m a family man, but don't live like a family man. Reckless, and in debt. I needed to get free.
Valentine’s Day 2021 - I got an ultimatum from my spouse, and decided to quit the addiction.
Getting rid of the sport bets addiction witch off my back
It’s never an easy feat getting free from an addiction. There is a price to pay. Luckily, sport betting addiction didn’t come with visible withdrawal symptoms – no shaking and breaking into sweats in the middle of the night. It’s just an overbearing longing for the adrenaline. The trick is to find suitable distractions.
Here’s the five major steps that worked for me.
Recognizing the problem
I realised I had reached a financial tipping point. All the problems I had were a direct offshoot of my sports betting addiction. I was in arrears – from rent, to school fees, to the local grocery. Now, I was in danger of losing my life partner. I realised I was responsible for the problem, and responsible for the solution.
I went ‘Cold Turkey’. Any other way would delay the results. Cold Turkey refers to the abrupt cessation of a habit and the consequent unpleasant withdrawal symptoms as opposed to gradually easing out.
Visual Motivation Cues
I needed to develop pain leverage, and motivation. A white board pinned on the wall came in handy. I made a two-column chart.
Section A - How will my life be 3/5/10 years from now if I KEEP gambling?
Section B - How will my life be 3/5/10 years from now if I STOP gambling?
Each time I went to the bathroom, I saw on the whiteboard my failed marriage, living in debt, and so on. This was developing leverage for present-day pain, compared to future pain.
On the trip back, I read of building a family home, a happy solid family, and kids in better schools. It killed the urge! This was the pleasure leverage and motivation to change.
First off, I deleted gambling apps from my phone. I cancelled all my betting accounts. I stopped watching sports, especially soccer. My partner had another trick: She helped me call betting companies, asking them to bar and block me from their sites. I didn’t know that was an option!
I branded all relationships based on sports and gambling as toxic. I cut off all associations. I stopped hanging out at the local after work. This also worked well on the family point. First time in years I was helping kids with their homework!
Declaration & Accountability
I made a public declaration. I let close family members, and friends know of my decision. I posted on social media accounts. I lost a few friends that way, but made a legion of supportive friends. My wife shared the group with her lady friends! If I backslid, I’d be disappointing a lot of people.
Well, talk of accountability. My partner outdid herself here. She’d be calling every hour.
“Hey, Mark - what did we decide?” She’d ask.
“Hi Joan - we decided we’d save all the money I’d lose in betting for our vacation next year.” I’d answer.
Separate Savings Account
After the decision, I opened a savings account at a local Sacco branch. I committed (and wrote it down on the whiteboard) to deposit on a daily basis all the money I’d have wagered for the next one year. I’d send in the money from my phone, every evening after dinner.
It became sort of a family tradition! Everyone would clap and cheer for Daddy!
Valentine’s Day 2022 marks one year after taking a cold turkey decision to quit gambling and sports betting. It was wrecking my life. Come Monday, I’ll visit the Sacco branch with my spouse, check the savings account and see how much I’d have lost in the last one year.
Valentine’s Day has been so highly commercialised that the real meaning and purpose keeps getting blurry. It’s a day to show love, yes - but, still a chance to make life-changing decisions. A day to show some self-love, and that rubs off on people close to you.
The best Valentine’s Day gift to your loved ones and yourself, at least for me, is choosing to ditch a bad financial habit.
You should consider it.