Ebony Pezzuto, 21, Rosanna, Vic
We all need to escape every now and then. Some of us do it by chatting with friends down at the pub, others bury themselves in a good book.But in today's hi-tech world, many of us are turning to the internet for time out. Whether it's browsing online shops or logging on to Facebook - the virtual world can help our real-life worries melt away. When I felt things were getting on top of me, I did just that.
Life should have been great. I'd just moved into a wonderful apartment with my boyfriend Ashley, 20, and had a decent job working in the communications industry. But underneath my happy existence, I had my fair share of worries too. Each time things got hard to handle, the first thing I did when I got home was open my laptop and log on. I only ever planned to check my emails and catch up with friends, but when a message popped up from an online casino offering $5000 worth of free bets, for some reason I couldn't resist.
I'm no idiot. I knew it was probably too good to be true. But what was the harm in having a free bet or two? I'd enjoyed a few games on the pokies in the past and this was no different. It was nothing more than a fun way to spend a couple of hours waiting for Ashley to get home from work.No big deal, right? It wasn't as if I was in the pub, feeding coins into a machine. I could just switch off the computer when I wanted to stop.
Except that within a few days, I'd used up all my free bets. A voice inside my head told me to quit while I was ahead. But another, more powerful voice scoffed at that suggestion. Another $20 bet wouldn't do any harm. What if I won the jackpot? It wasn't that I really needed the cash. I wasn't rich by any means, but I'd carefully saved up $4000 to help fund my new life with Ashley.
Digging out my debit card, I found myself entering my details online. Within an hour or so, the $20 I had just splashed out was gone, so I found myself paying another $20, then another... As I increased my bet to $30, I heard that little nagging voice again. 'You don't earn that in an hour,' it told me. 'And you've wasted it in just a few seconds.' But the thing is, I wasn't losing everything I put in. I was winning big too - sometimes as much as $5000 - and the buzz was just incredible! So instead of simply claiming the cash, I used it to fund even more bets.
Within three weeks, what had started out as a bit of fun had turned into an obsession.Gambling soon became my life. Ashley thought I was just messaging friends and having the odd cheeky bet. He had no idea I craved the adrenaline rush it gave me so much that I would often wait until he was asleep before logging in again.
There was no escape from my guilty secret during the day either. Sometimes I was so tired from my night's online antics that I was forced to take the day off work. When I did go in, as soon as I had a break, I'd be on my phone, gambling using a special app I'd downloaded.As my obsession took its toll I became moody and withdrawn. I didn't want to go out anymore. Nothing seemed as exciting as placing a bet. And in just a few short months I had become a member of 14 online casinos, blowing $2500 each month as well as my $4000 savings.
Fear lurched in my stomach as I realised that I didn't have the $1400 I needed for rent. Ransacking our flat, I prised open a money box that Ashley and I kept for rainy days and incredibly I managed to find enough for the shortfall.It tore me apart to know I was deceiving Ashley, but I couldn't stop. As I took out a credit card and loan to help me fund the rent, I realised that my gambling was out of control. I told myself I should leave Ashley - he didn't deserve to be caught up in this. It would be better if I was alone, even jobless - then at least I wouldn't have the money to spend. Sometimes I wondered if it'd be better for everyone if I wasn't here at all...
After six months of turmoil, things came to a head when Ashley came home from work to find me crying. 'I hate myself,' I sobbed. 'And you will too when you know what I've done.' As I tearfully told him about my secret life, he couldn't hide the shock on his face. But he tenderly took me into his arms. 'It's going to be okay,' he soothed, holding me tight. Straightaway we sat down and made a plan. If I was going to beat this, everything had to change. Cancelling my credit card, Ashley took our internet modem and my laptop computer with him to work.
Digging deep, I told my boss about my problem too. It wasn't easy. My face burned with shame as I confessed, but fortunately they were very understanding. They agreed to pay my wages into Ashley's account so that there would be no temptation for me to gamble it away.I still found myself trying to log on to the casino sites instinctively. Luckily, with so much support from Ashley, work and my family, I slowly beat my gambling demons.
Now, three months on, I've paid back $4000 of my $9000 debt and I'm working on the rest. I still don't know exactly how much I frittered away. Maybe it's for the best because nothing can ever bring that money back. Ashley's been amazing and incredibly the ordeal has managed to bring us closer together.I'm just lucky that I took action before it was too late. I can fully appreciate how easy it is for an addiction to spiral dangerously out of control and I hope my story inspires others to get help.
I don't look like an addict but I'll be battling this compulsion for life. Knowing I could so easily have lost everything, I'm determined I'll never make that mistake again.
- The Interactive Gambling Act 2001 makes it illegal for gambling websites to knowingly offer online casino gaming to Australian residents. In spite of this, a report last year into the 'unofficial' industry revealed it could be worth as much as $800 million and is set to increase by up to 20 per cent each year.
- Almost a third of Aussies over 16 have gambled online. Research also shows people betting online are more likely to become problem gamblers than those betting in pubs.
- If you need help, or know someone who does, visit www.problemgambling.vic.gov.au/main/taking-control/practical-tips