'I was desperate, broke, without a penny to my name. My relationship with my son was deteriorating. I'd just spend hours stuck in front of slot machines without even stopping to eat.' Maurizio, 52, had to hit rock bottom before he was able to admit his gambling was no longer simply a vice; it was an addiction.
Four years ago Maurizio approached an organisation treating gambling addiction, which was based in Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy. He began a long course of therapy and, over time, was able to regain control of his life and relationships. But Maurizio is one of the lucky ones: more than 900 thousand Italians are still ensnared by compulsive gambling.
Too much temptation, too little regulation
'Gambling addiction affects 1-3% of the adult population,' explains psychotherapist Rolando De Luca, director of the Centre. 'That number will grow the longer the government continues to allow accessibility to increase without investing in prevention. More than 80% of Italians gamble recreationally, but the road from curiosity to addiction can be very short.' According to one Italian press agency focussed on gambling, the state took 33.4 billion Euros in gambling-related taxes in 2006, a 16% increase on the record 28.7 billion Euros raised in 2005.
Dependency is just one symptom
It's not coincidence that the number of anti-gambling organisations is growing throughout Italy. The Friulian centre's patients consist of more than 100 men and women of all ages and professions. Patients are divided into groups and meet weekly to discuss their emotions and experiences. Although initial discussions tend to focus on gambling, as the groups ties strengthen their real, underlying problems begin to materialise.
'Compulsive gambling is just the tip of the iceberg; a symptom of a deeper individual or familial problem. Some were orphaned or abused as children; others are trying to compensate for family troubles. Gambling attracts them because, from a symbolic point of view, beating the odds means success, staying alive. That's why it's often fundamental that relatives are involved in therapy.
Once the issues have been discovered, the family must try to develop newer, and healthier, relationships. During the past couple of years, five percent of patients admitted to the centre have failed to confront their demons and have abandoned their therapy after just a few sessions. The majority, however, do manage to overcome their dependency and leave therapy, which lasts an average of five years, ready to face everyday life with serenity and responsibility. 'Thirty families have now left like that,' adds De Luca. 'And not one ex-gambler has returned to the tables.'