I May Not Be a Gambling Addict but Oh Do I Get It

I May Not Be a Gambling Addict but Oh Do I Get It

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This post was originally published on April 2, 2015.

If a colleague doesn’t want to participate, don’t push says this smart article on Reuters calling March Madness (which, apparently, is still going on despite it not being March anymore) a “gambling holiday” risky for compulsive gamblers.

The piece points out how the FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion is wagered illegally each year on March Madness; during this same time of year, the National Council on Problem Gambling sees a spike in calls to the helpline. In other words, sometimes what seems like harmless fun or innocent holiday traditions is not so harmless for people suffering from addictive or compulsive behaviors, and we ought to be aware.

Of course, March madness is not the only event of this kind. I’ve written before about how Christmas through New Years Eve is a season basically geared for consumption. For alcoholics and other problem drinkers—or, let’s face it, most people—St. Patrick’s Day has less to do with the patron saint of Ireland as it does with green beer. Sure, while it’s true that an addict needs no holiday as excuse to act out, I know from experience that fighting off cravings is a lot worse when everyone around you is doing something with seeming impunity.

I remember my own experiences trying not to drink in the company of others imbibing. Avoiding bars is one thing, but it’s a lot harder when it comes to places you have to be, such as work or school. My last year of grad school, just before I got sober, I distinctly remember instances where I tried to control my drinking and why I found this impossible: it wasn’t just attending readings and other school events where alcohol was present. Even in the classroom, there was the temptation of booze—and not just end-of-term celebrations. It was like we were having celebrations all the time, for no reason at all. Instances when someone had to present a paper, for example, they’d bring a bottle of wine. The purpose was probably to loosen up their audience (and, no doubt, themselves). I’m telling you, these instances were constant. There was one time when someone brought a bottle of whiskey and it was literally passed around, and people took swigs. I distinctly remember hesitating. I was trying to not drink that day. But what’s an active alcoholic going to do when a bottle is literally shoved in her face?

I couldn’t start counting days until I was finished with grad school and working as an elementary school teacher, when alcohol during the workday was a no no. In retrospect, I see that this across-the-board rule really helped. In order to get sober, I had to avoid being around booze. I feel sorry for alcoholics in work environments that aren’t alcohol-free. It’s not just sober people who work in bars. I once dated a guy who worked in an office that had “Beer Fridays,” as I think a lot of companies do. I know that for me, staying sober in such an environment would have been hard. These days, I’m not so bothered by being around alcohol and I work mostly from home, but when I am invited to a work event involving drinking, and I fear it’s going to bother me, I have the luxury to just not attend.

On more than one occasion, I’ve spoken up. I know not all people in recovery are as open as I am, and that’s okay, but I like the idea of being an advocate—for others, as well as myself. I once had an employer that was constantly throwing Happy Hour mixers for all freelance staff. It was an opportunity for us all to hang out, they said, and it was meant as a thank you for our work—but a social event where there’s nothing to do but carry out awkward conversations with strangers where everyone else will be drinking free booze? Uh, no thanks. I finally told them so, and suggested they make it a pizza party instead so that those of us who, for whatever reason don’t drink, can have a little fun, too.

Of course, my suggestion is no solution for alcoholics with issues also related to food. Someone suffering from addictive or compulsive behaviors can feel like the odd man out among people who don’t get it, and I get it, even if I sometimes forget when we’re not talking about booze. Remembering how it felt to be handed that bottle of whiskey makes me realize that this must be how compulsive gamblers feel, and not just around March Madness, but every time there’s another office pool.

According to Reuters, compulsive tendencies are the result of or worsened when someone is feeling disconnected in personal relationships, isolated or bored. For an alcoholic, it’s easy for me to imagine feeling all these things—like when I’m the only person not holding a glass and my boss jokingly says, “Hey you—why aren’t you celebrating? What’s wrong with a little champagne?”

I think Reuters is right to suggest it’s all of our responsibility to make workplaces safer. Given the range of things that people have issues with—everything from alcohol and gambling to porn, sugar, food and who fucking knows what Joe in accounting’s going through—we can’t anticipate and eliminate everybody’s triggers. We can, however, be polite and include people without being pushy. If someone doesn’t want to participate, can’t we all respect a simple no?

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Melissa Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor living in New York City. She has written for NY Magazine, The Guardian, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Jezebel, xoJane, The Fix and elsewhere. She is the founder of Becoming Writers, a community organization that provides free and low cost memoir-writing workshops to new writers of all backgrounds and experiences.