I hadn’t had a speeding ticket or parking ticket before I went to jail for 18 months after stealing from my workplace. Poker machines came close to ruining my life.

January 19, 2020 05:00:59
I didn’t think I’d end up in prison it certainly wasn’t on my bucket list.
In 2016, at the age of 64, I was sentenced to 18 months in jail for taking money from my workplace to play the pokies.
I hadn’t had a speeding ticket or parking ticket before that.
What I am about to tell you is no excuse for breaking the law, but it will explain how someone who had never in her life been charged with anything ended up in this predicament.
I have experienced a lot of turmoil in my life. I have two boys to my first husband, but that marriage broke down. My second marriage ended badly too, with my husband leaving without warning.
Actually, one of the worst times of my life was when my boys shifted out of home with their partners.
You know as a parent that this is going to happen eventually, but nothing prepares you for the loneliness you feel when they are gone.
Work was the thing that filled the void.
I fell in love and into addiction
In my 50s, I was lucky enough to be working for a local council when I met the manager of an electrical company who offered me a job working for him with more pay.
In his company I was the only person in the offices, so my role was as a PA, accounts manager and client liaison.
I sometimes worked 12-hour days, especially if there was a big tender to put forward.
I started playing pokies with the manager of the company. I knew he only thought of me as a friend, but I fell in love with him.
I would spend hours at the pokies with him, and if he was busy, I found myself going to the pokies by myself.
How silly I was back then to believe I was fine and not addicted.
I would play for hours by myself and very rarely spoke to other people, even if we had said hello at another time.
I used to sit playing the machines, telling myself: “I can stop this any time I want” and “Really, you never win”.
I would even tell other people that they would never get ahead if they played these things.
I would wake up in the morning and my first thought would be: “Which venue will I call into tonight for a play on my way home?”
I was consumed by the machines and wanted to know how they worked.
I would sit and try and work out any sequence, so I could win a jackpot.
All my money went down the drain
I knew this was getting out of hand as I was now taking money from the company every week to play or to cover some bills I had.
All my wages would be spent by the time I got paid.
I would make sure I paid all my bills. I told myself this was coming out of my wages and the money I was taking was only going into the machines.
It is amazing how you can convince yourself that you are alright. You become very good at telling lies to other people.
If my children or my father rang me, I would make excuses that I was out for dinner with some friends or just up at the supermarket.
Over the weekends when I felt stressed or lonely, I would take myself off to a venue and sit and play all day.
Sometimes I would win over $1,000 but I didn’t want it to be paid by cheque, and the limit on being paid cash was under $1,000, so I would keep playing.
This would turn into hours, with me ending up walking out with nothing.
Over the years I wasted more than $400,000 of the company’s money. I have no idea how much of my own money I blew through.
I was devastated
I have now learnt that these machines are extremely addictive and every time I thought I could stop, I was just kidding myself.
In 2015, the boss’s daughter-in-law started working in the office with me and she discovered a discrepancy in the company accounts.
If I had stopped taking money when she started, they would never have found out, but because I was so addicted to the pokies and had to go every day, I was unable to stop.
I was dismissed from work in August 2015 after 13 years running the office.
I was charged by the police in early October, at the same time my father was dying. He passed away in late October.
I was devastated about my father, angry that I had got myself into this position of stealing money to gamble, and I had no money in the bank to live on.
The judge sentenced me to 18 months in prison.
Prison rescued me
I spent my prison time mostly at a prison farm in the Victorian country near Maldon.
I coped okay. The first month or so was horrific, but I think the farm saved me.
The best part of going to prison was that I received the help I needed to stop gambling and it made me realise I was not alone. I met many other ladies that had the same addiction as me.
This was in a small prison, which only had about 50 women inside, but we had a gambling addiction group of seven women who had mainly lost money on the pokies.
There was also a lady in there who had lost $7 million dollars on internet gambling.
The worst part of going to prison was that I missed my friends and family I have two married sons and six grandchildren.
Because I worked at the prison I earned a huge sum of $40 per week, so I was able to call my family and friends and shout myself to a treat at the canteen once a month.
A photo of pokies would make me feel sick
While I was in prison I received help through counselling sessions with a Gamblers Help counsellor.
He helped me to realise that the machines are as addictive as taking drugs or alcohol.
We worked on the reasons why I played the pokies on my own and started doing a thing called exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy is where you gauge your reaction to movies and pictures about pokies after being free from gambling for 12 months.
It may be hard for anyone who has not been badly affected by these machines to understand just how harmful to the brain they are.
At one stage just looking at a photo of pokies would make me feel physically sick.
There was only so much he could do when I was inside, but after my release I continued on with this therapy and have now completed the course.
This involved me going into a venue with my counsellor and just looking at the machines.
The first time I entered a venue I could not breathe and had to remove myself from the situation.
It was difficult to work through all the issues that these dreaded machines cause, but I am happy to say that I can now go into a venue, sit and have a meal with friends without wanting to play.
Don’t struggle on your own
I am proud of how far I have come since 2015 and I have not gambled since.
I now have hobbies that I love doing, which is something I never thought I would say I have never been a hobby person.
I owe no money as I paid the company back all the money I took.
I may not have much, but I now have my self-esteem back.
If you or someone you know is struggling with this addiction, please don’t try and battle it on your own.
There is a lot of help to be found, and speaking as someone who has been there, I advise everyone to seek help early so no-one ever ends up in prison. I survived only with the help of my counsellor and my support group.
This addiction is not one that you can see.
I don’t have needle marks or stagger because I am drunk. It can be hidden from view. But the more we can get the message to people like yourselves, the better chance we have to reach those in need.
The stigma needs to be cleared so people feel safe talking about their problems.
Carolyn Crawford has a volunteer speaking role with the Alliance for Gambling Reform.
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