Many legal professionals struggle with addiction issues, but while a great deal of attention gets put on the use of alcohol and drugs, addiction to gambling is often overlooked. To help shed some light on this important and frequently devastating issue, On Balance podcast hosts Tish Vincent and JoAnn Hathaway are joined by former attorney Jeff Wasserman, Judicial Outreach and Development Director for the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems and a recovering gambling addict. Jeff shares a wealth of information, such as his own path from the beginning stages of his addiction in school, its career ending conclusion, and his new life in abstinence; the four factors that put lawyers and law students at particular risk; and the work he’s doing now to help others, like his Skype-based support group, his podcast All In: The Addicted Gambler’s Podcast, and his involvement with the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems.
Jeff P. Wasserman works for the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems as the Judicial Outreach and Development Director. Jeff is a former attorney and a recovering gambling addict.
Check out Jeff’s podcast through Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcasting app.
Learn more through the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
Exploring Gambling Addiction and the Path to Recovery
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away, ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Jeff Wasserman, Judicial Outreach and Development Director of the Delaware Council on Gambling Problems, join us today as our podcast guest to talk about gambling disorders.
Attorneys are at increased risk for developing gambling disorders due to their unique characteristics of the work they perform. Jeff is a former practicing attorney who experienced his own gambling disorder.
So, Jeff, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Jeff Wasserman: Absolutely and thank you for having me on the podcast. I was a practicing Delaware attorney for nearly 33 years in private practice, small firm, I was the managing partner of the firm for the last 10 years of my practice and in August of 2015 I was transferred to disability and active status related to my gambling addictions and associated behaviors.
I’ve been in recovery from gambling disorder since that time so it’s about four-and-a-quarter years and during that time I developed a new occupation or as I like to refer to it as a new calling. As was mentioned I work for the Delaware Council on gambling problems as the Judicial Outreach and Development Director. We are a nonprofit health agency that is gambling neutral, in other words we’re not for or against legal gambling, our mission is simply to educate, prevent and treat those people who suffer consequences or potentially at risk for developing a gambling addiction.
And again, since the time I entered recovery and began working with the Delaware Gambling Council I obtained my certifications as an international gambling counselor as well as a peer recovery specialist. So, again, that is my new calling in life and I’m thrilled to be able to do it.
Tish Vincent: Yeah, well, when did you first realized that gambling was becoming a problem for you?
Jeff Wasserman: I think it was really when I entered law school. I had gambled prior to that time but nothing that would raise any kind of red flags or cause me any concern, but in 1979 when I moved to Delaware and entered law school I found out at that time much to my pleasure that we were only about an hour-and-a-half drive down the expressway to Atlantic City, and that was the time that Atlantic City was experiencing a rather significant boom in casino development.
So friends from law school and I would occasionally go to Atlantic City and spend the evening gambling at a casino, but I realized I think at that time that I probably liked gambling more than my friends did. I was the guy that never wanted to leave when they did or lost all his money first and probably took out more money from the ATM than I had planned.
So although in hindsight it’s easy for me to look back and say, yeah, those were the signs that potentially there could be a problem, I don’t think I recognized it or wanted to recognize it when it was happening.
Tish Vincent: Yes.
JoAnn Hathaway: And how would you describe yourself in your situation when you were at your worst, Jeff?
Jeff Wasserman: When I was at my worst, basically gambling was the focus of my life. As with other addictions I was preoccupied with gambling, when I wasn’t gambling I was thinking about it. I could always try to control or somehow regulate my gambling but I was unsuccessful at it. I needed to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve that gambler’s high or stress relief, but it was all the signs that you would typically associate with a substance addiction.
But my addiction was the result of the behavior rather than actually putting a substance into my body. Along with that I was lying, I was sneaking to gamble, I was violating the trust of all those people that were the closest to me, especially my wife, my children and I was really in a state that gambling I thought controlled me.
And they often say that gambling addiction is extremely progressive and that was the situation with me. So while I described those first signs while I was in law school that was quite a number of years ago and as the years moved forward and my stresses increased I relied more-and-more on gambling as a coping mechanism to relieve stress and then found myself completely dependent on gambling.
And in fact sometimes I refer to that period of time where I credit gambling for allowing me to function, because while I was gambling it was the only time that I did not have the burdens of the stresses that were going on in my life, I was able to numb myself and block out the stresses.
The irony of course is that much of the stress was related to the financial losses that I experienced as a result of the gambling. So it was that vicious cycle from gambling to relieve stress and then gambling causing stress, and then as I said in August of 2015 my world collapsed so to speak when I was caught, and all of the hidden behaviors and characteristics that I engaged in and the losses and damage that I did all came to the surface and ended up not only ending my career as a practicing attorney but having serious consequences with regard to my relationships and pretty much every aspect of my life.
Tish Vincent: What do you want lawyers and law students to know about the risks and consequences of gambling addiction?
Jeff Wasserman: I have the opportunity and I’m grateful for it to actually share my story and to speak about gambling addiction to lawyers and law students and it’s my way of giving back and to turning a very negative part of my life into a positive, just like most people with addictions that share their stories, it’s a very powerful and compelling way to raise awareness of addiction and to hopefully reach out to others who may either have experienced these issues or know someone that has, but when I speak to lawyers and law students I specifically talk about certain factors that I think are fairly unique to the practice of law and that give rise to a greater risk of developing gambling addiction and also give rise to very significant consequences of the addiction.
It’s pretty anecdotal. I don’t cite any kind of studies or research-based evidence to support my hypothesis, only has supported my lived experience and my own observations.
So the four factors that I think put lawyers and law students at a risk are stress, ego opportunity and accessibility. With regard to stress we will know that lawyers experience a very significant level of stress from challenges that are associated with the practice of law, whether it’s long workdays or court-imposed deadlines, targets for billable hours or just balancing one’s personal and professional life, these are stresses that lawyers have to deal with and although there are positive ways to deal with stress. Gambling certainly is a negative way and sometimes, I would say most times, it is not on the radar when one thinks of addiction. So there’s not that consciousness that if they engage in that kind of behavior, it may turn into an addiction, but it certainly can do that.
The other factor would be ego. I often like to sort of say tongue-in-cheek that I hear that lawyers may have big egos, and that always, that’s a bit of a laugh from the audience.
Tish Vincent: Yeah, maybe.
Jeff Wasserman: Yeah, maybe right, exactly. But, if ego comes into play especially with gambling, if we’re talking about a skill-based form of gambling like poker or sports betting, the ego tells us sometimes that we are better than the average person and in fact maybe can beat the odds, because of our special skill or talent or intelligence, so that certainly comes into play.
And also with regard to just experiencing the issues that may lead to the addiction, ego sometimes tells us that we don’t have anything to worry about. We can handle it ourselves, we’re used to being problem-solvers for other people and that sort of translates to being a problem-solver to ourselves. So there’s this lack of willingness to reach out to others and that certainly is an issue that could be harmful when one has gambling problems.
I talk about the third factor is being opportunity, and when I say “opportunity” I mean the opportunity to gamble. Number one is generally lawyers certainly in private practice don’t have a typical 9-to-5 job, they’re usually out of the office and on many days either going to a deposition or court appearance, maybe meeting a client. So that can be used to benefit the gambler and give them the opportunity to go to a casino when others think that they are busy doing engaging in behaviors or events related to their practice. So there’s that opportunity piece of it.
Also, now with the advent of more-and-more online gambling, we can just sit at our desks and be in our computer or our phone or other device and gamble at the office, when other people assume that you’re working on your job or on tasks relating to lawyering.
And then finally accessibility and access to me is the most important of the four factors that need to be in our awareness, because lawyers just like accountants, financial planners and others have access to other people’s money.
And when we think about gambling addiction we know that you can’t gamble without money; that is often said as the crack cocaine of the gambling addict, and when all resources to access money legally have been exhausted, very often the gambler will look at other ways to access money, whether they are legal or illegal.
Now, most gamblers don’t have the access that many attorneys have and that is access to other people’s funds. I would say also that it’s very common that lawyers or even non-lawyers that embezzle or engage in criminal activity to obtain money to gamble they don’t think of themselves as committing a crime. They don’t think of it as stealing money but rather borrowing money and that money would be paid back as soon as their next big win occurs when they gamble. So there’s this ability to justify and excuse these otherwise very important behaviors by saying, well, we’ll just pay it back and nobody will be the worst for it.
So — and as especially as a lawyer, the consequences of doing that is fatal to one’s profession and certainly beyond that there’s that criminal justice component to it. Studies show that approximately half of the people who have gambling disorder resort to illegal acts to obtain money to gamble and typically white-collar crimes such as embezzlement, issuing bad checks fraud and typically these people do not have any prior criminal record. They are only objective for engaging in the behavior is to obtain funds, to use to fund the addiction and that’s obviously a serious problem.
Tish Vincent: Jeff, what propelled you to stop gambling and embrace recovery?
Jeff Wasserman: Well, as I said, I got caught. The issue was that — as I said I was managing partner of my firm, I was in private practice, and we were notified, as most firms are certainly in Delaware and I assume in other states as well, that we were going to be a subject to a random audit about books and records and our accounts, and again, it was random, it wasn’t as a result of any kind of red flags or client complaints or anything of that nature. But I knew that once the audit took place that there were irregularities in our firm’s accounts that would be discovered and would lead to my gambling addiction and related behaviors.
So at that time I canceled the audit, I knew that my career was about to end, that I was about to be found out, was desperately concerned about my wife, my children, anybody that I knew, because I really led a double life. I know on the one hand I was a successful attorney, loving husband, good father, a man of integrity, but as someone with this gambling addiction, I was quite the opposite. I led a life that was filled with lies and distrust and basically somebody that I didn’t recognize.
I mean I was raised in a family that taught values. I didn’t have any of the experiences that some people with addiction have that would raise a red flag. I didn’t come from a broken home. I didn’t have addiction in my family. I didn’t suffer any kind of childhood trauma, and I was raised with really good values and I raised my children that way and in one sense I led a life that way except when it came to gambling.
So as you can see that all aspects of my life were now going to be disclosed and I had no choice. Frankly, at the time I gave serious consideration to ending my life and fortunately decided to instead try to endure the overwhelming shame of disclosing the addiction and the repercussions from it. And after spending a week, my first week I guess in recovery, although I think I would rather say it was my first week of abstinence in a psychiatric hospital and was released and immediately was taken to my first Gamblers Anonymous meeting and started to get counseling and starting to really try to educate myself on this addiction, because quite frankly, I didn’t think I had an addiction. I didn’t even know gambling disorder was an addiction until I learned about it, until I realized or learned I should say that it is as legitimate an addiction as addiction to opioids or to alcohol.
In fact, it’s in the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the same category as addictive disorders to opioids and tobacco and to other substances. So it was an eye-opening experience to learn that one can develop an addiction and the same type of characteristics by just a behavior itself rather than putting something foreign into one’s body. I didn’t have to snort, or inject, or swallow, or smoke to get that addictive high or that numbness that I got from gambling.
So when I learned about the addiction and I want to say that that didn’t provide me with a justification for my behaviors. I didn’t say well, now I know I am not responsible for what I did because I have an addiction. No, it was more of an explanation. Whereas before I thought that there was something that was making me go insane, I learned that that something was a gambling disorder or a gambling addiction and that gave me a little bit of peace in the sense that I can now understand why it happened, but still be accountable for what I did.
So as I found the support that I got from my loved ones and just went through a process of enduring the shame and struggling through it, I began to embrace recovery.
I began to for the first time realize that yes, maybe I could have a life following addiction, and as time went on, and again, I can’t be grateful enough to the people that have given me much more support and compassion than I ever thought I deserved, but that really made such a significant contribution to my own embracing of recovery and my own objective in trying to sort of not go back to a life before gambling, but to find a life that’s even better, that’s more rewarding and fulfilling and filled with compassion, and kindness and integrity.
And it sounds very Pollyannaish, but for me it’s very truthful. I just have a different outlook in life and appreciate the small stuff and that’s why — I heard somebody say this week that they hated their gambling addiction except for one thing. It introduced them to recovery and that’s something that I can fully support. I can’t say that I am grateful for having addiction to gambling, because of not only the harm it did to myself, but especially to my loved ones, so I don’t think I could get to that point, but I certainly recognize the positive side to it was to introduce me to a life of recovery, which I just enjoy every day and try to be grateful for every day.
JoAnn Hathaway: What are some of the things that you do now to keep yourself on the right path and to stay in that recovery?
Jeff Wasserman: Well, one of the things that I do is try to guard against complacency. I am not so — after four plus years and thank God I haven’t relapsed during that time and many, many people, especially with gambling addiction, do experience relapses, not because of any kind of a weakness on their part, but just that’s the nature of the addiction for some and how it’s processed.
I have maintained abstinence for over four years, never really struggled with relapse, but my focus now is really guarding against complacency, because if I become complacent and stop attending my GA meetings, which I continue to attend probably three or four times a week and just work on my 12 Step Program and reach out to others in many ways, if I did stop doing that and all of a sudden felt that I had some security; well, I haven’t gambled in four years, maybe I don’t need all this stuff, that would be extremely dangerous, and there is no doubt in my mind that if that occurs, it would only be a matter of time before I went back to betting, because as you know addiction, there is no cure for it. We have to arrest it. We have to maintain our abstinence, our recovery every day.
So I am in remission and I recognize that, so I attend GA meetings. I actually also have started back in January a support group over Skype, which I facilitate three meetings a week for people with gambling addiction all over the world, quite frankly. We have people in our meetings, not only from the US, but from Canada, from England, Ireland, we have someone from Turkey, we have someone from India, as far away as Thailand and Australia, and it’s been such an awesome experience for me as the one that started this group and facilitates it, because not only have I got to meet wonderful people, but I have got to build relationships and really felt that we make a difference in supporting each other.
I started these meetings to really attract Millennials into support groups, which quite frankly, sometimes there is a disconnect between the traditional 12 Step group and the younger generation. So I went to reach out to them on their terms, so we do it over Skype and we have one hour meetings and we share. I am probably 25 years older than the next person that’s in my group in terms of chronology, but it’s been awesome.
Tish Vincent: That’s excellent, that is just excellent. I am happy to hear about that.
Jeff Wasserman: Yeah, it’s been great. Also, like the two of you ladies, I co-host a podcast called ALL IN: The Addicted Gambler’s Podcast. I started out as just a fan of the podcast. I was introduced to podcasting by of course one of my children because I didn’t know anything about podcast. All I knew was I had an icon and I guess an app in my phone that said podcast, but never used it.
And then I said, I wonder if there is anything on gambling and found this podcast hosted by someone, a young guy named Brian Hatch, who shares his experiences with gambling, but in a way that’s entertaining, so it’s an entertaining way of getting the message across.
I emailed him, gone on the show and we became friends, and about, I guess it’s been probably almost a year now that he asked me to be the co-host and we have guests on from all over the world with gambling addiction. Our last guest we had on was from Australia actually and that’s been a terrific opportunity for me to grow in my own recovery.
Many people who are in recovery know what it’s like to reach out and to share their story and their experiences and the people who are on the other side receiving the message think it’s a one-way street, that here is the giver and they are the takers, but it’s not, it’s a symbiotic relationship. I get as much benefit and value from sharing with others than I think that the others who receive the message get. That’s how recovery works, as I am sure you know.
Obviously I stay very, very vigilant in terms of what I do. I am a firm believer in complete abstaining from all sorts of gambling, even those forms that I never really engaged in that are fairly innocuous and I am pretty sure would not trigger me. Like I don’t buy a Powerball Ticket when it’s $300 billion; it’s just I have adopted a philosophy or I guess an approach to my recovery, where I don’t gamble at all because for me, once I draw a line and say well, I could do this or can’t do that, I as a former attorney who has been trained in being able to sort of manipulate facts to try to support a position, then I get into that gray area where I don’t want to have any kind of risk or exposure that I may fall into that rabbit hole.
So yeah, so I maintain abstinence and I do work with Steps, and of course since I work at a Gambling Council, I am around gambling addiction and prevention and recovery all of my working days, at night. I am constantly engaged in this area and I love it, it’s great. And especially having the opportunity to share my experiences and my story, I am grateful for people like you that give me that forum because it’s tremendously helpful and quite frankly, it really is a wonderful way to increase my own self-esteem, my own value that I completely destroyed as a result of my active addiction.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we have come to the end of our show. We would like to thank our guest today, Jeff Wasserman for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Jeff, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Jeff Wasserman: Well, for those guests who are Twitter followers and who tweet, my Twitter handle is @JPWdel1955, and please reach out to me on Twitter. If not, certainly I welcome emails and you can email me at [email protected],
and feel free to reach out whether you want some additional information for yourself, for family members, whether you are struggling with issues or you have somebody that is struggling with issues and you want just someone to talk to, someone that has been there, can sort of share their own experiences, I am happy to do that.
I also take calls on Problem Gambling Helpline, so I do have some experience in talking to people that have concerns and have issues and even have a more significant problem, especially lawyers and law students, please reach out to me and I would be happy to talk to you on a confidential basis.
Tish Vincent: Thank you Jeff. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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