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Betting Her Life

Barbara Hermansen found happiness and fulfillment as a North Shore wife, mother, and lawyer—until she started taking a prescription drug for a neurological disorder. Then a trip to Las Vegas set off a crazed gambling addiction that almost brought her and her family down.

Photo: Kate Schermerhorm

(page 2 of 4)

 

The first night she took Permax (above), one of a class of drugs known as dopamine agonists, Barbara Hermansen was able to sleep from midnight until 3 a.m. “Three hours might not sound like a lot,” she says. “To me, it was a miracle.”

The drug changed her life. Where once she dreaded going to bed, she now awoke refreshed. “Before, I functioned, but I always felt a little foggy,” she says. “Being able to sleep helped me focus.” Namely, she was able to think clearly and to reflect on her priorities, including what she wanted to do with her newfound vigor. She surprised herself with the answer. She didn’t want to work in a law office anymore. She wanted to spend more time with her children. With Ben already a blond beanpole and Katie blossoming into a young woman, they were growing up way too fast. “I realized that I had gotten on this treadmill where I was simply putting one foot in front of the other,” Barbara says. “Once I started sleeping at night, I knew that I was neglecting the one thing I loved the most: my children.”

Some acquaintances found her timing odd. “They’d say, ‘You want to quit now?’” she recalls. To Barbara, it made perfect sense. What better time to recommit to her family than the very moment when she could devote herself to it with all her energy and passion?

She left Schiff Hardin in June 1997, having spent 15 years with the firm. She saw Bob off to work in the mornings and greeted him when he came home. She joined her church board, taught Sunday school, volunteered as a Cub Scout den leader and a Brownie leader, and served as a PTA officer. It was amazing, she thought, how one medication could change her life so drastically. As the years passed, she increased her dosage of Permax-as with any drug, her body had developed a tolerance. But at a daily dose of two milligrams she was still well under the recommended maximum of three to five milligrams per day.

In the summer of 2001, Barbara’s younger sister, Kris, who lived in Alaska, suggested they take a girls-only trip to Las Vegas. Why not? Vegas wouldn’t have been Barbara’s first choice for a getaway, but she had never been there and her sister’s excitement was infectious. “I’ve always wanted to see it,” Kris said. “Haven’t you?”

Barbara’s sole reservation was the gambling. A few years earlier, she and Bob had spent an evening on a floating casino in Indiana with their friends Leslie Donavan and her husband, John Seymour. All four hated it-the blue haze of cigarette smoke, the jangling slot machines, the men in cutoffs and tank tops, the women with too much blue eye shadow. “I remember the whole experience was like an assault on my body,” Barbara recalls.

What had depressed Barbara and Bob most was the people at the slots. They sat like zombies before the twirling reels, punching the play button over and over. Some had literally plugged themselves into the machines, clipping one end of a nylon cord to their chest and sticking the plastic card on the other end into a slot. As the players lost, the machines slowly drained away credits. To Barbara it seemed the machines were sucking out their souls.

The experience was enough to satisfy any curiosity the couple might have had. But the invitation from Kris was different. This wasn’t just anybody offering. And this wasn’t some riverboat. It was Vegas. After talking it over with Bob, Barbara called her sister. “Pack your Elvis suit,” she said.

 

The 35-acre Aladdin Casino & Resort complex shimmered out of the desert like a glittering mirage. Turrets twisted up like candy Twizzlers. The lobby looked as if it were made out of gold. Two sixth-floor pools looked down on the Strip, a boulevard of neon lights and glittering hotel marquees.

The sisters caught a show at the Mirage. They shopped, they people watched. The casino was merely a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. Still, it was Las Vegas and they felt obliged to set aside at least a few hours for gaming. Kris knew how to play blackjack, but Barbara was a novice, so she took up a spot at a slot machine. She found a nonsmoking area that was mostly deserted and tentatively fed a twenty into the slot. Betting a dollar each time, she lost it all within a couple of minutes. Continuing to play, she climbed ahead to $30 or $40, then watched the money dwindle. She actually surprised herself with how much fun it was. Click, click, click . . . the reels twirled and settled on the payline, diamond, diamond . . . 6 . . . Damn!

She stuck with one machine and whenever she would get a little ahead, she would tell herself, Just wait until you get to $60, then $65, and then cash out. But she never quite got there. Instead, she hit a bad streak. Soon, she was down $100. Wow, she thought. It goes quick. But it’s exciting!

The sisters had a couple more visits to the casino, and took in the sights. But Barbara felt distracted. She couldn’t get the machine she had played, or the money she had lost, out of her mind. She kept thinking that if only she had cashed out when she was ahead by $20 or $30, she could have won instead of lost. She wished she could play, just one more time. But the weekend was up. The sisters shared a cab to the airport and Barbara saw Kris off to her earlier flight.

With some time left before her own departure, Barbara felt restless. A bank of slot machines caught her eye. Her pulse quickened. A few days earlier when she had seen the machines, she had thought how sad it was that people couldn’t even wait to get to a casino. Now . . . she thought she might actually play a little bit before her flight. She found an ATM and withdrew some cash. She checked her watch one more time. One by one, she began feeding twenties into the slot, so absorbed that she barely made the flight.

She returned to Winnetka feeling a bit disoriented, like a space traveler who had arrived home from a strange planet. She spun tales of the fantastic world she had just seen, with its Eiffel Tower and golden lobbies, its pirate ship battles and canals of Venice. She recounted the shows, the pools, the restaurants, the people watching. And, yes, her modest foray into gambling-it was Vegas, after all.

But her losses bugged her. Those damn machines! “I kept thinking, If only I could play them again,” she recalls. “I’d know that you’ve got to quit while you’re ahead.” For a brief moment she considered going to an Illinois boat casino. Don’t be silly, she told herself. But thoughts of playing again nagged her over the next few days, until one afternoon, while she was on her computer, a pop-up ad flashed on her computer screen. “The Gaming Club"-which she could download immediately-promised real Las Vegas action, including the very slot machines found in a casino. Just register your credit card, the ad said, and be playing within seconds.

She started to do it, then hesitated. Somewhere in her mind, a tiny alarm went off. Bob would never approve, for one. Then again, it wasn’t as if she were driving to a casino and betting all their money. And what if she won?

With a click of the mouse she downloaded the game. She registered her credit card and charged $50. She promptly lost it. She dropped another $50. God. She bet more, chasing her losses . . . until . . . click, click, click . . . $600! A winner! “I thought, Wow! Cash out!” she recalls. “But I didn’t.” In fact, she wound up losing more than she had won. She turned off the machine, angry and dejected. But she was also . . . pumped. She couldn’t tell Bob. But she didn’t really have to. The two of them had their own checking accounts, their own credit cards. He would never see the statement. She would just pay it off and chalk it up to a little treat she had given herself. As she removed the software from her computer, she told herself, This will just be my little secret.

The next day, however, she reinstalled the program. And the same thing happened. Lose, lose, lose, win big, fail to cash out, lose some more. Over the next several weeks, she played out the pattern nearly every day. By August 2001, just a few weeks after her return from Vegas, she had lost several thousand dollars. She knew she was going to have to tell Bob, but the thought terrified her. She felt so ashamed, so . . . stupid. Gambling! Her guilt and shame overwhelmed her one late summer night after dinner. “I have something to tell you,” she confessed. “Something terrible.” She paused for a moment, avoiding his gaze. “I’ve been gambling. Ever since Vegas.” Bob stared at her. Of the thousand things he thought she might say, gambling wouldn’t have made the top 500. “So how much did you lose?” he asked, his mind still reeling. “She swallowed hard a couple of times,” Bob recalls. “And then she named a figure.” Six, maybe seven thousand dollars. Bob blinked. What? How? Why? “Well, thank God you stopped,” he stammered. “I know. I know,” she said. “I can’t believe how stupid I’ve been.” He put his arms around her as she heaved with sobs. “I don’t know what got into me,” she said. “I’ll never do it again.”

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