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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 3 of 4)

 

 

Bob paid off the debt. Barbara removed the software. Things returned to normal. But a few days later, temptation struck again. No, she told herself. C’mon, a voice cajoled . . . it won’t hurt anything. Maybe you could win some of the money back. . . . True, she thought. Who says I have to lose? She downloaded another Internet casino. I’ll only play a little, she told herself.

 

 

She played a lot-and lost a lot, much more than the initial six or seven thousand. Within weeks, she had maxed out two credit cards, running them up to $50,000 total. Even that fact might have gone unnoticed had a mortgage banker handling Bob’s application to refinance the home not brought the debts to his attention. This time, he was not only blindsided, but enraged. Fifty thousand dollars! What the hell was going on?

In the late fall of 2001, the couple walked into a Gamblers Anonymous meeting. Barbara met with a group of gamblers, and Bob would later attend meetings for spouses and children of gambling addicts. Both found reason for hope. “I had the image of a compulsive gambler as a skid row person,” Barbara says. “And here I was in a room with lawyers, doctors, an electrician, who were battling this same demon. They kept telling me if I stuck with the program and worked the steps, the desire to gamble would go away.” Bob took heart from stories of others’ suffering and from people who assured him he wasn’t to blame.

Barbara went nearly every Wednesday and Sunday night for more than a year. But the overwhelming urge to gamble never left her, and as the holidays came and went, she continued playing Internet slots. By now, however, she had become much more adept at hiding what she was doing. “I had learned to compartmentalize it,” says Barbara. “So that no one had any idea of this secret part of my life.”

Bob assumed Barbara was done with gambling. Still, in February 2002, he found an interesting story in The New York Times that described a curious connection between dopamine levels and people who struggled with compulsions, including gambling. The article reported that fluctuating dopamine levels could actually “make” people do things against their will, such as continue to gamble or take drugs, even when they knew the behavior was destructive. “The first time they win, they get a huge dopamine rush that gets embedded in their memory,” the article said. “They keep gambling and the occasional dopamine rush of winning overrides their conscious knowledge that they will lose in the long run.” That sounded like Barbara, Bob thought.

He showed the story to her, and it immediately piqued her interest. She was taking a drug that, as far as she knew, had something to do with dopamine in the brain. Perhaps her medicine was playing some role in her compulsion.

Meanwhile, though, she continued to gamble. Over the next two months, she lost tens of thousands more dollars wagering online. “I felt like I was totally over my head,” she says. When she confessed for a third time, in April, Bob was beyond livid. “I experienced the visual sensation that must be the original source of the expression, ‘Seeing red,’” he recalls. “It made me wonder how it can be possible to trust another human being.”

Not long after, they told the two children, then aged 11 and 12, about their mother’s addiction, and Barbara also shared her situation with Kris and Leslie Donavan. All were floored. “Barbara was absolutely the last person on the planet I would have thought would have a gambling problem,” says Leslie today. “She’s always followed the straight and narrow.”

Grasping for help, Bob and Barbara discovered software called GamBlock created to prevent the downloading of online casinos. They cut up Barbara’s credit cards. Though Gamblers Anonymous had not proved much help so far, Barbara recommitted herself to the program. She also began seeing a therapist for gambling, and, with Bob, a couples counselor for their marriage.

In May 2002, she found herself walking through the doors of the Grand Victoria, a riverboat casino in Elgin.

She was immediately hooked. This was gambling. Machines whirring, cards flying. Smoky, yes, but she couldn’t have cared less. All she could see was rows and rows of shining slot machines, the only game she played. So many possibilities. If one machine was cold, she would simply move to another. She would start betting small, then gradually increase her wagers. Before she knew it, she would be utterly engrossed, exactly like the poor mesmerized souls she had pitied years ago. “I wouldn’t be hungry, I wouldn’t be thirsty, I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom,” Barbara says. “When I gambled I didn’t want anyone to bring me food; I didn’t want any free drinks. I was there to play and I think I could have sat there for 12 hours straight.”

Her mania would begin as soon as she walked out of her home and got in her car. “I knew I was just minutes away [from playing],” she says. “My heart would start to beat more quickly and my mouth would get dry. I would take the cash and my driver’s license out of my wallet and set them on the seat next to me, ready to put them in my pocket.” As she pulled into the casino parking lot, her hands would nearly tremble. “There was something surreal about it,” she says. “My senses seemed dulled. . . . I focused solely on getting myself to the slot machines.”

She gave herself over to the compulsion, making the drive from Winnetka to Elgin several times a week. Her cover stories were endless-"I’m going shopping; I’m running errands; I’m going wherever,” she recalls. She would monitor the time to make sure she could pick up her children. When she lingered too long at the casino, she would call a friend with a ready excuse.

“I’d say, ‘I’m stuck in traffic. Would you mind?’”

She knew what she was doing was wrong, but, she says, “I just really felt so powerless. It was the most humbling, bizarre thing.” When she confessed again that summer, Bob began exploring options, including leaving Barbara and taking the kids. But what would that do? Deprive the children of their mother? And what about him? For all the heartache, he loved Barbara deeply.

He developed severe stress headaches and depression. He began to have thoughts of suicide. But then, the storm would seem to pass, Barbara would return to “normal,” and he would begin to think-again-that the worst was over.

Barbara discovered that she could have herself barred from casinos by signing a form at the Illinois Gaming Board. She completed the process on September 26, 2002. “That felt good for a week or so,” she says. “Then I began driving to Indiana.”

She tried going back to work-not as a lawyer, but as a substitute teacher, earning $75 a day. She loved the job in many ways, but, she says, “it was [also] very humbling, light-years away from a high-powered law practice. But I figured since I was such a bad person I deserved it.”

With each failed attempt to stop, she grew more hopeless and more desperate. She had never forgotten the New York Times story about dopamine and compulsive behavior, and had, in the meantime, come across a story that seemed to solidify the connection: researchers had uncovered a link between dopamine therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease and the sudden onset of compulsive gambling. According to the study, conducted by the Division of Addictions at Harvard Medical School, 12 patients had developed gambling problems after they began taking the medication L-dopa for their Parkinson’s.

L-dopa isn’t a dopamine agonist like Permax. Still, Barbara felt a burst of hope. “I really felt like ‘This is it!’” In August 2002, she took her findings to Dr. Freedom, the neurologist who had originally prescribed the Permax. Dr. Freedom says today that he thought there might well be something to what Barbara was saying. “Based on her lack of any history of this kind of behavior and the literature Barbara showed me, it certainly seemed plausible,” he says. At the time, he cautioned Barbara that the findings in the studies were speculative at best and dealt solely with Parkinson’s disease, not restless leg syndrome. Nevertheless, as a possible alternative to Permax, he prescribed Neurontin, an antiseizure medication that does not directly affect the body’s dopamine system. She could lower her Permax dosage and see what happened with her compulsion.

Barbara shared the study in one of her Gamblers Anonymous meetings. “I know it sounds like science fiction,” she told the group, “but what if it’s true? That would explain why I can’t stop.” The reaction was harsh. “They said, ‘Barbara, we all have things going on in our brains. Don’t blame it on the medicine. You have to take responsibility for yourself.’” Her therapist was even more dismissive. “As long as you look for an excuse, you will never stop gambling,” Barbara recalls her saying. “What we need to be concentrating on is on why you feel the need to test your husband’s love-why you think you don’t deserve to be happy.”

Discouraged, battered, Barbara dropped it. Anyway, she didn’t really believe that a drug could make someone do such unspeakable things-lie to her husband, or get behind the wheel of a car and drive to a casino. “If only there had been some authoritative voice,” she says now. “If some medical person had said, ‘I know about this.’”

Instead, she returned to thinking that the fault wasn’t in a pill, but in her. “There was volition involved in my gambling, it seemed,” she says. “I was making choices. How could it be the drug?” She began to suspect that she had discovered a dark truth about who she really was under her “nice” exterior: “I just thought, I am a bad person. And I’ve just kept it buried all these years.”
 

The Neurontin prescribed by Dr. Freedom was ineffective against her restless leg syndrome, and the reduced dosage of Permax didn’t stop her compulsion to gamble further. Conditions at home deteriorated. “There was incredible anger and stress in the house,” recalls Barbara. And so, “given the incredible turmoil and pain [Bob and I] were in, the one thing I could change was the insomnia. So at some point . . . I gave up on trying to get off the Permax.”

She became resigned to the fact that she was a hardened gambler, who came with cash and credit cards, ready to play. Having earlier arranged to have herself barred from the Illinois casinos, she turned to the boats in Indiana, particularly Jack Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Hammond. Driving to the boat two, sometimes three times a week, she occasionally won-once hitting a jackpot of $68,000. “I came home and gave the check to Bob,” she says. “He couldn’t believe it. He was so angry. He wanted to tear the check up or donate it to charity. He saw it almost as blood money.”

Usually, though, she would drive home, almost frantic with regret. “I remember walking in the middle of the night around [Winnetka] just crying and crying,” she says. “The agony was indescribable.”

She gambled throughout 2003, losing so much money that she welcomed an invitation to return to work at Schiff Hardin. As a condition of her return, she had to reveal her gambling problem to each member of the firm’s executive committee, as well as the heads of the administrative staff and the people with whom she would be working directly. By then, she had plunged into severe depression and, in addition to seeing her therapist, she started going to a psychiatrist who specializes in pharmacological treatments for mental disorders. But nothing worked. Having arranged to have herself barred at casinos in both Illinois and Indiana, she resorted to buying lottery tickets. “I became the scratch-off queen,” she says.

 

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