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Couple tirelessly pursues help for gamblers

June 17, 2015
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Arnie and Sheila Wexler have worked as a team for more than two decades to help people overcome the pain and family destruction wrought by gambling addiction. They have seen numerous changes across the landscape, from society's somewhat begrudging acceptance of problem gambling as a disease to an increasing prevalence of women directly affected by gambling addiction's devastation. Their commitment to giving back has never wavered.

“The only people who stay in recovery are those who reach their hand out and help other people,” says Arnie Wexler, a recovering compulsive gambler (last bet: April 10, 1968) whose numerous roles in recovery have included executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey and senior vice president of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Wexler in 2014 joined with former New York sportswriter Steve Jacobson to release All Bets Are Off: Losers, Liars, and Recovery From Gambling Addiction (Central Recovery Press), which chronicles Wexler's addiction and recovery but perhaps more importantly offers a window into how his journey affected his wife, who for years now has counseled gamblers (among her efforts, she introduced a program for compulsive gamblers at the New Hope Foundation inpatient treatment facility in Marlboro, N.J.). The passages drawn from Jacobson's interviews with Sheila Wexler offer one of the most detailed looks to date at gambling's effect on a loved one.

“I couldn't read too much of that at one time,” Arnie Wexler says in reference to the book sections labeled “Sheila's experience.” He explains, “It blew me away. Sometimes it felt like I had been through a session.”

Early exposure

As described in the book, Arnie Wexler got his initial rush from playing pinball machines, then while still in his teens graduated to trading stocks. He and Sheila went to the movies on their first date (he was 21 and she was 16), and then to the racetrack every other time after that.

Arnie promised Sheila he would quit gambling once they were married. But on their honeymoon they got into a fight when he realized that a longshot horse on whom he didn't bet because of his promise won the Belmont Stakes, yielding a hefty payout. Arnie's gambling would continue for seven trying years in which he went into paralyzing debt and ceded the roles of husband and father.

“The obvious question is, Why didn't I walk out?” Sheila Wexler states in the book. “Well, in the '60s, not many women felt they could walk out of marriages. What could I do? My husband didn't beat me but I was a beaten-down woman. … I didn't even consider leaving him because I felt totally dependent on him. The saddest thing is I had resigned myself to this way of life.”

Arnie stopped gambling shortly after he attended his first 12-Step meeting on the advice of a boss; he agreed to do so only because he mistakenly thought the boss had told him that the 12-Step group would help him erase his gambling debts. He and Sheila eventually would counsel other gamblers, first in separate efforts and later as partners who also trained thousands of casino workers and addiction counselors along the way. They are now working with the Palm Beach County, Fla., treatment facility Recovery Road, which has developed a niche in treating gambling addiction. Arnie says he also answers five to 10 calls a day on a toll-free gambling helpline (1-888-LASTBET).

“We don't share our story [with clients] right off the bat,” Arnie says. “A great key is getting someone to trust you.”

He continues to see numerous examples of the extreme behaviors individuals will engage in to support their addiction. He matter-of-factly describes one woman from Europe who had such an urge to gamble that she would chain herself to the radiator in her home and throw her keys into the street, where a neighbor would pick them up in the morning and set her free.

Demographic changes

The profile of the gambling addict has changed considerably over the past two decades, say the Wexlers. Back then only about one in five of the individuals they were helping were women. That percentage has continued to grow as more “escape gamblers” attracted to slot machines have experienced problems.

Many programs that treat alcohol use disorders fail to detect a co-occurring issue with gambling, and that's the behavior an individual will turn back to upon leaving treatment. It's difficult these days to identify an individual who is not affected by some cross-addiction, the Wexlers say.

The Foundation for Recovery last spring honored the couple, whom Central Recovery Press refers to in its book materials as “the foremost leaders addressing the devastation of gambling addiction today,” with its Robert Rehmar Addiction Professional Award. The award is presented to professionals “who have helped raise public awareness of the need for treatment and prevention, or who have made breakthroughs in the treatment/prevention of addiction and support for recovery,” the foundation states.