On the third day of my gambling binge, a grandma dressed as a pharaoh said there would be purple unicorn charms at a graveyard. I think it was a Sunday night, maybe early Monday morning, but meth makes timelines fuzzy and booze makes everything else a blur. So when an anthropomorphic firework said it was the Fourth of July, I panicked. I’d started playing poker when the calendar said June and I knew I had enough saved up to survive for the next couple months while I looked for another job. But rather than buy food or pay rent, I’d spent that $5,000 on a bunch of gems with no real-world value. And now, all I had to my name was an overdue rent payment, a $75 street-sweeping ticket, and a monthly VIP membership for Casino World.com.
I joined Casino World earlier this year after I was unceremoniously laid off over text, mostly as a way to keep myself from drinking my feelings away. A “social casino” that skirts online gambling laws by using play money, the desktop-based gaming site is best described as “Neopets” for QAnon conspiracy theorists and retirees that type in all caps, who’d otherwise be chain-smoking in front of a slot machine in Atlantic City. Except the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has nothing on Casino World, where you can gamble away fake “coins” on more than 40 free games, including Texas Hold’em, Keno, roulette, pai gow, fruit bingo, horse-race simulators, and slots galore.
For the price of a valid email address, you are given a starter bag of coins that quickly multiply through daily challenges, a healthy dose of “beginner’s luck,” and free “charms” that provide extra payouts whenever you win. Soon, you get used to beating impossible odds and play-acting the part of a billionaire high roller, betting millions of coins on one hand and enjoying the dopamine hit that comes with a tenfold return. But even more important is the false sense of power that comes with the faux opulence of seeing your avatar in the finest Casino World couture, buying up megayacht charms, vampire castles, and alien laboratories without a second thought. The only thing you have to care about, financially speaking, is maintaining that 11-figure sum, always on display in the corner of your screen.
Eventually though, I hit a wall and started to bleed out, stuck on some algorithmic losing streak where I was betting bigger and bigger just to keep up. Then I hit zero, and I stopped thinking it was stupid to pay real money for bundles of Casino World “gems,” which give you access to in-game boosters and bonus prizes. But the best returns come from paying to attend expensive parties, where real people from Alaska to Appalachia can become the cream of Casino World society and share pleasantries while shimmying along to royalty-free music, waiting for the host to hand out high-value charms like unicorns and rocket ships to offset their losses. And so I began paying real money to buy fake money, because online destitution didn’t feel like an option for someone still waiting on their first unemployment check.
When I signed up to play three-card poker on Casino World in May, I was not in a good place. I was afraid and anxious, unsure of how to move forward in an industry where newsrooms were being slashed and everyone was suggesting a permanent move to consumer marketing. I fell into a semi-catatonic depression, consumed by the preemptive grief of losing my career and, by proxy, my identity. And while I tried to search for some kind of clarity by looking inward, outward, upward, and forward, the only direction that didn’t seem like a complete dead end was backward, because at least I knew I’d always get out of bed to get high.
I’ve struggled with addiction since my late teens, taking pills and drinking away my problems after learning from my grandpa that Crown Royale took the edge off the overwhelming sadness and self-loathing. Already a partyer by the time I graduated from college, I moved to New York to work in media. Soon, I was snorting, swallowing, and smoking everything I could, licking coke crumbs off the floor of a seedy bar bathroom and using tequila as a disinfectant on a fresh hand tattoo at a BDSM rave. But it was fine, I’d tell myself, because I was a high-functioning addict who still met my deadlines and brought in traffic. At least until I got fired from a job where I was so miserable, my typical dinner was two bottles of wine and 50 milligrams of Adderall.
Five years ago, I returned to the West Coast, unemployable and completely overwhelmed by my addiction. I went to rehab and then spent several months living with my parents until saving enough to rent a closet-size room in L.A. From there, I tried to engage in the “healthy” activities sober people are supposed to love. But there was no amount of hiking, hot yoga, or açai bowls that could stop me from constantly fucking up, and every relapse got progressively worse until I stopped trying altogether.
Then I found a therapist who suggested a “harm-reduction” approach. Instead of complete sobriety, I would work on gradually phasing out my more dangerous habits by using pharmaceutical-grade drugs, keeping test strips on hand, and sticking to a “five drinks” rule. Combined with Narcotics Anonymous and intensive cognitive behavioral therapy, my overall relationship to substances improved dramatically, to the point that I was no longer drinking every night or in constant communication with my dealers. I was happy and healthy, in a loving and supportive relationship that wasn’t based on partying and substance abuse. For the first time in my life, I felt hopeful about the future.
But when the publication I worked for disappeared this spring, so did any sense of stability and self-confidence. In its place was that familiar emptiness I used to fill with drugs, and that scared the shit out of me, because everyone — including myself — thought I was “better” now. I retreated into myself, telling my friends I was fine, just burned out. I wanted to get some alone time, I said, which was a half-truth to hide that I couldn’t leave the house without ending up at a bar. When I started using an app to order booze anyway, I knew I had to act fast before I started asking around for hard drugs. That’s how I ended up Googling “free three-hand poker games.”
It wasn’t long before I was glued to my computer, with most of my waking hours dedicated to ignoring emails and job listings in favor of Casino World’s multi-hand poker game and a slot called Royal Meowjesty. In my head, it was always “one more hand” or “one more spin,” which was easy when my phone was on “Do Not Disturb” and I made the browser full-screen. Because time didn’t exist then, neither did bills, debts, and deadlines, and I could search indefinitely for that loose slot and hot table. I would, inevitably, hit the jackpot or be dealt a straight flush, because “it’s math,” as I told myself, even though I knew I failed statistics twice. So for the next three months, I played blackjack to procrastinate and pachinko to unwind, and put a couple million on basketball games with the help of the “How to Bet on Sports (With Pictures)” WikiHow page.
“But who cares about how many fake coins I lose on a free site?” I thought when I clicked the verification link sent to my email, wondering what dumbass would pay actual money when the site was obviously baiting users with big wins that would suddenly disappear in a brazen attempt to push the gem agenda. Karma, however, is cruel, and a $20 impulse purchase, some credit-card magic, and Casino World’s “quick buy” option soon led to an embarrassing call with Chase, where I asked for my account to be unfrozen, because I did, in fact, purchase a $500 “shipping container” of gems.
But nothing compared to the dopamine rush of pretending I was worth more than the GDP of Iceland, living in a world where dinner was steak and Champagne on a private jet rather than rice and beans on my floor. Casino World was a place where I didn’t have to deal with the worries and anxieties of the real world, not dissimilar to the way I used drugs and alcohol in the past. And when I was desperate to make back my billions, I ended up repeating this cycle over and over again on the Fourth of July, with the help of thousands of dollars of gems and some street “Adderall” that turned out to be meth.
In the days following that bender, I laid in bed, unsure if the knot in my stomach was a by-product of disappointment, fear, or self-loathing. I’d spent the last five years working so hard to get better, and I felt like I disappointed everyone by having my solution completely backfire, and, in fact, make things way worse.
But I’m not alone in my escapist tendencies. Gambling addiction frequently co-occurs with substance addiction, Dr. Marc Potenza, director of the Division on Addictions Research at the Yale School of Medicine, tells me. Gambling can be a self-soothing mechanism to relieve stress and provide an “escape from negative mood states like dysphoria or depression,” he says. And “some people do feel like they have more control over situations than perhaps they do.”
I spent my 20s using drugs to lose control until I realized that was a bad plan; then I spent my 30s searching for a sense of control, which I found through gambling. Unsurprisingly, there’s a strong link between economic hardship and gambling disorders, as researchers have consistently found that gambling disorders are particularly prevalent among people with fixed incomes, including low-income veterans and those experiencing homelessness or poverty. There’s also research that suggests women, people of color, and those suffering from preexisting mental-health issues are also susceptible to gambling disorders, which may have something to do with navigating life on “hard” mode. As someone at the intersection of these identities, it’s hard to pretend like the metaphorical deck isn’t already stacked against me. And since I can’t control deeply ingrained societal norms or an unpredictable industry built upon clicks and ad revenue, sometimes it’s easier to latch on to an illusion of control — even if I know I have no real control over the cards I’m dealt.
My friends and family found out when I started asking them for loans. My credit score is still fucked, and I’ve had multiple meetings with my bank to set up a plan for how I’ll repay my overdraft fees. I’ve been eating a lot of beans, picking up last-minute blog shifts, applying for unemployment, and taking on temp jobs transcribing insurance phone calls, all to pay back my parents, who loaned me the money I needed for rent and utilities.
At home, I comb through my bank statements with my boyfriend, who’s there to remind me of pre-set budgets and hold me accountable. I’ve found a support system at Gamblers Anonymous, where every two weeks I meet with many others who also accidentally traded one addiction for another. I also go to therapy three times a week, where I tell my therapist how much time and money I’ve spent on Casino World since we last saw each other. Right now, my monthly gem budget is $500 — a tenth of what it was — and next month my cap will be $250. If all goes according to plan, I’ll eventually be down to $50 a month and an hour a day — or maybe even complete Casino World sobriety. But for now, I can accept where I’m at, even if the truth still includes the occasional unicorn charm (or two).
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