Bigger Passenger Story: Exploring addictive processes with a former gambling addict in Reno, Nevada

“There’s this program where you put your name on their list, and then if they see you in their casino they’ll kick you out and take all your money,” says Janet* the woman passenger I’ve just picked up outside a cafe in midtown Reno. “My gambling problem led me to enroll in it.”

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Her words prompt recollection of my own experience at a casino earlier that day. Curious about “casino life” from a purely anthropological perspective, I’d wandered into one that abutted a Starbucks (which as far as Starbucks go, was a pretty classy one, housing its imbibers under a ceiling of mesmerizing stained glass designs).

As I passed rows of machines with titles like “Wild Panda,” “Blaze of Glory,” and “Quick Hit,” in front of the bleary-eyed people operating them, I imagined the casino owners saying while gesturing to the comfy black swivel chairs next to them: “Please, get as comfortable as possible while we help you transition your $$$ to a better home.”

A few minutes in, I found myself struggling to hold a thought for more than a few seconds; it would begin to construct itself only to dissolve mid-formation.  The smell of cigarette smoke and greasy casino food filled me with nausea. The beeping and ding dings coming from all directions had me on edge. 

It occurred to me (for the first time in actual words, beyond just a mere feeling) that it’s when people are anxious and unable to string coherent thoughts together that we’re most vulnerable to succumbing to our impulses.

That’s how they get you. Sever the connection to your prefrontal cortex; amplify the volume of your reptilian brain’s firings.

 I could see how people could spend all day in here. It’d be so easy to lose track of time, I think. Day could turn to night and you wouldn’t even know it. Inside the casino there exists a self-contained world—not because you could sustain the illusion that all your needs might be met inside here, but because you could forget that you had them altogether. That is the magic and disconcertingly insidious nature of casinos.

 Disconcerting because some gamblers are whittling down their savings as we speak. Maybe others are throwing away months of hard work for minutes of fleeting pleasure. Janet admits to having often emerged from casinos disoriented and less able to carry out her day-to-day responsibilities.

I recall another passenger I once gave a ride to, who’d said of one of his addictions (Netflix streaming): “It just like takes over my life. I can’t stop after one. My brain’s like ‘Oh, what’s that, you planned to do this and that today? Sorry man but actually, you’re gonna stay right here.’”

As Nathan* and I crossed the Richmond Bridge— blue bay below us, Marin beckoning in the distance while San Francisco glinted to our left—the passenger explained to me that once he started on one, stopping became difficult if not impossible. While he lay captive to the show, all else– his obligations included– fell to the wayside.

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 Dishes piled up in the sink. He rolled joints mindlessly; canceled appointments. As the smell of weed and mold crept into other areas of the house, his housemates grew resentful and begrudging. Nathan simply felt powerless to channel his energy into anything apart from whatever show was demanding his attention.

“It’s just all bad,” he lamented. 

I could commiserate, familiar as I was with how easy it is to let a TV show consume you in its world, to the point that you renounce your own. 

I thought back to my immersion in the last show that drew me in: the multi-layered Orange is the New Black, which I found to be extremely effective at humanizing people that society so often overlooks and writes off.

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Though I had initially set a one to two episode rough limit on myself, I ended up getting sucked in. One hour became seven. A single bowl of popcorn quickly turned into four.  I skipped the gym that night. At five in the morning, I set my alarm and turned off my light, head sieged by and submerged in the characters’ drama, face wet with tears.

Both Nathan and I probably experienced something along the lines of what Jennie Rothenberg Gritz described as “a yucky feeling, like [our] consciousness was being overtaken by the show and [we] wanted to get back to the real world.”

I do much better with sites like Hulu, which–similar to a parent responsibly allotting a child their candy dose as a reward at the end of the day–often doesn’t release all the episodes of a series at once.  

Not only does this stop me from watching the show addictively (by forcing me to pace myself), I also savor it more and am better able to both reflect on the episode afterwards and make predictions about what might happen the following week.

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This is how I feel after staying up until 4 binging Netflix

This brings me to how relative the concept of addiction is. I think many of us have some sort of one. Some of them—like your coffee every morning, or near constant cell phone use— are just seen as more benign than others.

Dr. Gabor Mate writes of “a single ‘addiction process’ that manifests across a continuum of behaviors: the frantic self-soothing of overeaters or shopaholics; the obsessions of gamblers, sexaholics, and compulsive Internet users; or the socially acceptable and even admired behaviors of the workaholic.”

I say this not to make the sweeping, pathologizing claim that everyone is a full-blown Addict, but rather to challenge the polarizing “us versus them” mentality that mainstream society holds towards many groups beyond just addicts. In short, more than I believe that the world consists of addicts and non-addicts, I believe that we all fall somewhere along the “addiction spectrum.”

As author Leslie Jamison writes, “It’s important not to lose our grip on the notion of disease or its physical mechanisms by defining it too broadly, but it’s also true that everyone has longed for something that harms her. I wish we could invoke that universality not to render the boundaries of addiction utterly porous, but to humanize those under its thrall.”

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Healthy things like exercise can be addictive too

In my car today, Janet talks about how gamblers’ addictions all vary in their severity.

“For me, if I part ways with 100 dollars, that’s a bad day. But some of these people plunder thousands—5,000, 10,000, more— they might lose their house, their kids, their everything.”

Her saying this leads me to ask myself: where do we draw the line between willful immersion and beyond one’s control addicted? 

Is addictive behavior at play any time our immersion in an activity leads us to momentarily abandon the remaining structure of our lives?

Is it only ‘not addiction’ if we can connect meaningfully with it without getting sucked in? 

The bottom line for Janet is that she knows her compulsion scoops more from her life than it adds to it (“That’s why I registered myself at all three”).

As she gets out of the car she says to me, half-joking with a laugh and a wink: “Maybe we’ll run into each other again. If it’s at Harpers (one of the casinos)—turn me in to the authorities, please.”

**Check back next week for another entry of Lyft Tales!

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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