Hannah Walker: ‘Gambling addiction has nothing to do with someone’s character’ | Arrange

HAnnah Walker first noticed that her partner liked to gamble when they went to the pub together: he would rush to the slot machine, while she played quizzes and card games on itbox machines. “But he would stay on the slot much longer, and I would leave the itbox to continue my glass of wine,” she recalls. She thought nothing of it at the time. Much like her enthusiasm for a few glasses of wine, she viewed the occasional game as a vice, but fun and easy to deal with.

Over the next few years, however, unexplained money troubles became a growing feature of the couple’s life. Walker’s partner was constantly glued to his phone, until one day in 2019 he accidentally left it at home. “I knew something was wrong, so I went online and found that so much money had gone into online gambling.” His first reaction was shock, but also shame. “I didn’t want to tell my family and friends about it because my partner is the most wonderful man in the world, but I knew they would judge him for it.”

Like many partners of addicts, Walker was perplexed by the gap between how she viewed her partner – kind, caring, responsible – and how addicts are generally portrayed: as people who are out of control and don’t follow through. advice from an abandoned industry-funded slogan, “When the fun stops, stop”.

As a performance artist, Walker’s remedy has been to turn her experience into a multimedia play, drawing on hours of interviews with addicts, their partners and clinical experts to help her understand how someone she admired so much could be drawn into a costly compulsion. What she took away from these conversations is the central message behind her new show, Gamble: “I’ve learned that gambling addiction has nothing to do with someone’s character.”

Opening at the Northern Stage theater in Walker’s hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne on May 19, Gamble focuses on how websites use manipulation techniques to lure people in. Using video, lights and music, Walker creates an eerie DayGlo dreamscape evoking the flashy colors of sites that promise gamblers harmless fun. Walker, dressed in a suit covered in dollar bills, poses as an industry gatekeeper. “We love taking care of our new customers,” she purrs while offering “free bet” promotions, where many addictions begin.

Hanna Walker. Photography: Richard J. Freeman

For much of the show, Walker’s co-creator Rosa Postlethwaite sits silently on a sofa turned away from the audience. A projection shows her compulsively gambling on her phone, reflecting how online platforms have made addiction a solitary, 24/7 experience.

Gamble’s main plot is autobiographical, tracing Walker’s experience with his partner, from the time of discovery – “I want my £100,000 back!” she cries – to the process of accepting her partner’s condition. She describes how, although he leaves Gamblers Anonymous meetings feeling proud of his progress, she feels horribly anxious about the money that has been spent and doesn’t know how to handle her own feelings.

She and her character are not alone in this regard. Walker has learned that many addicts and their loved ones crave a space to share their experiences. Unlike alcoholism and drug addiction, which are better understood, there are far fewer support groups available.

“There’s such a stigma around addiction, and I don’t know why, but all I know is that the more I talk about my partner having gambled, the more people tell me about their experience and share that a family member or someone they know has played,” she says.

Each Gamble performance will be followed by a Q&A with Matthew Gaskell, Psychologist, Gambling Expert and Clinical Addictions Officer for the NHS Northern Gambling Service. Walker also hosts coffee and cake mornings for people to swap stories. She and Gaskell believe that the shame associated with addiction is a deliberate strategy employed by gambling companies to distance themselves from its wrongdoings and shift the burden of responsibility onto individual players so as not to jeopardize the annual profits of gambling. £5.9 billion from the industry.

“They send the message that addiction ‘has nothing to do with us: you are the problem, you have to take responsibility and control yourself’. It is not by chance that they use these tactics,” Gaskell says. “What’s been passed down to us over the years is the idea that addiction is a moral flaw, a weakness of willpower. This is made worse for the game as less is known about it, it is described as daily entertainment, safe and fun.

Hannah Walker, left, with BSL performer Faye Alvi in ​​Gamble.
Hannah Walker, left, with BSL performer Faye Alvi in ​​Gamble. Photography: Andrew Moore/Shoot Festival

According to Gaskell, only 2-3% of people with a gambling addiction seek help. His patients say it’s because they have no idea it’s a drug- or alcohol-related health problem. This is partly due to increased societal acceptability of gambling, which is therefore not seen as a problem, but also due to a lack of public health messaging telling people how to get help.

Gaskell thinks it’s because the government is in thrall to the gaming industry, labeling it a hobby and placing it under the control of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport rather than the Department. Health and Social Services, which would change the focus on harm reduction. Public health messaging is typically funded by the gaming industry, leaving the public “unaware of its dangers and harms,” ​​he says.

According to Gaskell, this corresponds to a change in culture that has taken place in recent years and which he attributes to the way online platforms have reinvented the image of gambling. “When I was growing up, gambling was crummy, behind ground glass, something that middle-aged men did with the Racing Post under their arm. It certainly wasn’t something that young football fans did; it’s changed – they hijacked youth culture and made it a cool thing.

He sees irony in the resistance to supercasinos in the 2000s, which were shut down following public outcry. “Fast forward a few years and everyone’s got a supercasino in their pocket… The fast, continuous forms of play are where the harm lies,” he explains. This is because slow events – the purchase of a national lottery ticket, for example – are less likely to push people into a “hot state” in which they lose control and continue betting, even if they lose. money.

Walker’s piece coincides with a pivotal moment for the industry. This month, the government is expected to release a much-awaited white paper on gambling, which addiction experts hope will introduce tougher regulation of the online market, including restrictions on advertising and controls. accessibility, as well as preventing industry from funding research and the public. health messages, as big tobacco companies did in the past. “The whole thing almost has to be torn up and started over,” Gaskell says. “The evil is so severe and pervasive that previous laws are simply not fit for purpose.”

The power of Walker’s show lies in its own emotional journey. “When I first discovered [my partner was gambling], I was in shock, and in my head I was like, ‘If it happens again, I’m leaving, I have a baby.’ But when my partner relapsed, it was so different, my emotional state at that time. I was like, ‘OK, it happened, but what you’re feeling now must be so shitty and so low that I completely sympathize with you, and we’ll get through this.’

“I think if I hadn’t started doing the show or doing research, we potentially wouldn’t be together.”

Gamble is at the Northern Stage, Newcastle upon Tyne, 19 to May 21. If you are concerned about your gambling or that of a loved one, visit BeGambleAware.org or call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133.

Luz W. German