Problem Gambling – Lived Experience

By: Brenda McQuillan, Pūkenga Manaaki (Whānau Navigator-Mental Health)


Kia ora koutou, it was my pleasure to give a brief presentation at our last training hui, about problem gambling in Te Tau Ihu. I spoke about the quarterly spends through EGMs (Electronic Gaming Machines) or “pokies", in Class 4 Venues.  There are three classes of EGM Gambling in NZ, Casino, Non-Casino – hotels and clubs and TAB. Te Tau Ihu all have Class 4 Venues.  The breakdown of spend in the most recent quarter by TLA (Territorial Licensing Authority) or council, in Te Tau Ihu were as follows;

Wairau (Marlborough District Council) – April/June 2018 – $2,500,000.00
Whakatū (Nelson City Council) – April/June 2018 - $2,500,000.00
Motueka (Tasman District Council) – April/June 2018 - $1,800,000.00

All these TLAs have similar adult populations of approximately 34,500.

So, these are some of the stats, I want to tell you my personal story and the toll it took on my life and where I am today.

I first started gambling on pokies in 1992 in Australia and I was pretty much hooked right away, I describe it as having a switch go off in head, and there's no turning it off. At first my gambling was manageable but over time it got worse. By 1999 I was in trouble. I was in debt, I was worried all the time and I was facing serious consequences. So, I sought help, I contacted what was then Kawai Clinic AOD services and met psychologist Phil Townsend.  I started seeing him fortnightly and I was able to stop gambling, this was my first attempt. I went well over the next 14 months but then I became complacent, I thought I had it beaten.


One night after work I decided to treat myself and have a flutter on the pokies, $40.00 and half an hour I told myself. Three hours and $300.00 later, I had spent all my pay, I was broke, disappointed, scared and I was back on the gambling roller coaster. And it got bad over the next four years. I was evicted from my flat, I had no phone or landline, my power was disconnected three or four times and I was always anxious and scared.

I also had a beautiful daughter, we always had food and she always had nice clothes and all the things she deserved, but I was so emotionally distant as I was constantly worried about the awful secret I had. I had reached rock bottom.

Back then I needed three things to gamble, time, money and cigarettes. Time was Leah being in school, money was payday and smokes was the other part of my addiction. So, when I woke up on a payday that Leah was at school, I'd wake up with butterflies in my stomach, a dry mouth, no appetite, high blood pressure and pulse and an inability to focus. I would be fixated on gambling. I'd try and talk to other people or other strategies to stop gambling but as soon as the pubs opened at 9.30 am I was there in front of the machine, and that was the only way the anxious feeling would go away. I’d kid myself that I'd limit my pokie spend but that never happened. If I won a jackpot, that gave me no joy, it just meant I could gamble longer. It was unsocial, depressing and soul destroying. My wairua was in so much pain. You know I still tear up as I write this because it really was the most awful time for me and my beautiful girl.

By May 2004 I was spent, I was tired of feeling so beaten down. So, I made an appointment to see Phil Townsend again. I asked him if there was a way I could ban myself from the pokie rooms and as fate would have legislation had just come in that enabled problem gamblers to self-exclude from Class 4 Venues. Phil and I took a grainy photo of me, drafted a letter quoted the section of the 2003 Gambling Act, and sent those out to 23 venues. I self-excluded for two years, the first person in Aotearoa to do so, and it saved me.

I became involved as a Consumer Advisor on Ministerial Advisory Groups, I’ve spoken and presented workshops at various International Gambling Conferences and have done a few media engagements. You see I got mad that my lovely daughter and I had been so affected by my use of a harmful product, so I am speaking out very loudly to whoever will listen about the very real misery and destruction these things cause. And we Māori are four times more likely to experience significant harm, the highest numbers of pokies are in the lowest socio-economic communities where our whanau live.

Today I live a gamble-free life, I've been gamble free for over five years, but I am only one $2.00 coin away from relapse. I'm also smoke free now as well, thanks to the wonderful Te Piki Oranga Quit Coach, Sonia. Thanks, Kare. Life is good, but it also needs to be good for our whānau.

Nga mihi nui, Brenda.