Chasing the Win: Iowan speaks out about gambling addict - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Chasing the Win: Eastern Iowan speaks out about gambling addiction

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WATERLOO (KWWL) -

Casino gambling in Iowa has been legal for more than two decades.

Industry officials say casinos provide a $1 billion impact to the state and pay $340 million in state taxes but some say gambling has ruined lives.

They point to Iowans who are deep in debt, have strained relationships with family and friends, may have lost their jobs, or even worse, gone to jail to try and feed their gambling addiction.

Even the casinos say they don't want gamblers to be in over their heads.

They help fund services to treat gambling addicts and provide prevention and education throughout the year.

But it's still up to the individual to seek help.

Merry Elliott is a retired nurse, a mother of three daughters, and a gambling addict.

Slots were her game of choice and it nearly killed her.

"I was depressed, suicidal, desperate, felt like there was nothing I could do to get out of the situation. I was having financial difficulties. I just felt hopeless," said Elliott.

Elliott says she went to the casino alone and got her high from the sights and sounds, the flashing lights, the bells and tones of the casino floor.

She says she just couldn't stop herself.

"I found that I was chasing the win. Once I won, even if I won a little bit, I'd keep playing, thinking I would win again and when I didn't, I'd play until all my money was gone," said Elliott.

She's in treatment now.

She crochets, spends quality time with her dog Lucy, and volunteers to keep herself from sliding back to her old life.

"We're celebrating every success a client has and every day they're able to abstain is one more opportunity to get stronger in their recovery process," said Debra Buckner of Pathways Behavioral Services in Waterloo.

Buckner says quitting gambling is an individual decision but resources to help are there for free.

"We're wanting to talk to people about how they're thinking about gambling and then help them deliver a list of the pros and cons of continuing that behavior and along with that, giving people the hope that they have the capacity to change," said Buckner.

Providers partner with the Iowa Dept. of Public Health and 18 state-licensed casinos on awareness, education, and prevention.

"It's important that every person who feels like they need help, we want to be able to have the programs and make sure they're well-funded and have that ongoing interaction to encourage people to bet with their head and not over it and go to a casino for the fun and entertainment it's intended to be but to help someone get help that certainly needs it," said Wes Ehrecke, President and CEO of the Iowa Gaming Association.

Now, Elliott is getting help.

And she wants others who need it to follow in her footsteps to get treatment.

"Look honestly at what your gambling habits are and if it seems like there's a problem in any area of your life, I would suggest you get help before it gets to the point where you're desperate and suicidal and where your life is in shambles," said Elliott.

Elliott is now working with financial counselors on a debt reduction plan over the next three years.

She hasn't gone to a casino in nearly 8 months and won't after signing up for the state's voluntary exclusion program.

Iowa is one of only two states where that's a lifetime ban.

Industry officials say they think having a lifetime ban might actually sway people not to sign up because their circumstances may be more situational.

They think more people might sign up for a ban of 5 years.

Any change would have to be approved by the legislature.

The gambling addiction hotline is 1-800-BETS-OFF.  It's staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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