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‘All it can do is hurt people,’ wife says of expanded gambling

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Suzi Flanagan Wright’s husband liked to gamble every now and then and, early on, she’d gamble with him and use the winnings to help pay off her student loan. They regarded it as no big deal — they were just among the millions of Americans who gamble as a hobby.

But then things changed, leaving Suzi to deal with raising a child while her husband went to prison for embezzlement. She also faced large gambling debts and the ongoing challenge of loving an addicted gambler.

Her struggle began innocently enough.

“One time I had left him at home and gone to Lexington to pick up his sister, and I had only left him with enough money to buy stuff for Thanksgiving dinner,” Wright, a member of First Baptist Church in Pikeville, Ky., said. “And I told him, ‘I’m just leaving you with enough money. Don’t you dare buy any lottery tickets.’”

Soon after she returned from the 280-mile round trip, Wright’s husband revealed that he had won $10,000 on a $2 lottery ticket, “and that got him hooked,” she said. The momentum of those earnings propelled him to more frequent gambling at higher stakes, including trips to off-track betting parlors as far away as Charleston, W.Va.

The temptation grew worse when a betting parlor, where numerous television screens allow gamblers to bet on various horse races from a central location, opened in Prestonsburg, Ky. Wright said when the closest gambling source was in Charleston, her husband would not go as often. But when one opened about 25 miles from where he lived, the temptation was too great.

Now, with two bills before the Kentucky legislature for the expansion of gambling, Wright fears the temptation to gamble will hit a little too close to home for more Kentucky families like hers.

“It’s very, very hard when you have a gambling addiction to not go. It’s like if you were a diabetic and you couldn’t have ice cream and you moved right beside Baskin-Robbins,” Wright said. “The only Baskin-Robbins we’ve got right now is in Lexington, but every time I go to Lexington I go to Baskin-Robbins. If I had one in town, I’d eat there every day.”

Wright said that her husband realized he needed to stop gambling and visited a psychiatrist who prescribed a heavy dose of Prozac. For him, the drug only made the gambling worse.

“It went to the point where he started taking money at work,” Wright said. “He opened credit cards in my name and ran up balances. He would write checks on me. He would do anything he could to get his money, and then he embezzled money from work and that wound him up in jail.”

Wright’s husband spent 20 months in prison when their son was just over 2 years old, and he missed many crucial moments in the child’s early life, she said.

During her husband’s incarceration, Wright and her son became very involved in First Baptist Church in Pikeville. The family has found comfort and support through the church — support they continue to draw on.

Although the prison sentence got Wright’s husband’s attention, it wasn’t enough to stop the gambling.

“It’s a hard habit to break. He would be the first to tell you. Even coming out of jail, it was hard not to gamble,” Wright said.

To make matters worse during her husband’s recovery, another off-track betting parlor opened in Pikeville. That means the temptation to gamble now is nearly at his doorstep, Wright said.

Gambling has wrought damage on her family that may never be repaired, Wright said, and sometimes she lives moment to moment just trying to trust her husband not to bring on more debt.

“It’s just been a big mess. It’s been seven years, and I really don’t think I’m any better off,” she said. “… I’m still paying on everything because I had to mortgage my home, I had to pay off all of those credit cards, I’ve got five and six and seven years left on bills.

“What makes me so mad is it takes away from my child,” she said. “I make really good money, but you’d never know I had a dime because I have to pay it all out. [My husband] isn’t working. Nobody will hire him and it’s just a mess. And [my son] doesn’t understand. How do you explain it to a child?”

But through it all, she hasn’t left her husband because she realizes that gambling has had control of him rather than him controlling it.

“Gambling is an illness. It’s a sickness. It’s no different than cancer,” she said. “[My husband] and I both have diabetes, which is an illness. All of these things happen. How would you like to go through something like that being that sick, and your spouse walk off just because they don’t want to deal with it?”

Despite claims by gambling supporters, Wright has seen firsthand that it doesn’t benefit schools. In addition to working fulltime, she volunteers often at her son’s elementary school because the school system can’t afford to hire people to help them, she said.

“I don’t see expanded gambling helping anything at all. I think all it can do is hurt people,” Wright said. “… It will absolutely ruin more lives than it will help. I’m here to tell you that.”
For more facts related to the impact of gambling on families and for tips on how to oppose efforts to expand gambling, go to http://www.kybaptist.org/publicaffairs.

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  • Erin Roach