It’s during the quiet and difficult stretches of a long-distance campaign walk when it really hits home. I’m not just thinking about aching limbs or the distance remaining until a well-earned pint – in reality, I’m thinking about how lucky I am. About my family and friends. About the unimaginable pain that some of the other brave folk on the walk are carrying. In this loneliness are the echoes of a gambling addiction – a cruel, isolating addiction which can take absolutely everything from you in an instant.
But when walking with The Big Step, the toot of a car horn, or a pat on the back from someone you’re walking with, reminds you you’re not alone. It’s a selfless, uplifting community of likeminded people. They’re driven and courageous and they leave me thinking… ‘what’s another 20 miles?’
My name’s Will and I’m a recovering gambling addict. It all started with an innocent £1 bet on the weekend football. A persistent barrage of advertising (£1.5bn a year is spent on gambling advertising in the UK) told me it was a risk-free activity, and why wouldn’t I believe in a product that all the major football clubs and players were promoting.
Within a remarkably short amount of time, I was gambling any money I could lay my hands on and ripping apart my relationships and self-worth in the process. I was a tornado of destruction – picking things up when I needed them and dumping them when I was finished. All that remained was a trail of pain that would go on for 12 long years.
Gambling and the link with football
It wasn’t just fuelled by me, however. The football clubs and players I followed throughout my childhood are just a mask for a dark, faceless industry. An industry that preyed upon my love of football and cross sold me addictive products such as online casinos and slots, which carry addiction or at-risk rates of up to 45%. An industry that takes 409 lives every year in England alone, while raking in £14bn in profit last year.
By the time I knew something was wrong, it was too late. Gambling addiction is cruel. It speaks only to those going through it. It controlled every aspect of my life and all the time, unbeknownst to me, my mental health was deteriorating further and further.
I sometimes sat back and looked at myself, usually after a particularly bad ‘session’ at the online casino, wondering ‘how had such a happy and loving teenager become a selfish, and quite frankly, emotionally stunted man?’ By the end, I’d lay awake at night and comfort myself with the thought that suicide would end the pain for me and those closest to me.
I’m lucky. I managed to climb out of this darkness and over the last few years I’ve worked hard, with the help of many people, on my recovery. I take nothing for granted. During this time, I found The Big Step campaign group – calling for an end to gambling advertising and sponsorship in football.
When I was first contacted by James Grimes, the founder of The Big Step, I thought ‘this is right up my street’. The cause was instantly something I was prepared to support, and I’ve always loved hiking. But what I also found was a group of people who instantly understood me. We all have one thing in common and one goal – to stop anyone going through what we did.
Moving forward step by step
This year has been a busy one for The Big Step and I’ve been lucky to take part in each walk. My first was in February – over 60 miles from Edinburgh to Glasgow. Yes. Over 60 miles in Scotland, in February. Being met head on with a bracing prevailing wind each day was tough, but it showed the commitment of everyone involved.
Alas, I also soon realised how much I had overestimated my walking ability. Long-distance walking is not something to take lightly. On the last day of the event, I was not so much walking, but demonstrating a jog crossed with a waddle.
My second was in July – over 40 miles from Manchester to Liverpool in memory of Ryan Myers, who took his own life due to a gambling addiction. It was an emotional but powerful event, observing a minute’s silence at each football ground on the route to remember those who have taken their lives due to gambling addiction.
The latest walk was in October – walking with Kay Wadsworth in memory of her daughter Kimberly, who also sadly took her own life due to gambling addiction. It was a hilly 40 miles starting in Sheffield and ending at Elland Road in Leeds – Kimberly’s football team. As always there was widespread support for our efforts and this event was a reminder that gambling addiction is not just a male issue – the industry does not discriminate and can harm anyone, with women increasingly at risk.
There are too many people in the UK needlessly suffering from this silent addiction. I tell my story to spread awareness and to pass on hope to others who may be going through it. What’s clear is that an overhaul of gambling regulation is needed. It’s too late for many. But we’ll keep walking and talking until something is done. Something that will mean no more pain and harm is caused to hundreds of thousands more people in the future.
For more information about The Big Step campaign and to sign the petition to kick gambling ads out of football, please visit their website here and the linked campaign Gambling with Lives. If you have been affected by this article and would like to talk to someone about a gambling addition, the charity GamCare is a good place to start. When you’re ready to talk, they’re ready to listen.