I frantically searched through my wallet, brushing by faded receipts and pennies caked with dirt from the number of hands they have grazed over the years. It had to be in here. I hadn’t touched my wallet since my waitressing shift the night before. There was no way the dozens of crumpled-up twenties I earned during my 12-hour shift could be anywhere else.
Despite my frantic searching, I knew where my $300 cash-out from the night before was. It was sitting in the Harrah’s Resort and Casino in Atlantic City waiting to be gambled away one Pawn Star slot machine at a time.
My friends know Atlantic City as a place to let loose for the weekend. I see it as a place that is tearing my family apart.
It all started in 2007 when my mother decided to give up her 18-year-long stint as a hairdresser at The Hair Cuttery in order to jump on the bandwagon of a start-up hair extensions company that managed to land Paris Hilton as their spokesperson. The company, ironically called Dream Catchers, encouraged hairdressers to purchase zip codes for a thousand dollars a pop to create their own empire for selling hair extensions to salons in that area. This was the perfect opportunity for my mom, who was also dealing with chronic pancreatitis, because it gave her the ability to mold her work schedule around her illness. Twenty zip codes, a Sally Mae loan worth 10 grand and half my college savings fund later, my mother was officially sucked into the scheme.
At the time, my whole family supported my mom’s decision to buy into Dream Catchers because it seemed like a low-risk situation. However, it soon became apparent that purchasing zip codes was a big fat scam and my family was never going to see our $20,000 investment again.
Our family took a huge hit. Saturday night dinners out in King of Prussia were replaced with heated up leftovers from Thursday night’s shepherd’s pie. Laughter around a Maggiano’s booth turned into one-word conversations that resulted in screaming matches between my parents. My mother would storm out, disappearing for days at a time.
During this time, the only time I spoke to my mother was when she was complaining about how cheap my dad was. “Don’t you hate how he never lets us do anything that we use to?” she would say. Eventually, resentment started building up against my father and I started to blame him. It wasn’t until Christmas of 2012 when I learned the full story.
I woke up on Christmas morning expecting to be met with the smell of pancakes coming from the kitchen of the wooden cottage where we spent the holidays every year. Coming this year was a stretch, but my family made it work with the help of the restaurant jobs my brother and had I taken the summer before.
I entered the kitchen only to find out my mother was bed-ridden, suffering withdrawal pains from the Percocet she was on to manage her pancreatitis. She told my brother and I multiple times that she had just left her pills at home, assuring us it was just a simple mistake. Turns out, my mother had been suffering from a gambling addiction since the summer after the Dream Catchers scheme. A week before Christmas in 2012, she had sold her Percocet to fund a stint at whatever one of the Atlantic City casinos her heart was set on that week.
In addition to the casinos, my mom became addicted to lottery scratch-offs to feed her addiction when she couldn’t make it to a casino in person. Since learning about her problem, I have had hundred of dollars stolen from me. I would waitress until 12 a.m. and my money would be gone the next morning when I woke up. I’ve learned to lock all my cash in the glove compartment of my car and to never bring anything in the house.
My dad has been forced to hide all of his credit cards from my mom after she maxed them all out, and he has alerts sent to him every time his card is used so he can very closely monitor his accounts. I’ve stopped trusting anything my mom says after being lied to time after time about how she is going to Gamblers Anonymous.
Dealing with my mom’s gambling is mentally draining. Anytime I refuse to lend her money, she explodes, saying that the reason our family is in debt is because of my college tuition. My dad has tried multiple times to get her professional help, but there is only so much he can do -- Pennsylvania’s mental health laws require the patient’s consent. My mom has sworn up and down that she put her name on a casino blacklist, which we know is a lie every week when our mailbox gets littered with circulars from every casino within a 50-mile radius. (Putting yourself on a voluntary casino blacklist prevents this type of junk mail from being sent.)
I know as well as the rest of my family that I should cut my mother off. Show her tough love to force her to end her gambling once and for all. But I can’t. Despite the outlandish lies and intense screaming matches, I find myself defending her.
As someone who has suffered from severe anxiety and depression, I can only imagine the turmoil that this addiction is causing my mother. For now I will continue to wrestle with how I can support her without enabling her.