By: Dave Yeager
US Army Veteran, Recovering Compulsive Gambler
I remember the holidays, the period between Thanksgiving and the start of the new year as probably the darkest time of the year for me. This is supposed to be a time when families come together and share food, and gifts, and stories, and love. None of this was true for me. For almost five years, while on active duty in the Army, I struggled. I struggled with stress, fear, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. I spent the better part of that time away from my family, and as a leader in a high stress environment, and was taught to set my feelings aside to drive on with the mission. I felt more alone during that period than I had in my entire life. But I couldn’t tell anyone that because to admit that would be to show weakness. So, I gambled. It was readily available to me and offered and escape from what I didn’t want to deal with. I developed a serious gambling addiction which got me in trouble, and ultimately released from the Army.
I was released from active duty with no idea how to deal with the pain I was carrying. I hurt. I felt lost. I didn’t sleep for days at a time. I lost weight, a lot of weight. I thought I could tough it out. After all, that’s what the Army taught me to do, “suck it up and drive on”. But each time I would get around family during the holidays I felt more distant. No one could possibly understand the hurt, the shame, the embarrassment, I was going through, no one! I felt trapped. I was down the rabbit hole and didn’t see a way out. When someone would notice how distant I was, they would ask if I was okay. My answer was always the same, “I’m good”. I went to bed every night hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next day. When I kept waking up, I eventually tried to end things myself. I tried this four times, three of these times were during the holidays. In hindsight I think it was a scream for help, even though I was convinced no one would understand anyway. I never felt so trapped. I disconnected from everyone I loved. In part, this was because I had alienated, lied to, or isolated from just about everyone. I avoided family and friends during the holidays, while still hoping they would give me gifts that would help me to continue feeding my addiction.
I reached a point where I loathed the holidays. I wanted nothing to do with them. The holidays were for normal, happy people, not crazy people like me that no one could ever understand. I had more thoughts of ending everything and gambled more between November and January than I did at any other time of the year.
I am nowhere near alone. Veterans, who have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and (like me) addictions like gambling can be more heavily impacted during the holidays. Gambling, and other addictions often feel like they provide an escape from these unwanted feelings. The problem comes when the binge is over and the shame, guilt, and regrets kick in. These feelings get piled on to an already heavy dose of depression and anxiety and make the season even less bright. I can remember seeing people at a mall or on the street and thinking “why can’t I just be normal like them?” It can be a painful and heavy time of year, and it can feel like it’s never going to end. But I’m here to tell you, there’s hope!
The first thing I think anyone in this situation needs to realize is that you are not alone. I remember thinking that no one could ever understand the crazy thoughts going through my head, the crazy things I was feeling, or the crazy things I did. This is simply not true. Once I started to let go, and seek help, I came to realize there were more people who “got it” than I ever knew. I think that’s one of the keys to overcoming the holiday blues, connection. Find a way to connect with others who get it. It could be a 12-step group like alcoholics or gamblers anonymous. It could be smart recovery or recovery Darma. It could be a veterans’ group like a PTSD group. Just make a connection because the power in a group of people with similar visions is far greater than any individual in that group. Seek recovery. If, as in my case, gambling or some other addiction seems in control, find treatment as quickly as possible. This is a huge step because it involves admitting there’s a problem and being willing to face that problem head-on. Finally, embrace the suck! Stepping into a different way of doing things requires learning a new way of thinking, and believing, and doing. Be willing to get uncomfortable for a bit. That doesn’t last forever. As you start to understand you better, and make connections, and step into recovery, it becomes more natural. It’s kind of like breaking in a new pair of shoes…or boots.
Here’s the bottom line. There is hope. There is a better way. We don’t need to suffer holiday blues. We need to acknowledge, become willing, and step into a new way of doing things, and the holidays can be bright again.
My name is Dave. I am an eleven -year veteran of the U.S. Army, and in recovery for a gambling addiction.