By Nathalie Hardy • Columnist • 

Betting on recovery

Anna Naef/News-Register
Anna Naef/News-Register

Lisa Berenbaum shifts her slender frame, fidgets uncomfortably in her chair and momentarily shutters her blue eyes as she recalls the first time she got her first taste of casino gambling 33 years ago.

She was just 14, and she was enthralled. For her, it amounted to finding the secret passageway to a splendid new life, far removed from the destructive one she endured in her family.

It was an allure she may have inherited from her dad, a problem gambler himself.

By day, she attended a private, Christian school. By night — left to her own devices by a dad obsessed with gambling and a mom with providing for the family — she answered the siren call of the casino.

She reveled in the fantasy of winning her way out of reality. But it didn’t take long for that fantasy to morph into its own special kind of hell — one that would nearly come to claim her life.

Nineteen months ago — she’s keeping track — Berenbaum became one of 1,500 problem gamblers voluntarily seeking treatment in Oregon. That puts her in elite company, as the state is home to an estimated 81,000 problem gamblers in all.

The local caseload falls to behavior specialist Carolyn Simeone of the Yamhill County Health Department. The county is reimbursed by the state lottery, which is under legislative mandate to help men and women struggling to cope with gambling addictions.

“All they have to do is call and we can help them,” Simeone said.

But she said many don’t understand that gambling is like any other destructive addiction — that a person who gambles compulsively needs help to stop, reboot his or her system and get into recovery. Others, she said, realize they have a problem but don’t realize that help is available at no charge.

Berenbaum is uncomfortable talking about her problem — uncomfortable to the point her hands quake and her voice quavers. But she figures its worth the ordeal if telling her story helps even one other find a path out of addiction.

“My father was a compulsive gambler,” she said. “We moved to Las Vegas when I was 8, and it was all around me all the time.

“There were gambling machines in all the stores. Even Walmart had them. Literally the minute you step off the airplane, there’s gambling everywhere.”

Her dad’s addiction defined her childhood, as it did those of her two older siblings. Each adjusted to a role predestined in a dysfunctional family.

It was not unusual for Berenbaumto be tasked with tracking her dad down at the gaming tables and begging him for enough money to buy a gallon of milk. Yet she, too, fell for the lure bright lights and big wins.

She still remembers the day she first took a turn at the tables herself, at the precocious age of 14. She found it “”frightening,” but also “exhilarating.” 

She has to check herself when she describes that initial thrill. It serves as a trigger for her compulsion, and that makes it dangerous.

Even though she’s now in recovery, and determined to remain in recovery, she is still susceptible to triggers.

Simeone said she probably always will be. “It’s just that, with time and practice, she will become so adept at managing them it will be second nature,” Simeone said.

“I remember the feel of putting money on the blackjack table and thinking, ‘How hard could it be to count to 21?’” Berenbaum recalled. “I lost three times, and then it became a challenge.

“My entire paycheck was gone in 20 minutes. But, you know what?

“My wheels were already turning, trying to see how I could get that money back. I needed to get my money back.”

At the time, the teenager  was delivering pizzas for a Domino’s franchise at $6.25 an hour, plus tips. She dreamed of winning big, thinking it would transport her to a magical new place.

“I had an overwhelming, driving desire, like some kind of force, to escape the hurt in my family life by entering this fantasy world,” she said. “I imagined winning big, which would, you know, change things for me.

“When it doesn’t happen, and reality sets in, you try to figure out, ‘How am I going to get more money to stay gone longer next time?’

“For me, reality was chaos and dysfunction. I would rather have the fantasy of the big win.”

Berenbaum began visiting the casino every payday — and in between, whenever tip money permitted.

She left home as soon as she turned 18, moving in with the manager of the pizza outlet. After working as a driver for a while, she won entree to the management training program.

It wasn’t long before Berenbaum realized she’d traded a dysfunctional father for an abusive partner. But by then, she was married, pregnant and committed to accompanying him on a move out of state.

He turned her on to poker, and they both played avidly. That fueled her budding addiction, which once again began to serve as a means of escaping an excruciating reality.

The couple made enough money in a lucky streak at the tables to franchise Domino’s outlets in Texas and Kansas. But their luck turned, as it inevitably will, and they went bankrupt. 

By then, they had two young children to support. They decided to return to Vegas, train as dealers and take work in a casino world they already knew well.

Indian casinos were beginning to really take off then, and they found they could make more at tribal venues than they could at Vegas gambling houses. They tried their hand first at a tribal casino in Arizona, but lit out for Oregon when Spirit Mountain opened in 1998. 

Berenbaum wanted to stay put there. She wanted her kids to have roots, something she lacked as a child of a gambling-addicted father who moved ever few months, having inevitably lost the rent money at the tables.

But within a few years, her husband was ready to move on. And he ended up moving on without her in 2004.

Experiencing more freedom than ever before, she lost all restraint and took her gambling to a new level. Tears welling up at the thought, she admitted neglecting her children to stay on at the casino after her shift and spend everything she had just made.

Berenbaum said she would occasionally experience winning streaks. She once pocketed $12,000, she said, but quickly ran through it.

“Gambling changes your brain like cocaine does,” she said. “I played day in, day out and went through all that money.

“Money became a unit of measurement of how far I could stay away from my problems. It was a doorway out of my life.”

After four years of all-out, unrestrained gambling, Berenbaum decided she’d have to find a way to make a living outside the industry if she was ever  going to kick the compulsion. There was just one problem; she was accustomed to making up to $50 an hour. 

She ended up settling for significantly less just to get out. But she still wasn’t able to kick the habit, not immediately.

It took several forces to do that — a return to the religious faith of her youth, the stirrings of a new and much more constructive relationship and an admission that she was caught in the throes of an addiction requiring professional help.

Berenbaum said the turnaround began with her trying to get right with God again. Despite graduating from a Christian high school, she had totally lost her faith by the time she turned 18. And it took her 25 years to find it again.

Meanwhile, she met a guy on her night-shift job who displayed a continuing interest in her, despite her best efforts to ward him off.

Nothing personal, she told him, but between an absent dad and abusive husband, she’d had enough of men. Her ability to trust had been crushed.

Though he got off an hour before she did, he would stay behind every day to help her clean up. Eventually, he wore her down and she took him up on an invitation to an after-work breakfast.

“We talked about everything,” she said, and capping the graveyard shift with a sunrise breakfast became a regular thing. And she said, “The longer we talked, the closer we got.”

She recalled, “I was so afraid of getting into another bad relationship.” But she said, “He’s a true Boy Scout, one of the last ones around who is loving and polite and treats a woman like a woman. That’s what helped me heal.”

She said it took three months of breakfast chats before she agreed to go on an actual date.

He took her out for a play date on a 4-wheeler quad, and she had to hug him tight to stay on. “He’s a smart man,” she said, laughing.

Though their relationship deepened to the point where they decided to marry, Berenbaum kept hiding her addiction as best she could.

“I lied as a way of protecting myself, so that others couldn’t see what was really happening beneath the mask I wore,” she said. “If I allowed others to see the real me, then I would have to face the real me.

“I just couldn’t look at all the guilt and shame. It threatened to destroy me.”

A series of roller-coaster events brought everything to a head.

Berenbaum suffered a back injury at work and was let go. She sued for wrongful termination and eventually won a large settlement.

She bought a car with a portion of the proceeds. Then, true to form, she gambled away the rest.

Berenbaum thought she saw a way to get it back.

Her husband had been saving up to take them on a vacation. If she used it to stake her at the casino, she could earn back what she had lost, then return his money without anyone being the wiser.

Three hours later, it was was gone, all gone.

“When I got back into the car, I knew I only had two choices. I could come clean with him or I could kill myself,” she said, eyes brimming.

Berenbaum had finally hit bottom. She came clean and promised to get help.

She followed through by dialing 1-877-MYLIMIT, which connected her with Simeone.

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