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Sporting Highs and Lows - Episode Two with Chris Wood

Our new podcast series, Sporting Highs and Lows, looks at the mental health issues that can develop in the professional sporting world.

In the second episode, host Luke Sutton speaks to cricketer Chris Wood about the gambling addiction he developed while playing professional cricket, causing disruption to his relationships, self-esteem and finances for over a decade.

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Unlike many other sports players who have talked about mental health issues after retiring, Chris is still playing, which Luke acknowledges as even more admirable in its bravery. Priory Addictions Therapist, Pamela Roberts, joins them to discuss how the sports industry can all too often drive players into issues with mental health, if they don’t have proper support.

“Like all the bricks in my rucksack for so long were getting taken out”

Chris told the world about his addiction earlier this year. He now feels that making the announcement was one of the most uplifting things he ever did, after battling his gambling issues for 11 years. He says that after the addiction took over his whole life, he’s grateful to now have had gambling addiction treatment and be in a position in recovery to feel comfortable sharing his experience with others, who may be suffering like he did.

Chris understood that there can be judgement in society, but the reception to his admission was much better than he expected. Most importantly, he says he was finally at a place where he could move on and ‘be comfortable with me’.

“I found a relationship with it very quickly…it became my safe place”

Chris’s gambling started when he was 17, going to the bookies with his friends on a Saturday and putting £10 on a roulette machine. He found that it was another way to get a ‘buzz’ similar to that from sports and cricket, when he wasn’t playing.

There were events in Chris’s childhood that he identifies as being a source of pain he needed escape from. He was resentful and angry about his mum leaving the family home when he was eight years old, which affected his performance at school. He spent his years in education just wanting to leave, and constantly skipped classes. When he eventually started gambling, he knew he’d found a security and a safe place he’d been yearning for.

When Chris got his first professional contract, his gambling increased significantly as he felt he could do whatever he liked with the money he was earning. In contrast to many stories of gambling addictions taking a while to develop, Chris’s habit grabbed him straight away. Whenever he wasn’t at cricket, he was always searching for the thrill which playing gave him; gambling was a way to fill that void.

Gambling used to be his best friend, Chris says. If he won, he’d tell himself “Well done, you’ve won – go and celebrate with a bet”; or if he lost, he’d think “What can I do now? – Go and place a bet to feel better.”

The risks of reaching rock bottom before being ready

Chris realised relatively early that his gambling had left him ‘stuck’, with no other option than to seek help in 2013. After losing all the money he won from two prize championships in 2012, to the sum of £10-15,000, he reached out for the first time and told his dad what had happened. However, he says that his dad’s reaction, while well-meaning, was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened as he bailed Chris out financially, before he was willing to give up gambling that money away again.

Chris undertook therapy at the urging of his family, but he says neither that nor the ‘telling-off’ from his dad was enough – even though he’d identified that he had a serious issue, he still wasn’t ready to stop gambling.

Chris says that when he first started playing, there was a culture of gambling which made it commonplace, with bets encouraged and celebrated. Many senior people would openly talk about putting bets on and everyone in the changing rooms constantly talked about it too. This only made Chris more reluctant to stop.

When Chris had his first course of counselling in 2013, they told him to become open about his problem. He sat his teammates and coaches down and told them about what he was doing in therapy, but he didn’t mean what he was saying: “I was just doing the actions of treatment.” From that day, Chris’s gambling continued but it became very different; after telling everyone he was seeking help, nobody knew about his gambling anymore. It would always be hidden behind his phone or alone at the bookmakers.

As a result, everyone thought that Chris had stopped gambling. A couple of people knew that he had relapses but they thought that was the extent of it, rather than realising he had been continuing as before the whole time. He says he was just ‘carrying on the act’ and didn’t want to ever be caught. “Perhaps if I’d been caught, I would’ve stopped earlier than I wanted to.”

“Are people going to like me now?”

Chris says he felt that his gambling contributed to his identity, so he was fearful of losing that. “I was always one of those in the changing room giving out tips, talking about what I was betting on and how much I was winning.”

This part of himself was something Chris struggled with turning his back on. He now finds it easier to cope with people talking about gambling around him, but in the changing rooms or pub pre-recovery, he didn’t feel he could ask people not to discuss it. Being vulnerable and in the height of his addiction, Chris got an adrenaline rush just from the talk of gambling – “It was like being around it 24/7.”

Chris found the process of openly saying he didn’t want to be that person anymore tough. Even though he recognised that gambling had created an immaturity and dishonesty in him, he still wondered whether his best friends of 10-15 years would think he was a ‘loser’ if he stopped his habit.

He wondered if people would still like him, due to a paradox in a professional sports environment with gambling: “It’s the thing which makes you in the group and then it’s the thing that drags you out of the group.” So as he felt his addiction centred him firmly within his own group, Chris battled with the choice of whether to just hide it or to do his own thing.

“Addiction is an ever-decreasing circle”

Chris says that at the start of an addiction, you don’t even know you’re on a journey downwards – “It’s just moving slowly around you and it tightens and tightens; as you get to the bottom it’s too late – you know it’s there and it’s done.” People would tell him he just needed to control it and he would hear them, but would still struggle with doing what he knew was necessary.

One of the toughest periods of Chris’s life was in 2016, when he had a second knee operation two games into the season, which was going to put him out for the rest of the season. He was in the last year of his contract and didn’t know if he’d get another one – three years previously he’d had another knee operation, so he was missing a lot of cricket through injury. The operation had him bedridden for eight weeks, when he couldn’t put his right leg down as it was in a machine all day. Chris’s gambling then became very erratic, as he also suffered with depression, anxiety and insomnia. He was placing bets all through the night, as he just needed something to sedate how he was feeling – “That thing was always gambling.”

With cricket taken away from him and not knowing know if he’d ever play again, Chris began to rely on it more than ever to get him through the day. After things got so bad that he was once again in serious debt, Chris realised that was the first moment things changed in his mind set. He previously saw gambling solely as a financial issue, and always believed that if he could win back the money he’d lost, he could move on with his life. In 2016, however, he knew he needed to reach out for help with his mental health, which he did. He still continued to gamble for a couple of years, but this time, it was more indifferently and less frequently.

“You have to go deeper before you can go forward.”

Chris walked into the betting shop in 2018 with that familiar buzz of doing something he knew he shouldn’t. His partner knew he had an addiction but wasn’t aware of the fact that he was gambling at that time. As he walked out of the shop on that particular occasion, he realised that the feeling he usually got from gambling had completely gone. He didn’t even care if the bet won or lost; he was simply drained with it all.

Chris went home that day and lay on his bed for an hour and a half, uncontrollably crying. He finally realised that he needed to do something about his gambling once and for all, for both himself and everyone around him. Luckily, he now had the determination to see it through. He never placed another bet again after that day in December.

Fast-forward to today and Chris realises that he was never going to stop until he absolutely wanted to. By reaching out and telling the world, that solidified his promise to give up. He says that looking back, he would be tempted to tell the version of himself from seven years ago to snap out of it; but he also knows that it isn’t as simple as that. Even if others can recognise that someone’s struggling, nobody can force someone under the grip of addiction to address their problem until they’re ready.

“You’re definitely a product of your environment”

Chris says there is an old-fashioned drinking culture in cricket that goes hand-in-hand with the excesses of gambling. This culture has always endorsed unhealthy habits, and players are almost expected to indulge in them. However, he does see the change in a world becoming more aware of risks to mental health, along with more young people choosing not to drink.

Gambling is still a huge risk to sportspeople, though. As Chris attests, the physical effects of drinks or drugs make it apparent when someone has an issue – quite the opposite with gambling, which can be easily concealed. This is why it’s the fastest-growing addiction, which is becoming very dangerous to society in general.

The overall attitude to gambling in all sports is quite blasé, Chris believes. He says that a lot more needs to done, as sport is being actively identified as one of the high-risk sectors for this issue. It needs ‘everyone to pull together and put in a big effort’. The PCS give talks once a year and inform players that there are places around which can help, but Chris questions whether this is enough.

 “When you start doing life as you should be, life gives back to you.”

Chris says he’s discovered a huge amount in recovery, and places particular value in his newfound appreciation for honesty and ‘other traits which we should all have as individuals anyway.’

He believed for so long that life was against him, and now that he’s doing things right in society, good things are coming to him too. Recovery has changed Chris ‘massively’ as a person, he says, bringing out the person he always was. He says that addiction masked it all and “made me into someone I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy”.

Chris is grateful for the fact that he sits here today, after two years in recovery, and goes through his day not having to worry that gambling is going to mask how he’s feeling. Now that he has a sponsor to lean on, he talk about his emotions, rather than running from his feelings and leaning on gambling.

The link between sport and addiction

Pamela Roberts discusses Chris’s impulsivity during his addiction, which is associated with typical gambling behaviour. She says she imagines that there’s nothing as stimulating as winning a game, which understandably results in a need to self-medicate to numb out the bad days.

The change of identity is something else Pamela understands in Chris’s story: “The way you self-medicate your anger in the bookies eventually becomes its own problem, then there’s an isolation where you’re less able to manage that crutch. The psycho-social element of this is how you make those adjustments, how you deal with camaraderie and team membership without the crutch, in a very intense situation.”

She says that the experience of having an addiction can be deeply traumatising, particularly when there is a need to keep it all a secret, which internalises the problem and makes it its own mental health issue. This then makes the need to gamble even more vital, so people then get stuck in the cycle.

She agrees with Chris that nothing can stop that cycle until the individual is ready. “There are stages of change, and if you get to the stage of knowing there’s a problem, that can stay with you until you’re ready. From there, it’s being able to reach out and get the help.”

As in episode one of our podcast, Pamela says that addiction is just a shortcut word for a much bigger problem. She believes that if people could just understand that rather than seeing it as a moral issue, people might be more willing to both reach out and provide help.

She highlights how the environment of sports is a predisposition towards addiction, which we should be taking care of rather than exposing people to.

Luke believes that gambling is the ‘silent killer’ in professional sport at the moment. He says that from a high level (of management), the main concern is all about performance – but the bravado which sportspeople generate has to be managed. The limits and risks of that accepted attitude need to be better acknowledged, particularly in male-dominated environments, as men are less likely to open up about their true emotions.

Treatment for addiction

If you think you have a gambling addiction, it’s important to reach out and speak to someone. Anyone can be affected by this problem, so it isn’t your fault if you feel you’ve lost control of your day-to-day life. At Priory, our specialists are experienced in treating people for all kinds of addiction issues.

Once you get in touch with us, we can

carry out an initial assessment to determine the best course of action for your unique needs and future goals. The most intensive treatment we offer is our 28-day residential Addiction Treatment Programme, which is guided by the principles of the 12-step philosophy and allows you a temporary respite from the triggers of daily life.

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