Former journalist George Cooper writes candidly about how overcoming a gambling addiction was the catalyst that spurred him on to switch careers to law. 
George Cooper

George Cooper, aspiring lawyer

My name is George and I’m a recovering gambling addict.

It feels incredibly surreal, even three years into my recovery, writing those words. Particularly now, after finally reaching a stage of my life when rather than dwelling on past traumas I’m focussed on the future and carving out a career law.

But there’s no doubt, though the period of my life between October 2016 and January 2019 during which online gambling addiction cost me tens of thousands of pounds and drove me to depression ultimately moulded me into the man I am today.

That’s why I chose the theme of this article to be resilience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience ever since deciding to make the jump and switch careers to law after more than a decade in journalism. My ambition is to become a barrister, and by all accounts life at the bar demands resilience by the bucketload.

And what better demonstrates resilience than overcoming a gambling addiction?

But if the truth be known, I’m still unsure how resilient it has made me because it remains unclear if I’ve truly conquered the addiction. Such is the grip gambling addiction takes on your life, you never feel you’re completely out of its shadow.

I can, however, lay out the facts.

I know how I became addicted to gambling and how to put the brakes on. I also know it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Gambling addiction hit me suddenly, and hit me hard. After a break-up with my fiancé in late 2016 I began to slide into depression and loneliness. At the same time, a recent trip to Las Vegas had ignited a fascination with online slot machines.

One warm autumn evening, I opened my first online account. Within weeks, I was spinning online slots every day from dawn to dusk. I opened several more accounts: Ladbrokes, William Hill, Betfair, Bet365 – the list of options for a gambling addict is endless. You’re trapped in a sinister sweet shop.

It is worth highlighting at this point the current national conversation surrounding gambling addiction. A long-overdue government review of the Gambling Act is in the pipeline and is expected to recommend sweeping reforms, including affordability checks and limits to stakes.

Back in 2016, however, there was far less awareness. Identification checks were almost non-existent (and are still basic, at best) meaning it was possible to open an account in less than a minute. Free bonuses and cash rewards for joining were added incentives.

The sheer thrill of winning enticed me, but also terrified me. I’ve since learned that casinos put an astonishing amount of thought into the design of online slots to make them as addictive as possible. They trigger dopamine rushes in the brain through the anticipation of winning. When you’re truly addicted you enter an almost robotic state of mind; you brain is holding you hostage.

By early 2017 I was completely addicted. A strange quirk of my addiction was that I was fully aware of being on the slippery slope to gambling addiction but felt powerless to stop it, no matter how hard I tried.

I worked for a national newspaper at the time, earning a good wage. But monthly pay cheques were often gone within hours. I was permanently broke, relying on loans from my parents, deeply embarrassing for a man in his early thirties.

The nadir came in the spring of 2018 when, with my mental health at rock bottom, I missed my best friend’s wedding day. I was the best man. I spent the day in bed, drifting between sleep and crying my eyes out.

I’ll never forget that suffocating feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness.

I’m not sure when I reached the turning point, or whether it was even a conscious decision to break my addiction. I know it was sometime in early 2019, after a third successive Christmas spent gambling.

The first step – and the most important – was joining GamStop, a free online service which allows you to block yourself from every UK-licensed online casino. That move alone helped me to slow the cycle of gambling.

Secondly, I began weekly counselling sessions, a process I found helpful if not a little frustrating in that it demonstrated how little counsellors understand about gambling addiction – another national conversation that needs to be had.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I opened up about my addiction to one of my best friends who was incredibly supportive and became my rock.

Relapses came and went – they always do for a gambler – but by 2020 and the onset of the pandemic I was free of gambling and had plenty of time to consider where I wanted to go in life. At the age of 35, this felt like a sink or swim moment.

Determined to seize what felt like a second chance, I decided to pursue my long-standing interest in law, quit my full-time job in journalism and signed up for the law conversion course.

The eight months since making the decision have been some of the most rewarding of my life. I believe passionately in justice for all, and to this end volunteer for Advocate, a charity that finds free legal assistance from barristers. I’m also training to work with a gambling charity called GamFam, which supports gambling addicts.

I have no idea what my longer-term future holds but one thing I am sure about is being fully committed to becoming a criminal barrister. I recovered from the lowest point in my life, I now want to help others do the same.
 
I also know that if gambling addiction ever taps me on the shoulder again, I now have the strength to step away.