Amid the illegal betting storm engulfing Newcastle United star Sandro Tonali, PETER BARRON meets a North-East dad who has rescued his life from the wreckage caused by his own gambling addiction

AS a child growing up in a North-East seaside resort, Ben frequently found himself drawn to the glittering amusement arcades, sandwiched between the cafés and fish and chip shops.

At first, he used his pocket money to feed the fruit machines, but before long, he was stealing from his parents and siblings to satisfy his growing habit.

What Ben didn’t know at the time was that it was the beginning of a lifelong gambling addiction that was to devastate his life – costing him his job, his marriage, and his sense of worth.

“My life was knackered – a complete mess,” he confesses.

Today, the father-of-three is back in control, thanks to the support he received from Gamblers Anonymous. It’s six years since he last gambled, and he volunteers weekly on the organisation’s information lines, supporting others who have found themselves gripped by an addiction to betting.

Although those closest to him know about his background, his employers don’t, so he can’t give his full name. But painful though it is, he’s telling his story in the hope that it raises awareness of a growing problem in society, and shows other addicts that help is a phone call or mouse-click away.

Ben is speaking in a bar at Seaton Carew, overlooking the sea that’s still being stirred up into an angry froth by the tail-end of Storm Babet. In contrast, the 38-year-old is calm and thoughtful as he recalls how his gambling problem spiralled out of control.

Seaton Carew is, of course, the place made famous by one of history’s most infamous gambles: when John Darwin risked – and lost – everything by faking his own death in a canoe.

Ben’s fall from grace may not have made any news bulletins, or led to any television dramas, but it caused immense pain for his family, and left him wracked with guilt and shame.

“It started here, as a kid in the amusement arcades,” he says. “The machines are designed to give that instant gratification, with their lights and sounds, and I got hooked. I was thieving from my family, lying about where I was going, and it became a normal way of life.”

After doing well at school and college, Ben became a dad at 20. And, as the responsibilities and financial pressures of marriage and fatherhood grew, so did his gambling.

The fruit machines of his childhood were replaced by online poker and other gambling games. It was too easy to sign up for credit cards, and when he’d reached his limit, he stole his parents’ cards.

He was also betting on horses and in casinos and, within weeks of getting his grant to study at Teesside University, he’d blown the lot.

“A lot of it was down to being a dreamer,” he explains. “I wanted to be a big shot, so I could give my family and friends the best things in life.”

The “madness” was that he was easily caught out because his heavy losses were showing up on his parents’ bank statements. They challenged him and were at a loss to understand why he’d become an addict.

He gambled at home and in the university library. Then, when he started working in finance for a North-East company, he gambled during lunch and toilet-breaks.

With his performance at work suffering, he lost his job, and then his wife left him after discovering he’d stolen her credit card. Trust in the relationship  had been shattered.

At 24, Ben had no choice but to move back to his parents' house, and he opened up about the full extent of his addiction. They tried counselling and hypnotherapy with their son but neither worked.

It was then that his dad drove him to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Darlington, a move Ben describes as "a massive relief".

He sat in a rectangle with around 20 people and listened to a man give a "main share" – talking for 20 minutes about his experiences.

Gamblers Anonymous (GA) is a self-supporting organisation, built around 12 steps. The first is to accept that you are completely powerless over gambling, and that life has become unmanageable.

"When it came to sharing my story, I just said 'Hello, I'm Ben – I'm knackered'. But hearing the experiences of others made me see a way forward," he says.

While attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings weekly,  he stayed free from betting for three years, but "slipped" after he fell ill at Christmas in 2011. He was diagnosed with sepsis, followed by an operation for a brain abscess, and three seizures.

Unable to drive for 18 months, he stopped attending GA meetings, and started to invest in shares before returning to his old gambling ways.

The lapse lasted for three months before he returned to GA meetings in March 2017, and hasn't gambled since.

"What I've learned through GA is that gambling is an inadequate response to life, and it's linked to immaturity," he says. "I'm not out of the woods, because it's for life, but it's under control."

He attends Darlington GA meetings at Harrowgate Hill Methodist Church every Tuesday, and sometimes goes to meetings in Hartlepool.

As well as volunteering on GA information lines, he's served as secretary and treasurer of the Darlington branch. He's also made friends through the group and even plays in a five-a-side football team with other compulsive gamblers.

Ben's dad passed away a few years ago, but his mum sometimes goes with him to GA meetings.

"They did nothing wrong and I owe them so much – without them, I'd have ended up in prison," he admits.

Thanks to them, and the support of Gamblers Anonymous, Ben's life is back on track. He has a good job, and has become a dad again with a new partner, while also re-building a strong co-parenting relationship with his ex-wife.

"My dreams are different now," he says. "It's not about being a big shot, it's about spending time with my family and living a normal life."

With the Sandro Tonali story putting gambling addiction into the spotlight again, Ben's also calling for a "root and branch review" of gambling advertising in sport.

"There's a place for gambling in society – it can be a very social thing – but it has to be controlled. Gambling sponsorship has become intrinsically linked to football, and it has a massive impact – especially the 'in-play' betting stuff. It's feeding addiction and that's why it's such a growing problem.

"My aim in speaking out is to highlight what a big issue it is, and to let people know that help is out there. It's a difficult battle, there are no guarantees, but the aim is to get people back to being productive members of society."

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As Ben leaves the bar, he walks past the amusement arcade a few doors down. It's a Saturday lunchtime and it's already busy. Customers include excited kids on the Pac-Man Smash game, old ladies playing bingo, and young men chancing their arms on the fruit machines.

Ben's got other plans – other dreams. "My daughter wants to go swimming," he smiles as he crosses the road.