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GAMBLING RECOVERY COUNSELOR
EDITOR'S NOTE: We're in a different London than many tourists ever see. You take the Tube far from the Thames River with its iconic interlacing of bridges, away from the West End with its museums and abbeys and palaces. In an hour, you get to South London, Clapham Junction, where, according to Mike Kenward, drinking and gambling are just part of the culture of poverty.
Mike grew up dreaming of being a comedian. He studied social anthropology and then decided to work in a casino. There, he could rub elbows with the wealthy and observe how they interact with money. It would be a sort of petri dish of humanity, a place to earn coin at night while writing brilliant stand-up monologues and comedic playscripts all day. He went to work at a big casino, Grosvenor (G Casino), on Piccadilly.
It didn't surprise me to hear that Mike's plan went awry. Although he didn't succumb to the addiction of gambling (he cites studies that, while 75 percent of Brits gamble, only 1 percent of that group ends up with a gambling problem), he ended up not writing, not earning much, never sleeping, and just despising the pecking order of bullying within the casino ranks, from dealers down to pit bosses.
So, he went to the other side, working for a gambling-addiction recovery nonprofit called GamCare. Eventually, he ended up running their business development.
Mike is now preparing to dive into a dry nonprofit-management master's program, and he's about to "run off" to marry his emergency-room doctor fiancée, Fran.
When I visit him at the cusp of these two major life changes, he shakes my hand and leads me into what looks like a broom closet. He leans back and smiles, comfortable in this stifling, tiny room used for one-on-one counseling. The pressing August heat and close quarters have me feeling a little trapped ... and then he proceeds to fill the small room with his big, disarming, entertaining personality.
At the end of our interview, he admits that he had trepidations about how much to share. "I was going to just throw some pat answers at you and then say I had to get back to work," he admits, what he dubs his "peanut-butter-and-jam belly" bouncing as he laughs.
We're all better off that he chose, instead, to open up both his lifestory and self.
He's plucky, I say. He asks me what that means. "That means you're a little bit of a troublemaker," I say, "and a really funny one, too."
* * *
I Wanted to Be a Comedian, but I Ended Up in This Unfunny Job
My name is Michael Christopher Kenward. I'm thirty-one years old. I'm a business development manager at GamCare in London.
GamCare is a charity that supports people who are affected by gambling problems. I attempt to improve the way that GamCare works with people with gambling problems, people who are affected by someone else who's gambling, and the gambling industry. I've worked here for eight years.
Growing Up, I Wanted to Be a Comedian
When I was a little kid, it wasn't exactly my dream to be a gambling addiction counselor! I wanted to do lots of different things.
I wanted to be creative. I wanted to write comedy and drama. I love kitchen-sink British drama. Do you know what I mean by "kitchen sink"?
It's just a generic British term for a deep sort of natural realism, where everyone's miserable. [Laughs.] It's fairly gritty working-class dramas about just the pain of being a person, going to work every day, coming home to a relationship that has its flaws, bringing up children that are a pain in the ass, and trying to balance all the misery of this world with occasional glimmers of joy.
I find that hugely heartening. It used to really touch me as a child. I wanted to make films and make people laugh. My dream was to be a comedian, to do stand-up or writing of some kind.
My childhood was full of laughter. I was an only child living with a single-parent mother. My relationship with her was very closed and very close as well, for a long time. But my mum was one of five, and my aunties and my uncles were all nearby, and their kids were like my brothers and sisters. So, I grew up with that sort of extended family.
It was a very funny family, very sort of — I don't want to use the word "acerbic" — but very cutting and sarcastic, also extremely loving and warm. The way that they deliver love and affection, as I do now as an adult, is through endless putdowns. Does that make sense? You know that the love is there, so you can push the boundaries with the things you say and the ways you behave.
My Dad Left When I Was Five
My dad basically saw me only occasionally until I was five. Then, he met his current wife, who is from Connecticut, and he decided to move to the States. I didn't know my dad at all during my childhood.
Then, about the age of twenty, I started corresponding with my father on email, and I met him in person at age twenty-two in Los Angeles International Airport [LAX].
You know those travelators [moving walkways]? It's like an escalator. I love them.
I remember standing on one in a pair of jean shorts without a button to hold them together at the waist, sort of slumped in a pair of sandals and a shirt. Those of you who are reading this will not be able to see, but I'm quite overweight, and I didn't look a great state when I was going along on that travelator.
I remember it so strikingly. At the end of the corridor, there were these two glass panels that opened to reveal this extremely slick- looking, smart businessman. I hadn't seen a picture of him. He'd sent me an email about a week prior and said, "You should send me a picture of you so I can recognize you in the airport." I sent him a picture of a transvestite and said, "You're just going to have to try and find me."
I thought, the first time you meet your father, you shouldn't have to send a picture of what you look like. They should be able to instinctively find out who you are. But if there had been anyone else there, I think I'd have struggled.
It was just him and me on this travelator, moving towards this glass door opening, in one of those sort of touch-point moments that you come back to for the rest of your life and think, "Shit. That's how that happened."
I remember him smelling the same as he did when he left when I was five. There is something quite bizarre about that, I think, the idea that you can give someone a hug and all of a sudden be transported back to being a child.
Choosing NOT to Be a Successful Businessman Like My Father
My father is an extremely successful businessman, and he's extremely wealthy, which is not something that I grew up with. There is something about that juxtaposition that feels quite movie-like and also quite bizarre. I grew up with a very happy family, in a very loving environment, and I didn't want for anything, even though I knew we were poor. But to see this other life as so at odds with everything I'd ever known was strange.
He's a good man. He was very young, twenty-one, when he had me. I think he had a lot of hopes and dreams for his own life that, by having a kid with somebody that you had a very short relationship with, would have been off-putting.
I don't condone him having left without having any more contact. But in terms of the way I would live my life, I don't judge him in the way that he lives his life now.
It's difficult, because he lives in California. I've only seen him nine times, maybe once a year. So, it's a long and slow-burning process to get to know this man. And he is, unfortunately, still just a man in my life. It's so hard to get to know him when you live that far away.
He will come to my wedding in two weeks. He's a nice guy. He's a funny, intelligent, charming man, but you don't necessarily want those things, I don't think, from a father. You want consistency and stability and unequivocal, unconditional love, the things I got from my mom and other members of my family.
Workaholics Are Similar to Gambling Addicts
When I was growing up, I had a general kind of awareness that I couldn't have things. I was never deprived, but I was definitely told outright, "You can't have that. We can't afford it."
But I think that's extremely healthy, and I would never, even if I had a huge amount of wealth, just provide endless things for my children. It does a lot of damage, actually.
I consider relationships with people to be about going through hardships together and forging a sort of dependency and resilience. My dad feels extremely confident in his realm at work, but at home, I think he feels terrified. I don't think he knows how to build those relationships and keep them.
Maybe I'm wrong. If he ever reads this, he can correct me, but like with gambling, there are environments where we feel confident in who we are, and we know the boundaries and the limitations. We can become a role. Work provides that for many people. It provides a safe environment. Their home lives are a chaotic mess, and so they find themselves migrating more and more into work.
And feeling successful because you're earning a fortune and you've got a big house, and you've achieved huge amounts in those sort of physical terms ... that would allow you to push down the thoughts of failure you've got about yourself, the same way that gambling allows people to push down thoughts of failure by letting them feel like they're winners on a slot machine.
I Went to a Dodgy School in a Not-Very-Nice Area of London
When I was a kid, I went to a quite rough, quite dodgy primary school not far from here. It was actually just a normal primary school, but it was in a not-very-nice area of London. But it wasn't as if I got jumped on the way to school. I was only bloody four.
My teachers put me forward to do an entrance exam for a private school called Dulwich College Prep School. They pushed me to do this exam, and I did it, and I got into that school, and that was a good thing, because it got me out of that primary school and into a better one.
So, I went there, and then, I left by age eleven and went to a grammar school in Kent in a place called Gravesend. After which, I went to the University of Edinburgh, and I studied social anthropology.
Working in a Casino to Gain Insight into Wealthy People
After Edinburgh, I left Scotland [to return to London], and I went to work in a casino. I'd only gone into it because I thought it would be an interesting kind of platform from which to write, because I wanted to write comedy and theatre.
It was an odd choice to work there — but anthropology is obviously all about understanding people and the way that they interact and class systems and all of that.
You could say my first [anthropological] study was at my first job, at my uncle's flower store, every weekend from age twelve. I felt I was very entrenched in the working-class environment there. I knew and understood how poor people lived and interacted with money and interacted with each other, and I loved it.
I thought, "I know what I'll do when I leave Edinburgh. I'll work in an environment where everybody's rich, to try to get an insight into the way that wealthy people exist and how they live."
I've Got a Great Chip on My Shoulder about Rich People
I treated them with complete contempt, and I still do. I've got a great chip on my shoulder about very wealthy people. Even with my fiancée, Fran — I've got a chip on my shoulder about her wealth as well. Her background is more affluent than mine. So, I'm aware of those things.
This is a very English thing, class awareness. Wealth awareness. Huge.
Again, we propagate it. We love it. I love working-class culture. I always have, but I like it in opposition to middle class and aristocratic culture. At the University of Edinburgh, I spent all my time with a bunch of extremely wealthy people with noble or dignified backgrounds. And a part of me loves the sort of charade I was playing by being their friend. It's like, "Look, they're taking the time to spend time with a poor urchin from the street."
Casino People Are Poor, Desperate, and Alone
Anyway, so I went to work in a casino to see how wealthy people interacted with money, and then, I rapidly realized the casinos are full of extremely poor people, not wealthy — extremely poor people who are very desperate and alone. [Laughs.]
But it wasn't some kind of great crusade that made me think I needed to get out of the casino and help people — not at all. It was because it was an unhealthy lifestyle, and I was unhappy and not challenged. Horrendous hours: I was getting up at 5:00 in the afternoon to go to work at 8:00 at night and get home at 6:00 in the morning.
All the people I lived with, who were the people I had just left university with, were starting their roles as researchers or building careers. I just felt like I was treading water.
I was planning to write comedy, but I wasn't writing. That was the point of it all, but I wasn't writing anything. I wasn't creating characters, developing great ideas, or even gaining any insight into anybody's culture. I was just there, and I was unhappy there.
Also, I was being bullied. Can you believe that? I was being bullied as a grown man. It does happen. It's extraordinary.
I hadn't experienced that since I was on a bus in school. I went into this professional working environment and was treated badly, basically by people who were higher up the chain than me.
I worked as a croupier, a dealer. That's a French word for blackjack, roulette, poker, whatever you like. In French, it means you're a jockey, the person who keeps the thing moving, because the ball never stops spinning. You've got to be good at numbers. You've got to be hypervigilant and very manually dexterous. So, you've got to have a certain level of skill, but it's not massive. It's not like you have to be smart.
When you start off and you're not very good, you're slow. There's a hierarchy, a chain that you climb. You start as a trainee dealer, and then, you become a dealer. You become an inspector, then a top inspector, then a pit boss, then a manager, and so on. And the only way to become a manager is to start at the bottom, and that (like military) is an environment of bullying. People exist in their role because they've had to fight to get there. So, you're going to bloody well fight to get there. It's just completely offensive.
When you've spent four years studying at university and becoming an autonomous and educated person, you think you're reasonably smart; then, you're being told that you're shit, because you can't do the seventeen-times table, and you can't hand out 250 chips to someone, and you feel like, "What's the point?"
I understand it in a way, because you have to be sharp to deal correctly, and you don't want to overpay someone by two grand, because then you'd screw over the casino. Those things are important, but the way in which it was carried out was unpleasant. It ended up taking its toll on me, and I thought, I can't do this anymore. So, then I left.
Dealing Myself out of Gambling and into Recovery
I then started working at GamCare as a helpline advisor. I did that for about five years.
You're a first-line support for people who are in crisis to deal with things like suicide and debt problems and relationship issues. You sort of absorb the initial pain that someone experiences when they've got a gambling problem, help them accept what's going on, look at why they might be doing it, and help them challenge themselves a little, because often their perceptions are quite skewed about why they do it. They think they're gambling to make money, or that they're greedy, or that they're sick and they can never get better.
At one point when I was doing counseling work on the helpline, I also went to clown school. I thought maybe I could enmesh these two skill sets and create a "clownselor," where you sit there as a clown and the client just metes out all of their anger and frustration on you. I would love it if we used comedy here as a means of helping people recover.
We Use Motivational Interviewing Rather Than the Twelve-Step Program
Do you know Alcoholics Anonymous [AA] or Gamblers Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous? They're all based on this twelve-step program, which is this constant rigorous vigilance of going through twelve steps every day to manage behavior, to make sure they don't stray or lapse. People will sit in a circle and talk about, "When I was fifteen, I was blah, blah, blah, and then, I started drinking."
That model is based on a "one day at a time" approach. It feels so enormous. It's like, "I've got the rest of my life to live without gambling, where I haven't lived the last six months without gambling for one day. How can I imagine the future without gambling? That's too unbearable. In fact, I'm going to go out and gamble right now."
Here, we use Motivational Interviewing techniques, in a very lighttouch sense. Motivational Interviewing (MI) actually comes from America.
We think about it on a smaller scale, that just for today I won't bet, so it's easier. It's more manageable. We have to acknowledge that lapses and relapses will happen. They can be extremely painful, but they're also a learning opportunity.
Excerpted from "My Job"
Copyright © 2019 Suzanne Skees.
Excerpted by permission of Greenleaf Book Group Press.
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