Sinn Fein’s Philip McGuigan (48) lost £100,000 during an eight-year addiction to online gambling while Declan Cregan (30) left himself without food while putting every penny he earned into slot machines.
oth men are now in recovery and are working to warn of the dangers and help prevent others going down the same path.
They bravely open up about the grip gambling had on them as they support Safer Gambling Week which started yesterday and runs until Friday.
North Antrim MLA Philip McGuigan is lobbying for tighter legal restrictions as part of a NI Assembly All Party Group (APG) on Reducing Harm Related to Gambling, which was set up in 2020.
The father of four and grandfather from Dunloy who is married to Paula, a classroom assistant, knows from bitter experience just how devastating an illness addiction is.
As well as a recovering gambling addict he is also a recovering alcoholic.
Addicted to gambling for eight years, he finally went into rehab in a move he said, “saved my life”.
Now Philip is driven to helping regulate an industry that he believes preys on addicts like him.
His addiction started around 2005 when he began to play poker with no stakes as a pastime with friends and to raise funds for charity.
Told he had a talent for the card game, within a year he was playing online and very quickly found he couldn’t stop.
He says: “Before that I rarely bet on anything and in my life, I have only been in a betting shop about half a dozen times.
“I started playing as a bit of fun but as soon as I went online my addiction spiralled very quickly.
“I was always careful with money and while I did have a credit card, I rarely used it and when I did, it was for small amounts which I paid back straightaway.
“When I started playing poker online, I was quite successful at the start and won a bit of money but as with all these things, once you lose you begin to chase your losses and very quickly, I reached the £1,500 limit on my credit card.”
Easy access to online gambling through his phone meant he was soon playing day and night and admits that at the height of his addiction he played for three days and nights straight without a break.
He recalls winning £40,000 during that period which he lost again within an hour.
Philip says: “I am a recovering alcoholic as well. I haven’t had a drink in 27 years, so I have an addictive personality and was predisposed to becoming a gambling addict.
“Addiction is an illness but while with any other illness you would immediately seek help and treatment, with addiction you are continually denying the illness and trying to prove you don’t have it.
“I did everything in my power to restrict it, like trying to set spending limits and restricting my time online but every attempt failed. I was powerfulness over my gambling.”
As unpaid bills started to pile up, it wasn’t long before his wife was aware that something was amiss.
After eight years of gambling when his debts soared out of control, Philip’s wife and a friend finally persuaded him to check into White Oak Addiction Treatment Centre in Donegal.
He spent four weeks in rehab and has been in recovery ever since.
The mental impact of addiction is one which he doesn’t gloss over.
He admits: “You go to bed nightly half hoping you won’t wake up in the morning because things are so bad, and you are aware of the impact on your mental health and on those around you.
“You know you are doing wrong but you can’t control it. There were times when bills went unpaid, and I couldn’t look after my own children.
“I went to bed every night wracked with guilt. Going to rehab gave me a physical break from being able to gamble which was a connection I hadn’t been able to break.”
Philip urges anyone with a gambling problem to seek help and speak out as the first step to taking back control. He believes tighter controls are needed in the gambling industry — a mission which he is hoping to achieve through his membership of the Stormont APG.
He says: “It is a very cruel illness and people do dig themselves into a hole and feel there is no way out but there is lots of help out there and support groups.
“Services though are way below what they should be and there needs to be massive investment put into all addiction services and I want to see this along with a better public health response.
“The APG has been doing really good work to try and change gambling laws which are out of date and not in line with across the water and down south. There is a lack of control in the industry. Figures show that over 80 per cent of the huge profits made by gambling companies come from 5% of people who gamble.
“The addicts are driving their profits. During Safer Gambling Week it is these companies who need to take steps to protect people by making it easier for them to self-exclude from sites.
“They also need to stop the incentives which are bringing people into gambling and advertising should also be banned.”
Declan Cregan has a similar story to tell. He was just 16 when he became hooked on gambling after putting £1 in a slot machine.
For the next 11 years gambling took over his life, robbing him of every penny he earned as well as his confidence and self-esteem.
Now three years in recovery the west Belfast classroom assistant spends his spare time sharing his story with other teenagers in schools and community centres across the province.
Declan is working on an education programme for youth alongside Barry Fennell, also from west Belfast through the charity Gambling with Lives.
During his 20s Declan worked as a sales representative making big money, often thousands in one week but every penny of his earnings went to the bookmakers or roulette machines, leaving no money to buy food.