"God, I am so sick. Please help me," Jerry Prosapio pleaded as he hung precariously over a gaping hole of gambling addiction.
His road to addiction began 22 years earlier with penny-ante poker games in the basement. He was 9 years old. "I enjoyed the risk," Jerry recalls.
Later in high school, he became a sports-card bookie. Then after he graduated from high school, his parents took him to the horse track. His dad put $2 down for him, and Jerry walked out with $80 — his first big win. He was hooked for the next 14 years.
The day he was supposed to graduate from college, he was at the racetrack instead.
At age 28, Jerry married Pat and promised no more gambling. But addicts don't keep promises; he simply lied and sank deeper into the hole.
"I began to do drugs and drink . . . became a Las Vegas high roller," Jerry says. "My entire marriage was based on lies. I maxed out 17 credit cards. My wife was going to have a nervous breakdown."
Pat had just given birth to their first baby, Brian, when in desperation, Jerry borrowed money from the Mafia. When they came to collect, Jerry's fragile world finally collapsed.
"Tell Jerry that Brian has a beautifully shaped head and that I stopped by to see him," a Mafia visitor told Pat. Terrified by the threat to his family, Jerry confessed his addiction and begged God for help.
"It was the first time in my adult life that I was totally honest."
What began as third-grade poker games had grown into an obsession that nearly destroyed him and his family. But Jerry is fortunate. With God's help, he escaped his addiction. Today he is the co-founder of Gambling Exposed, a ministry that helps parents and churches deal with the dangers of gambling addiction.
Millions of grade-school kids just like Jerry have become hooked on gambling. They often begin gambling between the ages of 10 and 13. Four out of five adolescents have gambled in the past year, according to the Annenberg Risk Survey of Youth.
A federal commission estimated that 7.9 million adolescents in the United States are problem gamblers — that's 113 NFL stadiums filled to capacity. Clearly, gambling is not innocent entertainment for children; it's a gateway to addiction.
Unfortunately, the problem doesn't stop at gambling. Recent research on seventh- to 12th-graders in Oregon indicates that students who gamble are two to three times more likely to consume alcohol, take drugs, have sex or become violent. Other research shows that suicide attempts among pathological gamblers are higher than for all other addictions.
Gambling is usually a hidden addiction, so parents must watch for clues, such as:
If you suspect your child has a problem with gambling, implement the three C's:
Confront. Have an honest conversation with your child. Admitting his problem will provide tremendous relief because he will no longer shoulder the burden alone.
Console. Just as Christ loves us, we must affirm our unconditional love for our children. Forgive, and ask God for guidance.
Counsel. Seek help for your child immediately. You can call Focus on the Family's Counseling department at 719-531-3400 ext. 7700 and ask to speak to a counselor.
Remember: Parental approval or disapproval remains the strongest influence in a child's life.
This article first appeared in the March, 2008 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2008 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.