Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2005, 12:00am

Born to Lose: Memoirs of a Compulsive Gambler

by Bill Lee

Hazelden, $101

In the tradition of Elizabeth Wurtzel's More, Now, Again, and Marya Hornbacher's Wasted, second-generation Chinese-American Bill Lee's Born to Lose is an important memoir of addiction. Works of this kind are not only arresting in narrative, but necessary as teaching implements. From them we not only learn about the nature of addiction but of its causes and, indirectly, how it can be avoided.

Lee quietly lists the statistic that 40 per cent of all white-collar crime is committed by or for compulsive gamblers. A third of all prison inmates are compulsive gamblers. One in five compulsive gamblers attempts suicide, and gamblers have the highest incidence of suicide attempts - and successful attempts - of all addicts. Gambling among adolescents is growing three times as rapidly as it is among adults. The dropout rate for Gamblers Anonymous is 90 per cent. And unlike alcohol, cards cannot be detected on the breath.

There can be no addiction without dysfunction. Lee's father, sold as a young boy to cover a gambling debt, was a violent alcoholic, a gambling addict and a sexual predator (both Lee and his sisters were targeted); Lee's unstable mother was a seamstress who worked 16 hours a day to support her five children. 'Money,' he writes, 'was always a point of contention in our home ... I defined and validated myself based on how much money I earned.'

On being told that his wife was expecting her fifth child, Lee's father forced her to drink an abortifacient brew; Lee was born with numerous congenital defects. He concludes: 'Essentially, I was born to lose.' This deep belief is the scaffolding of his life. Lee insists on perceiving himself as wrong. Any success is met with an immediate counter-action: success is not part of his emotional template.

Lee's only sense of control over his life was to repeatedly scrub his surroundings; at the age of eight, he would wash his hands until they bled. By the age of 10, he was playing blackjack and poker in private San Francisco gambling dens. At 13, he began suffering weekly hour-long nosebleeds and migraines. While working more than 40 hours a week for two years and still at home, he completed his undergraduate degree in psychology. His traditionalist parents regarded his new desire to leave home as disrespectful (abuse of children, on the other hand, was regarded not as 'disrespect', but as traditional).

Lee's refusal not to honour his parents has meant dishonoring himself. When he met his future wife in 1980, his mother (predictably) suffered a psychotic episode, 'complete with delusions that my father was trying to kill her by planting bombs throughout the house'. (He had committed the sin of focusing on his desires, rather than hers.) Discharged from hospital, she refused to take her antipsychotic medication, meaning that supervision had to be constant.

Her vulnerability was strictly opportunistic. 'She wanted me to serve in the role of honorable Chinese son - the one who proudly looks after his parents until they're deceased. To help her achieve her objective, my mom tried to convince me that I didn't have what it takes to succeed ... Furthermore, she constantly reminded me that no woman would ever be attracted to me.' Unsurprisingly, his marriage dissolved after two years, whereupon he 'buried' himself in caring for his only son, whose love 'was the only thing that kept me from literally going insane or wanting to kill myself'.

The hostility towards himself that Lee inherited from both parents is never questioned - the opposite, in fact; with every action, he seeks to justify their disdain. 'I couldn't control myself,' (p23). 'I was screwed,' (p80). '[He] refused, leaving me to fend for my own sick self,' (p82). 'I began badgering myself ... Idiot! Idiot!' (p204). 'Let's face it: I haven't been in control of my life; my addiction has been calling the shots all along,' (p212). 'You have got to be the sickest, weakest person on earth!' (p193).

Lee wants to break free of his conditioning but cannot until he faces - and grieves - the truth: he will never receive the parenting he craved and needed. Until then, he is doomed to reduce himself to helplessness and poverty in a subconscious effort to attract nurturing. Like all addicts, Lee just wants to be a child again, for only a child can attract a mother. True adulthood entails emotional independence; therein, infinite liberties, but also an undiluted experience of pain. Born to Lose artfully teaches us the results of not facing this pain: yearning, dependence, and a legacy of suffering for those who love us.