Alcoholism and Gambling Addiction Ruin Lives: I Quit Both In 3 Steps

Alcoholism and gambling addiction often go together, as do smoking and gambling. There’s something about doubling your vices that makes for a good time. And for about a decade, I drank alcohol and gambled frequently. Now? I don’t gamble or drink.

If you currently drink and/or gamble too much, you’re going to want to read this.

alcoholism and gambling addiction often go together
This is me on a cruise a few years ago, drunk and gambling.

I’m boring now. I don’t go to Vegas on a whim for a gambling and booze bender. But the effect on my life has been the opposite of boring. My life actually feels more exciting, bigger, and full of possibilities.

I’m not preaching to you, or trying to convince you to drop any of your bad habits. But I do want you to consider if you actually want your current vices or not. Because you might be like me—I thought that I wanted them, and I was very wrong.

A Fascinating Heroin Addict Interview

I watched a video of a homeless heroin addict talking coherently about his situation. He said some interesting things.

“That’s part of the reason why I’m not ready to quit yet. It’s going to be pure hell (withdrawal). I know that right now, there’s no way I could do it (quit) because I don’t wanna do it yet.”

“I still like it too much.”

Obviously, heroin addiction is on another level compared to a “bad habit.” Their neurological “hook” is way, way deeper. I’m only going to point out structural similarities between the two, because the most extreme cases sometimes present the clearest examples.

From these responses, I see a lot of similarities to my experiences with drinking and gambling. Basically, I was deceived into thinking I liked them and that they were worth it to me. But for all the fun they gave me, they took away much more from me. In the case of the heroin addict, his addiction took away his entire life. He said he even had a family, and this substance replaced everything. It consumes him and simultaneously blinds him to alternative lifestyles.

Bad Habits Often “Solve” the Problems THEY Created

Bad habits often trick us into thinking they’re necessary. But more often than not, the only thing they do is mask the negative symptoms they created in the first place.

For example, people drink alcohol to calm their anxiety, either in social situations or in general. It’s relaxing and fun to drink. But because of how alcohol creates relaxation, you’re effectively borrowing relaxation from a future date, or even depriving yourself of it altogether when you drink excessively.

Let me put it to you this way: I don’t have much anxiety now. I had a lot of anxiety when I drank alcohol daily.

Alcoholism: The Relaxing Drink That… Stresses Us Out?

old man sitting at home drinking beer
Photo by Nicola Barts on

Alcohol stresses us out in multiple ways.

“At least in some people, chronic alcohol use apparently can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels with all the associated symptoms.” (source)

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone.” For most people, drinking makes the body produce more cortisol.

GABA is the neurotransmitter responsible for reducing neuronal excitability. It’s calming. GABA is good! Unfortunately, alcohol also abuses our GABA receptors to the point that they quit responding in the same way.

“Alcohol stimulates GABA receptors, and thereby dampens activity in the brain. It is thought that this is why it produces an immediate reduction of anxiety, and overdoses can lead to coma…

If there is a constant supply of alcohol, the brain receptors adapt by reducing GABA receptors.” (source)

So the net effect of alcohol consumption is immediate calm and long-term stress. We notice the calming effect while drinking, but we don’t connect the stress (or the need for the calming effect) to the alcohol. It’s simply not obvious unless you research how it works.

I don’t know if I’ve quit either of my aforementioned vices “forever.” I can pick them back up at any time and overconfidence isn’t a great idea. But I can say that this feels way different than any other time I’ve paused because the DESIRE is gone. I’ve not forbidden either of these behaviors, I’ve not wanted to do them. And in case you’re skeptical of some vices in your life, and whether they’re worth it or not, here’s how I got to this point.

You Need 3 Things to Quit a Bad Habit

I’ve found that I need all three of these things, or else I can’t quit a bad habit or addiction.

1) Complete Theoretical Understanding of the Bad Habit

woman in red long sleeve writing on chalk board
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

You must first fully understand all effect(s) of your bad habit. Know why, what, how, and when everything happens. This was my first step for quitting alcohol. I educated myself about exactly how it works and what it does to the human body. The science is deep and overwhelming, but I’m going to link to a two hour video that summarizes it very well.

What you’ll find is that very often, the perceived benefit of the bad habit is directly related to its negative effects.

  • Drugs make us feel good (benefit) because they hijack our brain chemistry in harmful ways and/or poison us (drawback).
  • Gambling activates dopamine through variability of reward, which is extremely exciting (benefit), but generally requires chasing to maintain and makes all other activities less exciting (drawback).
  • Binge eating is pleasurable (benefit), but you feel bad afterwards physically at a minimum, and possibly emotionally. Furthermore, it leads to weight gain and health problems that can even become life-threatening (drawback).

Give yourself the full picture of the behavior, and learn the process of how it works with your body and brain. Once you learn the mechanism of the behavior, you can break its “magic” appeal down into something tangible and less desirable. This essentially takes a hammer to the glass house of “ignorance is bliss.”

It’s in our best interest as individuals and a society to increase awareness about the science of habits, specific and general. I’m good at drawing concepts like this article out of specific examples, which is why Dr. Huberman’s video about alcohol opened my eyes to more than just alcohol. That video helped me quit gambling, too!

2) Experiential Understanding of Quitting Upside

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Photo by Jahoo Clouseau on

Once you know the theory of how something works, you must then validate it with experience. If you don’t take this step, the information will become as useful to you as knowing that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell (woot!). Who cares about theory when this bad habit feels so great right now? You must test theories to know they are true.

When I quit drinking, initially I felt more stressed out. But after 2-4 weeks, I felt significantly calmer. I stopped clenching my jaw constantly. My anxiety plummeted. It worked exactly as the science of alcohol consumption suggested it would.

This is tricky to say it’s necessary to “quit” the habit to gain experience… to quit the habit. But all it means is that you need a trial run of sorts to experience life without the behavior. And importantly, you need to maximize the benefits of quitting during this time.

  • If you quit gambling, don’t sit in bed all day. Go out and have fun doing other things. Spend money you would have lost gambling on worthwhile items and experiences.
  • If you quit drinking, start working out. One of the biggest downsides to alcohol for me is how it would disrupt my workout routines. Working out while hungover isn’t even a good idea! Or take advantage of decreased social anxiety by going places. Yes, I said decreased anxiety!

Whatever the habit is, you have to give it some time. You won’t likely experience day one bliss. Your brain will need time to adjust away from the bad habit, and in the meantime, it may throw a temper tantrum (withdrawal). With alcoholism, it’s extremely important to note that quitting suddenly (if you’re an alcoholic) can be very dangerous, so check with your doctor on that one.

3) Embrace An Important Value That Conflicts with the Habit

woman slicing gourd
Photo by Nathan Cowley on

When the heroin addict said, “I still like it too much,” I knew he was missing this third requirement (and the second as well). If you like your bad habit more than any of the benefits you’ll get from quitting it, you will NEVER quit it. In other words, you must have a compelling reason to quit. (The first two steps help you identify all of those reasons and “activate” dormant values.)

There are plenty of people who drink or gamble or do drugs who may genuinely prefer that lifestyle. That’s their choice, and if done in moderation, it’s possible that these vices are a net positive to them.

I care about my health a lot. Health is wealth, as they say. I’m always researching, and everything finally clicked to me. I understood in theory and experience what alcohol did to my mind and body, and I lost my desire for it. Just like that. (I’m not saying this works for alcoholics, this is just my personal experience. I had a small glass of champagne for my nephew turning 21 and had no issues or relapses. I also have an unopened bottle of wine in my kitchen and it’s not a temptation.)

Gambling took me a lot longer to figure out. And who knows if I’m truly done, as bad habits never stop campaigning for your time, but I can say the desire to gamble has been gone for over a month (and four months for alcohol as of writing). This is different than saying “I’m on day X and it’s tough, but one day at a time.” I’m saying that I allow myself to go gambling or drink a full bottle of wine right now and I don’t want to do either. This is different.

Throughout my gambling years, I constantly read about it. I read about gambling addiction, and about how all of the games work. I played everything, too. I know every slot machine in a casino by name, every table game, everything. In addition, I tracked every gambling trip. I gained considerable theoretical knowledge. Combined with my values of having fun, seeing humor in the little things, and not wasting money, the decision to quit was automatic, rather than a struggle.

My experience after quitting gambling confirmed all of the theoretical knowledge I gained. I quickly became happier, more relaxed, had more fun in everyday life, and of course, saved money. Why would I go back?

Alcoholism and Gambling Addiction Labels

photo of man looking at the mirror
Photo by Min An on

It’s tough to know what label to use, because it’s not easy to standardize human behavior and labels have such different ramifications. I don’t know if I ever qualified as an addict, or was just a “problem gambler.” I gambled too much, and didn’t want to quit for some time. Whatever label you want to use, it was a problem.

As for alcohol, I don’t think I have the “alcoholic gene” that some do. But I drank several drinks every day for periods of time. It was also a big problem!

The bad habit versus addiction discussion is important. The line between bad habit and addiction can be blurry. And there’s significant power in what label you decide to use. If you label something a bad habit, that’s pretty light; Label it alcoholism or gambling addiction, and that’s heavy and serious (which may be what some people need, as that admission is the first step of GA and AA programs). Either way, be careful. I think over or under labeling your behaviors can be extremely damaging.

If you don’t know what label to use, either hold off or ask for guidance. I think the most useful label difference is between “problem” and “bad habit.” If something is at the level that you can label it as a problem, it suggests that you should attempt to make a change or seek professional help if necessary.

Why Gambling Addicts Are Blind

Gambling is notoriously one of the most difficult addictions to kick for a reason. First, it isn’t a math problem. I’ve excelled at math since a young age. I know the house edge of every single game in a casino, down to decimal places. I never expected to win long-term. But the atmosphere of a casino was alluring. The thought of big (short-term) wins was thrilling. The stakes of betting real money made the experience feel meaningful and important. Plus, I don’t go to bars or clubs, so it was a fun way to get out of the house.

That all sounds pretty fun, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the facade.

Gambling addicts quickly become blind to what gambling actually does to them. Gambling had hijacked my brain into thinking that it was fun and most other stuff was boring and lame. Gambling may be fun, but hey, so is other stuff! What could explain this?

Because I was gambling so much, it raised my dopamine threshold to unrealistic levels. The games are designed to delight the human brain. The lights, sounds, excitement. It’s not unlike taking a drug! And like drug addicts, gambling addicts want more and more of their drug and less of everything else in the world.

When I stopped gambling, my life was like a black and white movie slowly turning back into full 3D color. I started seeing the humor in everyday life again. Truly, I laugh probably four times as much now! I’ll never forget that first big belly laugh, maybe two or three weeks after I quit gambling. I suddenly realized I hadn’t belly laughed in a long time. It was a subtle, yet extremely powerful realization; it was a microcosm of me coming back to life.

This is Key: Replace It With Something Equal or Better

As gambling drained my life force, I thought it was giving me life. That’s like Gollum’s relationship with the Ring of Power. It consumes him; it takes his humanity away. He loves it only because he’s blind to its evil power over him, both in theory and experience. He can’t imagine a life without it because he doesn’t understand life without it.

I couldn’t fully understand a life without gambling until I tried living without it for some time in a way that satisfied some of the same desires.

I regained interest in video games, and they were and will continue to be a key replacement activity. I might be addicted to a video game now, but I’ll take that over gambling any day. It’s a lot cheaper and more fun. I fell in love with gambling in the first place because I LOVE games, and gambling is just (rigged) gaming for adults. Video games are fun without the massive downsides of gambling. That makes them better!

You’ll be able to quit your bad habit when theory, experience, and your values agree that you want to quit. But none of these steps can be shallow. You have to dig deep with each one.

  1. Know every negative and positive aspect of the behavior. Know how it affects your mental, physical, and emotional health, down to the most minute details. A lot of people drink alcohol because they have no idea how it works. They have no idea that the buzz from alcohol is the direct result of their body processing poison. Curious? Watch this two hour video from Andrew Huberman to see what alcohol does. It’s not judgy, just the science of booze.
  2. Turn that theory into experience. Test what you learn fairly by choosing fun replacement activities that thrive without the behavior (being active and healthier without alcohol, playing other games without gambling). Once you do something for several years, it’s easy to forget how you felt before you took that first sip or stepped into your first casino. You need to experience life without it again to destroy the lie that you “need” it.
  3. Addictions can hijack people’s values. Think about the gambling addicts who rob their employers or friends just to gamble more. Are these people evil, or have they lost touch with who they are like Gollum when he found the one ring? I think the latter is more often true. Rediscover the values you lost in this bad habit. The first two steps will help, as they work in conjunction with this one.

This is my experience, and it could be the exact formula I need for my unique brain chemistry and DNA. But it makes sense to me that this formula would work for many people.

Where I’m At Now and Final Thoughts

I’m not scared of alcohol. I can and will have a drink on a special occasion, but if it’s a neutral day and choice, I’m not drinking because I don’t want to drink. I value my health and awareness more than feeling buzzed.

I don’t have an ounce of resentment or condemnation for those who drink alcohol, or those with alcoholism and gambling addiction. I used to drink a lot, and now I don’t. I don’t condemn my past self for it. Nor do I see myself as “enlightened” compared to regular drinkers. It’s not my place to tell anyone what to do. Every person’s body chemistry is unique, and alcohol affects people differently.

My only thought is to wonder if some long-term drinkers are curious to learn what I’ve learned. We get curious about change when something causes us pain, but as I said, it can be difficult to locate the source of pain when the treatment is the source.

The absolute worst thing we can do is bring judgment and morality into this discussion. Regardless of whether or not those are appropriate for a behavior, such as religious considerations, judgment unequivocally turns people off. It shuts down communication. It prevents learning. People do not generally heal from being judged for their damaging behavior. Sometimes they can learn, yes, but even then, judgment is usually only accepted and learned from when it comes from authority figures (going to prison for a crime, etc).

So I leave you with this thought: Think about the sources of pain in your life, and ask yourself if perhaps they might be caused by the very thing or things you are using to cope with them. This is our principle blind spot. We don’t suspect the treatment could possibly be the disease. But when it comes to bad habits, that’s very often true!

I gambled to have fun. Gambling sucked the fun out of the other areas of my life. The treatment was the disease.

I drank to relax. Alcohol stressed me out more than anything I’ve ever experienced. The treatment was the disease.

It seems so obvious now, but it only became obvious when I applied theory, experience, and my values to break the hold these behaviors had on me. Whether you’re struggling with alcoholism or gambling addiction or something else, I encourage you to consider these three steps that helped me to quit. The best part about this method is that if successful, quitting will be your naturally preferred choice, and not something you have to suffer through.

Good luck!

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