A change for the better
Justyn Rees Larcombe talks to Stephen Tomkins about the gambling addiction that lost him his family, his job and £750,000
He may not have had it all, but he had quite a lot of it: A grand house, fast car, glittering career, happy family, even the Sword of Honour from his heady military career. Justyn Rees Larcombe lost all of that, and more, when he developed a secret addiction to gambling. His book Tails I Lose (Lion Hudson, 2014) is a gripping story of a proud, gifted, driven man who found himself slipping into a way of life that was out of his control. It became dangerous, dishonest and ultimately degrading – and yet, the only way out seemed to be further in. The book tells how it came crashing down, and how he found the hope to make a new start.
You’re making public a very personal story of a compulsion that lost you not only of your own wealth but that of people who trusted you.
When I started the book, I wrote three or four pages and had to stop. I phoned my editor and said: “Look, am I meant to be crying my eyes out?” She said: “Writing is like sitting at your desk and slitting your wrists and then typing.” That is how it felt.
Your grandfather was a mentor to Billy Graham, and your mother is a Christian writer. It sounds like faith was important in your upbringing
Absolutely. I made my own decision to become a Christian at a Scripture Union camp when I was 11. I had a very strong faith throughout my teens, and at Sandhurst when I made a stand not to play rugby on that Sunday, God really honoured that. But as I drifted through my life, I took my eyes off God.
What do you think drew you away?
I think I just grew complacent. I thought: “I’ve arrived, I’ve achieved success, and I’ve done it all on my own. I don’t need you God.”
Your mother had a debilitating disease, to the point that you were told she wouldn’t live through the night, when you were 14. Though she recovered, that reads in the book like a real bereavement.
I had to let go of her. My dad came in and told me, and I could see he’d been crying – he’d said his goodbyes. If your mother’s terminally ill, you stop being dependent on her; you withdraw.
Later, she seemed to be miraculously healed.
Yes, I do believe that completely. To know her and the agonies that she went through, and suddenly for her to pick up her wheelchair and carry it up the steps… The doctors had told her she couldn’t be healed. The damage was to her nerve cells which don’t repair themselves, so no one could explain it.
There’s a striking sentence in the book, about your father – looking after six children single-handedly – “I don’t ever remember an occasion when he did anything for himself other than read the Daily Telegraph in bed before falling asleep.” That sounds like an extraordinary example, and an extraordinary atmosphere to live in.
Yes. I feel very privileged with my childhood, despite everything.
You talk about how you never watched Doctor Who because you were allowed 10 hours of TV a week and used it all up on the Monday. What an impulsive character! Do you think there’s a certain kind of person who becomes addicted to gambling?
I’m certain. That was something I never would have thought was important, but, as I was writing the book I thought: Do you know what? I have always had this nature. I’m a big spender. I’m a full-on person, I either don’t do it at all, or I absolutely throw myself into it, and gambling was one of those things. I’m also very competitive, I’m an optimist, I don’t like losing, and those are not good traits for someone…
When I calculated that after just a few months of gambling I’d lost £750, I felt terrible. So I thought: “How can I win that back?” Rather than: “Let’s write that off and stop doing this stupid habit,” I thought: “I can’t give in, I can’t give up.” So I calculated I could get it all back with one £1,000 stake. That was crossing a line.
You threw yourself into swimming as a teenager with such sacrificial commitment, and the same with your military career.
Yes, there’s a pattern of behaviour emerging here!
But you also showed a striking ability to walk away from it all – giving up the swimming for a girl, and the Army for your wife.
Do you know what, you’re absolutely right. I’d never thought of it like that. And when you walk away, there’s an element of grieving. I still miss the Army, and I miss the swimming, which is why I’ve gone back to it now – swimming the channel this month.
When did you start swimming again?
After my wife found out about my terrible secret, and left me, and I went back to my mum’s house – my darkest hour – I started swimming again just to raise my self esteem.
When you think of your gambling now, what comes to mind?
It almost feels as though it’s a different Justyn. I believe that my healing from gambling was as miraculous as my mum’s physical healing. And when you ask Christ back into your life, he changes you. I had to change my attitude, my habits – everything. So rather than thinking: “It was a terrible time, all the money I lost, where would I be now if it wasn’t for that?” you have to let go of those things.
It’s a story of hope. My family came back to me in April, and I never expected that. It’s not a bed of roses for Emma and me. She still doesn’t trust me – and at first I was quite frustrated by that because I felt I was being totally honest about everything. But I totally lied to her for three years, so it’s not surprising.
Sometimes something will happen, and she’ll say: “That’s because you weren’t there for two years,” or: “We haven’t got enough money for this because you wasted it all.” But I’ve moved on from there, I’ve written that off, it’s gone, it’s an old Justyn. I’m a new person. The wonderful thing about God is that he’s the God of the second chance.
If there’s a sense in which you were a different person, don’t you also have to say: “It was me, and I have to take responsibility for what I did to people?”
Absolutely. Really, really important. I utterly take responsibility. When I placed my first bet, no one influenced me. It was my decision. And the second, and the third and the fourth. When I placed my last bet, I had absolutely no control over what I was doing.
Gambling is just as addictive as alcohol or drugs for some people. The industry officially say 1% of gamblers are addicted; it’s probably more like 2%. Either way it’s hundreds of thousands of people, and that’s too many. So I want to raise awareness, because though I take responsibility for what I did, I was out of control.
You say no one influenced your decision to make that first bet, but the idea was put into your head by an ad at a match, wasn’t it? If you hadn’t seen it…
Maybe. They make it very easy for you to open an account, and they match your stake which means you have to bet a second time. It’s almost like your drug dealer giving you a free hit to start with.
I’m uneasy about how they always portray it in the ads as a happy pastime. The reality is it’s a bit dirty, people bet more than they can afford – food money, or their mortgage, other people’s money, in the deluded belief that they’ll win. That’s not nice. I want to protect people before they get into that position.
Should gambling be better regulated?
Yes, but I’m not anti-gambling. Three-quarters of all adults gambled at some point over the last year. The problem is the 450,000 people who become addicted, and for every one of them there’s six people affected. Two weeks ago I lost a friend called Jake who took his life and left a young boy without a dad because of his gambling. So my passion is to find better protection measures. Things like one-stop self exclusion. There are 2,500 websites you can go to online – you’d have to exclude yourself from every single one. If you could self-exclude from all gambling sites in one go, that would have saved my marriage, without a doubt.
I think we should have compulsory education in schools. At the moment we have education for drugs and alcohol, and yet the fastest growing age group calling the helplines is 18 to 24-year-olds. We just need to say: “When you do these things, there could be a downside. These are the things you need to look out for; these are the things you need to do.”
Is addiction to gambling different from other forms of addiction?
I think they’re very similar. I started a seed of Holy Trinity Brompton’s wonderful Recovery Course in Tunbridge Wells. We just finished our first course. Its incredible to see the crossover and similarities between being a gambler, alcoholic, compulsive eater or addicted to pornography. They all make you selfish, and you can put similar sorts of blocks in place to protect yourself. I believe for every addictive behaviour there is an underlying emotional issue – something causing this destructive behaviour. If you can understand why you’re doing it, you can block it. In the end, gambling for me was a place I could go to forget the mess that I’d created of my life. That wasn’t my motivation for gambling in the first place, but it certainly was in the end.
With alcohol and drugs there’s a chemical dependency thats makes them different to other addictions, isn’t there?
Yes, gambling is more of a progressive addiction. If you continue the same behaviour day in day out, it becomes harder to stop. For me it was an adrenaline rush when I put the bet on – it felt like I was dropping out of the aeroplane again in the army – so there is a chemical element associated with that. But you need bigger stakes each time to get the same high.
The danger of gambling compared to the others is there are only so many bottles of vodka an alcoholic can drink in a day, only so many times a drug addict can shoot up; unfortunately with gambling the only limit is the size of your bank account.
I suppose the added factor with gambling, compared to other addictions, is that the problem it creates is debt, and the answer to debt is that big win…
You’re so right. It’s self-perpetuating. The only way out of it I could see was to keep gambling, win it all back, close down the account and no one would know.
That’s what allowed me to sell irreplaceable things for a fraction of what they were worth – Emma’s wedding and engagement rings, the boys’ christening silver, furniture that had been in my family or Emma’s for generations. I genuinely believed the next bet would win everything back.
Another similarity with porn addiction is that the internet has changed everything. You never went into a betting shop, just bet online. The whole story might never have happened 20 years ago.
Yes. What the internet provides is secrecy and availability. My wife knew nothing about what I was doing for three years and that wouldn’t have been possible if my account was in a betting shop. And it’s always available – at night, at your desk, when you’re watching television. This is why gambling addiction is on the increase for students.
It was an incredible achievement to be awarded the Sword of Honour by the Queen in your first year in the Army, and it was treasured as much by your son as by you; you promised it to him and now it’s gone. How much of the damage that gambling did can be healed?
There are consequences of our sin. Some of those things the Lord has restored – my family coming back to me, I’ve paid my debts off – but there is permanent damage. My father-in-law can’t forgive me or accept that Emma’s back with me, and I’m damaging him because that unforgiveness is eating him up. I feel terrible that I’m doing that to him on a daily basis. Each morning I pray for reconciliation.
Are you still tempted?
I am only one bet away from trashing everything again. I will never have another bet. I wouldn’t even buy a raffle ticket. I have to take each day at a time. But at the same time, I have never had a single temptation, or a voice in my head saying: “You know who’s going to win here – go on, put £50 on.” All the other people I talk to, who’ve been years in recovery, still sometimes get these thoughts. I’m only 18 months into my recovery, so I’m not going to say never, but I do feel totally and utterly released from this. Christ doesn’t want us to be slaves to anything. I was completely a slave – so much so I wanted to take my own life. Now I’m free.
This article was published in the September 2014 edition of Reform.