Health & Wellness

One Debt at A Time

From gambling addict to gambling counselor, Michael Osborne has had a remarkable journey.

The woman from Connecticut contacted Michael Osborne desperate for help. Her boyfriend, a 63-year old retired Fed-Ex employee, had been ruining his life and destroying relationships for years. Despite having a good pension, he borrowed constantly to make rent, wearing out those around him with deceits and lies because of his casino gambling. She didn’t know where else to turn.

Two days later, a family called, pleading for intervention assistance with their father, a former attorney deep into sports betting with local bookies. Osborne flew out to Palm Beach to help. As soon as Osborne returned home that Sunday evening, a Silver Spring wife called at 10:30 p.m. begging for aid with her 57-year-old husband, who was completely addicted to online poker.

“I get between 10 and 15 calls a day from people in trouble or their families,” says Osborne, the executive director of Baltimore’s Harbour Pointe, the oldest and one of the only residential treatment facilities in the country solely dedicated to treating compulsive gamblers.

He understands the pain of families with senior parents hooked on the Delaware and Charles Town slots and others with college sons forced to quit school because of their online Texas Hold ‘Em debts. He knows the denial of the compulsive gambler as well because Osborne is a gambling addict himself.

To satisfy his nearly two-decade long compulsive sports betting, Osborne once unwrapped his children’s presents three days before Christmas, returning them for store refunds to make a wager. The rush from the action, he says, was a thousand times greater than anything he’d ever experienced with alcohol or drugs. At his worst, he was $500,000 in debt to loan sharks, bookies, and offshore Internet accounts in Antigua and Belize.

“I’m seeing people come in everyday with nothing left to lose,” he says. “It’s like I’m looking at myself. The same hopelessness.”

Osborne, 37, has not placed a bet since November of 2003. He has been through rehab four times, including twice at Harbour Pointe. Today, he’s considered an expert on illegal gambling and even does workshops with the FBI and IRS. Osborne readily acknowledges that most adults who gamble do so responsibly, but he also believes that the general public remains unaware of the extent of compulsive gambling, its toll on human lives, and the lack of available treatment.

According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, an estimated two million adults in the United States meet the criteria for “pathological gambling,” and another four to six million are considered problem gamblers. A University of Illinois study found that at least one in five compulsive gamblers file for bankruptcy after they have exhausted multiple credit cards and other credit lines, often putting their families in financial risk.

In too many circumstances, the consequences are more serious than a bad credit score. A study by University of California sociology professor David Phillips found that the increase in legalized gambling in the U.S. is likely linked to dramatically higher suicide rates in cities with major casinos.

And although Osborne doesn’t take a position on the November slots referendum, when asked what the addition of 15,000 legalized gambling devices across Maryland will mean if approved, he doesn’t equivocate. “The cost of more gambling is that domestic violence will go up, crime will go up, prostitution will go up, foreclosures will go up, bankruptcy will go up. And suicide will go up,” says Osborne, who once considered taking his life. “Gambling addiction suicide rates are much higher than for alcoholism and drug addiction.”

Sitting in a comfortable office at the recently renovated rehabilitation center on East Baltimore Street between downtown and Little Italy, Osborne talks candidly about his own struggles with addiction. He doesn’t shy away from the details or embellish them. But he does worry about causing his children further embarrassment.

Osborne grew up in Essex, graduating from Eastern Tech High School in 1989. At 15, he started placing $50 bets on professional football games with a small-time bookie named Vern. After winning his first few weeks, he began betting as much as $1,000 on NFL games—despite earning $250 a week unloading groceries, which his bookie knew. Soon he was $5,000 in debt and his parents were forced to bail him out. When he was 19, they sent him to treatment for the first time. He lasted two weeks before calling in a bet from rehab.

At 21, he passed his real estate license exam and began stealing from client’s escrow accounts to cover bets. Arrested numerous times for theft, he managed to switch companies when caught and post restitution to avoid jail. (He estimates that he worked for eight real estate firms over a dozen years.)

Gambling consumed his life. He put money on everything from the Super Bowl to the Little League World Series. He had three satellite dishes feeding six televisions at home to track the point spreads. One lowlight came on October 17, 1999, during Game 5 of the National League Championship series between the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. He’d bet $25,000 that the teams would combine to score at least eight runs. After nine innings, the contest was tied 3-3. It appeared a sure loss—most extra-inning contests end with a single run being tallied—but in the bottom of the 15th, with the bases loaded, Mets third baseman Robin Ventura turned on an inside pitch, catching it flush on the sweet spot of his bat.

“I knew it was gone the moment he hit it,” Osborne says. “I was jumping up and down because I thought I just won $25,000. With the juice [the 10 percent interest bookies add on losing bets] it was a $55,000 swing. Then, I looked back at the television and saw the scoreboard read 4-3.”

Memorably, Ventura had been tackled by his teammates after he touched first base and it was ruled a single, which meant only the first run counted.

“I went completely nuts,” says Osborne, shaking his head slowly. “I called my offshore account in Antigua and shouted at them, ‘You can’t count this! You can’t count this!'”

By the end, gambling was misery, Osborne says, but the only means he knew to come up with the cash he owed. “And it filled up the hole inside I felt from the shame and guilt,” he says. “All we end up doing is digging the hole deeper.”

While a senior in high school, Osborne met his future wife Heather, two years his junior. She worked at the same neighborhood grocery store for a year before they started to date. She always knew he gambled.

“After we were together, he would call in bets with me right there and I also knew he went to pool halls and bet on the games he played, but I didn’t know enough to think that there was a problem,” Heather says. “I knew a lot of people gambled, but I didn’t know it could become an addiction. His friends gambled, too, so I thought it was just a fun thing they liked to do.”

However, Osborne became more and more secretive about his gambling, hiding his loses and the impending financial doom.

Inevitably, the addiction caught up with his home life after the couple got married and had their first child.

“I finally realized that he had a problem when his real estate clients were calling the house saying he owed them large sums of money,” his wife says. Heather took the kids and left on several occasions. They lost their house. Both cars were repossessed.

In the worst incident, several bookies broke into the house while Heather was playing with the children—aged two, four, and five at the time—and threatened her at gun point.

“After they confirmed that Michael wasn’t there, they put a gun to my head and told me if he didn’t pay what he owed them they would be back,” she recounts. “But when they came back, it would be to shoot me. They said if they killed him he wouldn’t be able to pay his debt.”

Ultimately, Osborne was sentenced to three years in state prison for helping himself to the escrow accounts. Homeless at one point after being incarcerated, he planned to kill himself. “I walked to the tracks, an isolated spot I knew where trains came all the time,” he says. “I had made up my mind to do it, but a train never came. I finally gave up.”

With his real estate license revoked, Osborne began delivering Domino’s pizzas to the same people he’d sold $300,000 homes. “I’d watch the computer at work and when an address came up that I knew, I’d try to get one of the other drivers to take it.”

Although “there were a lot of rocks along the way,” Osborne says rock-bottom didn’t arrive until his last rehab stint when his then-12-year old son visited over Thanksgiving. “He started crying about something that had happened at school and I asked what was wrong,” Osborne says. “And he looked at me in the eye and said, ‘Dad, all you ever cared about was real estate and gambling. Why should I believe you care now?’ That hit me like a punch in the gut. For the first time, I was able to see what I had done to my family and I wanted to change.”

Gambling-free nearly five years, Osborne maintains it’s a one day at a time disease, as with alcoholism and drug addiction. Nonetheless, his family has faith: The Osbornes reunited a year and a half ago.

“My love for my husband never wavered in anything we have been through,” says Heather, adding that she read every book on the subject of compulsive gambling, and came to understand that he was suffering from an illness. “The only reason I left my husband was for the sake and safety of our children.”

Recovery did not dampen Osborne’s entrepreneurial bent. In January 2006, he took over Harbour Pointe, the very clinic that helped him overcome his addiction. At the time, the center was struggling financially as a nonprofit. Osborne reorganized the operation as a private, for-profit treatment center, and by all indications, the move worked. Last fall, Osborne purchased the waterfront property Harbour Pointe leased for $765,000 and began a $400,000-plus renovation. The center has expanded from four beds to eight and is considering opening another facility.

Osborne maintains he is neither for nor against gambling. “It’s not like you’re ever going to stop it,” he says. Instead, he states simply that treatment needs to be made available, especially in Maryland, which profits from gambling (the state lottery generated $1.58 billion in revenues from ticket sales in 2007), but doesn’t funnel anything toward treatment. As of now, the state doesn’t even fund a helpline.

Maryland does have several million dollars in potential treatment money written into the slots referendum if voters approve it this fall, but Harbour Pointe’s business development manager Leroy Yegge says “If they wait two years to get treatment programs up and running, it’s going be too late.” A recovering compulsive gambler from Dundalk, Yegge met Osborne at the Gamblers Anonymous meetings held at the center. “It’s crucial the state get out ahead of the curve on this,” Yegge says.

The model for treating gambling addiction is similar to the model used in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.

The program emphasizes individualized treatment with psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, addressing the underlying issues driving the compulsive behavior. Later, family members come in to discuss the dynamic at home.

Sometimes, even after treatment, there are relapses, as was the case with Mary, 57, a former Harbour Pointe client who fell off the wagon and lost $12,000 in five days. Her family called Harbour Pointe, asking for intervention help. Osborne returned the call within hours, at 1 a.m.

Osborne says his initial counseling approach with compulsive gamblers is pretty simple: He tells them his story.

“They’re often frustrated because their loved ones can’t understand they have an addiction because they’re not ingesting something physically into their body,” Osborne says. “So, the first thing is that they understand I know where they’ve been at.”

His methods seem to work.

“Obviously, he’s really dedicated to the work he does,” says Mary, who recently celebrated a year without gambling. “He’s very good at the intervention, which is really important, talking to people not wanting to continue living the way they’re living, but not wanting to go to treatment because they’re in the horror, the grip of addiction, and they can’t come to terms with admitting the lies they’ve told everyone. There is a tremendous amount of shame. It’s a really delicate place.”

Harbour Pointe doesn’t offer a cure, but a foundation for ongoing recovery, Osborne says, admitting he’ll always be a compulsive gambler. What keeps him from gambling today, keeps his disease in remission, he says, is practicing the 12th step of the Gamblers Anonymous program: “Having made an effort to practice these principles in all our affairs, we tried to carry this message to other compulsive gamblers.”

Paying it forward, he never forgets where he’s come from.

“A lot of people don’t make it into recovery,” Osborne says. “What allows me to sleep at night is what I’m doing everyday with families and with the people before me that are in the same place I was. I’m blessed.”