Gambling with her family life

By Kiri Gillespie

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Belinda Sullivan had no idea how bad her gambling habits were until she nearly lost her family. At times, they could not buy bread or milk, as she continued to play the pokies. Reporter Kiri Gillespie talks with the mum-of-four about how she finally conquered her gambling demons.

"Just seeing people go in there, seeing the lights, seeing the jackpot quite high and I (was) thinking if I go in there... I may be able to win that little jackpot."

Belinda Sullivan can still hear the jingle of a jackpot win in her head, but it has been 16 months since she set foot inside a pokie machine venue.

To use her words, Ms Sullivan has "conquered" her addiction. "I'll never say I've cured it because it will always be there, like a little devil on my shoulder," she says.

Ms Sullivan and husband Ivan Sullivan are both beneficiaries. They have four children, three with special needs.

When times got tough, Ms Sullivan would escape from reality with pokie machines.

Wherever and whenever - it didn't matter.

"When the urge came, no matter where I was, I had to play," Ms Sullivan says.

"It takes over your life. Your brain says 'you have to do it, you have to do it'.

"I used the pokies as a get-away. I would go and play them and I didn't have to deal with things happening in life."

But Ms Sullivan's life outside the pokie rooms was fast unravelling.

The Sullivans have children aged 20, 19, 15 and 14. Their youngest child suffers from Asperger's syndrome, epilepsy and ADHD. The 20-year-old and 19-year-old also have Asperger's syndrome.

While Ms Sullivan sought solace in gambling, the family struggled to pay bills.

There was no money left for the children to take part in camps or other extra-curricular school activities. Often the family went without bread or milk.

"We were always having debt collectors ringing up, we were so behind in our power. We almost got it disconnected."

As the debt spiralled, Ms Sullivan found herself deceiving the people she loved most.

Her Australian-based father would send money over for the children, but she began using this for the pokies instead.

Tears well in Ms Sullivan's eyes and her voice tightens as she recalls her "lowest moment".

"My daughter lent me a car and I stole money off her. It was only $40 but it made me realise I had a problem.

"After stealing from my daughter, my husband said it's either the pokie machines or our marriage," she says, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I did hit rock bottom.

"The kids said 'Mum, I don't want to live like this, I will go and live with Dad if you don't stop'. That was the hardest thing to hear. That you could lose your children over some dumb machines," she says, patting her face with tissues.

Mr Sullivan described his wife's gambling as a "fixation".

Often it was easier to drive her down to the pokies instead of dealing with arguments about his wife's gambling. Ms Sullivan made an appointment with a counsellor at the Salvation Army and banned herself from the pokies. Her details and photo were sent to each local venue, so they would know not to allow her in. It has been 16 months since that day.

Ms Sullivan says the journey has not been easy.

At Easter, the Sullivan family went to Rotorua's Valentines restaurant and waited for their table to be ready.

"We were sitting right by the pokie machines. The biggest test was just sitting there. I was sweating like anything. I was sitting on my hands so I didn't go, and I didn't. It was really hard but I beat it and I feel great."

The self-banning scheme was introduced 18 months ago by the Salvation Army and 39 other Bay people have since done the same as Ms Sullivan.

Tauranga central's 357 gaming machines ranked the city third in New Zealand for gaming machine profits outside of casinos last year. There are 754 machines in the Western Bay of Plenty.

Ms Sullivan told her story to inspire others to quit. "If I can help only one person to beat the pokie addiction, that's the best thing."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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