By Thom Cole
The New Mexican
Chris Danner, like a lot of slot machine players, started gambling to win money.
Eventually, she played the slots to escape.
When seated in front of a slot machine, Danner thought only of winning a big jackpot. She forgot about the controlling husband who always was concerned about money, her escalating gambling losses, her feelings of shame and guilt.
In April 2012, after about three years, Danner hit bottom. Her husband had cut off her access to the couple's bank accounts, but she forged his signature on checks to get cash anyway. She gambled away the money and had no way to cover the losses. Her credit cards were maxed out. She feared her husband would have her charged with forgery. At the age of 64, Danner decided suicide was her only way out.
"I was turning myself into someone I didn't know: a liar, cheat and thief," Danner says.
Danner never followed through on suicide, but her story is a common one when it comes to female problem gamblers. Middle age, "escape gambling" and slot machines can be a deadly cocktail for women at risk of developing gambling problems. Experts estimate there are thousands of at-risk women in New Mexico, and thousands more who already have developed the affliction.
Although men are by no means immune, most of the big stories about problem gambling in New Mexico have involved women since the legalization of slot machines and other casino gambling in the mid-1990s.
Dianna Duran resigned as secretary of state in 2015 and pleaded guilty to charges stemming from her use of campaign donations to feed her gambling habit at casinos in Northern New Mexico and elsewhere across the state.
Kathy Borrego, 51, who had worked as financial manager for the Jemez Mountain School District, committed suicide in 2010, two days before she was to be sentenced on charges in the theft of $3.4 million from the district. She had gambled away at least some of the money.
And Karen Yontz, 50, an investigator with the state Attorney General's Office, was shot and killed by Albuquerque police in 2003 after she robbed a bank. Yontz was under investigation for committing check and credit card fraud to finance her gambling addiction.
The issue can also affect the mom next door, and researchers in recent years have been looking deeper at female problem gambling as a result of what some call the "feminization of gambling."
Female gamblers prefer nonstrategic forms of wagering, like slot machines, which have a fast pace of winning and losing that is associated with increased risk of problem gambling, researchers have found. And women can access the devices much easier today because of the explosion in legalized slot machine gambling in the United States and around the world.
Women develop gambling problems almost exclusively with slot machines, researchers say. Some men also develop an addiction to the devices, but research shows male problem gamblers typically branch out to wager on table games, races, sports and lotteries.
Daniel Blackwood, executive director of The Evolution Group in Albuquerque, which provides counseling to problem gamblers, says both men and women at risk of problems are gambling to escape into fantasy. Women, in general, seek relief and relaxation, he says; men are looking for action, power and excitement.
Blackwood says some female problem gamblers who seek help at The Evolution Group also have other mental health issues, such as depression, grief, anxiety and trauma. His firm offers women-specific treatment, including group services, in addition to counseling for men.
Kandace Blanchard, a founder and clinical director at the New Mexico Council on Problem Gambling, which operates a telephone helpline and provides counseling, says women can disassociate from any physical or mental pain while playing slot machines.
"I've had women tell me it's like putting a warm blanket around them," Blanchard says.
The last major study of gamblers in New Mexico, in 2006, estimated as many as 15,000 women and 24,000 men were problem gamblers or had progressed to be pathological gamblers. Tens of thousands more New Mexicans, both men and women, were estimated to be at risk.
New Mexico legalized slots at American Indian casinos, horse-racing tracks, and veterans and fraternal clubs in the 1990s, putting a slot machine within a short drive of most people in the state.
‘Nearly 40 years of my life gone up in smoke'
For women at risk of becoming problem gamblers, being between the ages of 45 and 54 and playing slot machines are strong indicators that they may develop the disorder, research has found.
Many middle-age women have settled down in the world of work or family or both. But for those whose lives have been rocked by lifestyle changes, such as divorce or death of a spouse or another family member, social gambling can take a bad turn. And that cascading transition occurs more quickly in at-risk women - what researchers call a "telescoping phenomenon" for female problem gamblers.
Researchers also have found female problem gamblers have more difficult times recovering than men.
While at-risk women may escape to slot machines for relief, those in the throes of the addiction often find a dark, painful existence from which there seems to be no way out.
Cathy - that's not her real name, at her request - started playing slot machines at an Albuquerque casino when she was in her mid-40s.
She says she was lonely, and her life didn't seem fulfilling. She had lost a major client at work. There was family turmoil. Her son was in high school and didn't need her as much anymore.
Today, at age 63, she has lost much. She says her gambling was a contributing factor in her divorce. Her relationships with her son and other family members have been shattered. She says she has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and something you can't put a price tag on: self-respect.
"Nearly 40 years of my life gone up in smoke," is how Cathy describes it. "No one's in my life right now. It's very sad and lonely."
She got the house in the divorce, but it's fallen into such disrepair that the city of Albuquerque won't let anybody live in it. For much of the past year, she has been homeless, sleeping on the front seat of her Chevy pickup and showering at a community center. She's on food stamps and has sold her blood plasma.
Cathy says she first sought help nearly a decade ago but continued to play slots.
"It's not like I don't want to change," she says. "It's hard."
Only her faith, Cathy says, has kept her from taking her life. You hear that a lot from gambling addicts.
There are signs that Cathy may be turning her life around. She got a job in December and rented a room in a house in August. She says she hasn't gambled since July. She has a free mental health counselor through the New Mexico Council on Problem Gambling and, also through the council, tells her story at training sessions for casino workers so they can better spot problem gamblers. Cathy says problem gamblers don't look like they are having fun, while remaining seated at slot machines for long stretches without food or drink.
Cathy says she doesn't want gambling to define her. "You don't wake up one day and ask, ‘How can I screw up my life and drive everyone out of my life?' " she says.
Still, Cathy is uncertain whether she will ever make a full recovery from her gambling problem.
"I don't think I will ever have a normal life," she says. "I still feel like there's this fog, huge cloud over me."
‘It was the one place where no one made demands'
Women at risk of becoming problem gamblers are much more likely than their male counterparts to be single parents, according to researchers.
Nearly 50 percent of at-risk women have experienced trauma or hardship, a study found. And female gamblers are much more likely than male gamblers to have mental health issues.
Female problem gamblers often are victims of abuse, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling.
Donna - she also didn't want her real name used - is a single parent in Albuquerque who became a problem gambler. She played bingo, then blackjack, then slot machines.
Gambling, she says, was a relief.
"It was the one place where no one made demands," she says. "It was just about getting away, being alone, not being found."
Donna says she gambled away the money she needed to pay bills in hopes of making more money. "It just got progressively worse," she says. She used her daughter's ATM card to get cash.
She decided to get help in 2011 when she ran out of money and considered prostitution to finance her addiction. She says she hasn't gambled since then. She went to Gamblers Anonymous meetings every day for a year and also sought help at The Evolution Group.
Donna's recovery has forced her to confront the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a child at the hands of a family member.
"I think that was what I was escaping from," she says. "When I was gambling, I didn't know that."
Donna, 45, says her relationship with her daughter has survived. She also has been paying off gambling debts but says that will take several years.
"I'm just finally getting on my feet," she says.
Donna's daughter was an adolescent when her mother developed her gambling disorder.
"I struggled with having my mom's need to gamble supersede my basic needs for love and attention," the daughter says. But she adds, "Through her commitment to recovery, our relationship has grown even stronger, and we've had opportunities to restore any damage."
Not all stories have such a positive trajectory.
Maryann - a Grants gambling addict who asked that her real name not be used - also says she was sexually abused as a child by a family member, then endured 25 years of marriage to a verbally abusive husband.
Maryann, 60, says her boyfriend was deported to Mexico and her four children are out of the house. She says she goes to casinos because she is lonely.
"Then, when I get out of there, I feel worse," she says having recently gambled away $768 of a $1,000 paycheck.
"Now, I don't know how I'm going to pay my bills," she says.
Maryann says she has been gambling for about three years and has sought counseling through the New Mexico Council on Problem Gambling.
"This has to stop, but it hasn't stopped," she says.
‘I was powerless over gambling'
Amalia - that's not her real name - says she started playing slot machines at an Albuquerque casino in the mid-1990s for something to do.
She was single. Her two children were out of the house and had their own lives. Her own job wasn't fulfilling anymore.
"It was just, basically, loneliness," Amalia says. "I didn't think anybody cared about me. I was feeling sorry for myself."
She says she started out gambling away $30 a week. It later became $1,000 a week. She remembers crying as she pumped $100 bills into a slot machine.
"I could not stop," she recalls.
By the time she got to her mid-60s, she had drained her retirement savings, borrowed money against her house, took out payday loans and lost $40,000 from her mother that was supposed to go to a grandson.
Amalia says she was a closet gambler in the beginning, but the secret got out eventually. Sometimes, when she was at a casino, family members would leave written messages on her car. "Mom, please go home," the notes said. When she did go home, she says, she prayed to God every night that she would die in her sleep.
"I was powerless over gambling," she says.
Amalia says she doesn't believe her gambling was about the money. She doesn't even remember ever winning.
She started going to Gamblers Anonymous in 2009 and hasn't played since 2010. She moved that year into Integrity House, a residential program for problem gamblers run by The Evolution Group. Amalia says she was there about 16 to 18 months.
Now 73, Amalia has been back in the workplace for five years. She still attends Gamblers Anonymous.
"Financially, " she says, "I've dug myself out of the hole."
Things are good with her children and the grandson.
Amalia's son says she is a more genuine person today - calmer, with a better sense of herself.
"I never stopped loving her," he says.
Danner was living in Montana when she hit bottom. When she told a friend of her plan to kill herself, the friend took her to a hospital emergency room. She went from there to a mental health unit. If there was any good news, it was this: Her husband didn't pursue a forgery charge.
A woman in a gambling addiction group had given Danner a card for Daniel Blackwood, executive director of The Evolution Group in Albuquerque. She called and was accepted for treatment at Integrity House. Danner's husband sold her car to pay for an airplane ticket to New Mexico.
"When I got on the plane, I knew I would never be back," Danner says. That was May 2012.
Her husband filed for divorce while she was in Integrity House. Danner says that was a relief. She spent 11 months at the house. She got a job in Albuquerque and an apartment. It was the first time she had ever lived by herself. Also, for the first time, she bought a car on her own. It was a convertible sports car.
"I didn't get back my life," she says. "I found my life."
When Integrity House closed last year, Danner took in its last two residents, both women. Blackwood says a lack of funding and a shortage of clientele willing to commit to the rigors of the program were factors in the closing. It was the only gambling-specific residential program in the state.
Danner, 70, is retired now and helps run group meetings for recovering gamblers.
"I am a miracle," she says.
The other female gamblers interviewed for this story didn't want their names used because they have work or family ties in New Mexico or for other reasons. Danner doesn't have such connections and agreed to have her name published because she wants to be an example of how the life of a problem gambler can be turned around.
"If I can help somebody, that is my goal," she says.
Danner says problem gamblers are still good people; they just made bad decisions - decisions that led to a hellish existence not only for themselves, but also for friends and family.
"They need to be loved," she says, "until they can love themselves."
Contact Thom Cole at 505-986-3022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.