The Surprising Illness Behind My Dad’s Sudden Gambling Addiction

Parkinson's drugs can trigger compulsive behavior, as Marily Atlas-Berney reveals in the story of her father, as told to Elisa Roland.

courtesy Marilyn Atlas BerneyMy father was always fond of casinos. He relished the thrill of winning, being comped and treated like a king. And as a child, I was also in awe of these giant hotels that my parents took me to visit. Everything seemed touched by gold. Even the elevator doors sparkled. I didn’t have to make my own bed and my parents would treat me to lavish meals, wonderful shows, and even bowling inside the Showboat casino hotel in Atlantic City. It was loads of fun back then. But now casinos are only a sad reminder of my father’s Parkinson’s disease and the medication that turned his gambling into a full-blown addiction. (Check out these silent signs your body may be in big trouble.)

My father always enjoyed gambling, but like the slow progression of his disease, it took me a long time to recognize my father had turned into a compulsive gambler. At about the age of 40, he developed a tremor in his arm that would not subside, one of many signs of the disease. Soon after, when I was in high school, he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s. His business began to struggle financially. Then he began to disappear for days at a time; soon, our savings did a disappearing act as well.

A neurodegenerative brain disorder, Parkinson’s stops the brain from producing dopamine, a neurotransmitor. As dopamine decreases, the body is unable to regulate movements, causing tremors and difficulty speaking. The most commonly prescribed drugs to fight symptoms are made up of dopamine agonists, which reduces the diseases’ progression by replacing the depleted dopamine. Unfortunately, the drugs can also undo a person’s ability to control impulsive behavior—and my father was suffering this side effect in spades.

As my father grew sicker, his need to gamble grew larger. By the time I’d graduated college, he was a full-blown addict. He’d beg me to put him on a bus to Atlantic City and “lend” him $300 to $400. He also begged other family members including my grandmother. He borrowed against credit cards and used his business acumen to finagle ways to get money. When he passed away, I found bank statements showing that he’d deposit his social security check on the 3rd day of the month and by the 4th it would be gone. One after the other, there would be $100 withdrawals at the casino. My mother did her best to keep what money she could hid away, but he was clever and manipulative. I urged her to take away his car keys so he couldn’t go gamble—he shouldn’t have been driving anyway—and to lock up her credit cards. His need to gamble turned him into a man she no longer recognized, but she was in denial. When her rings and other jewelry slowly disappeared, he’d blame the cleaning service. When I went to take out a mortgage I discovered a $13,000 outstanding debt on my credit card—the card should have been closed years earlier, but my dad had borrowed against it. I had to reconcile that this compulsive gambler was my father, the same man who may have always gambled, but never with money that wasn’t his.

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Out of 127,000 people in the United Kingdom that suffer from the Parkinson’s disease, five to 10 percent of those taking dopamine agonist-type drugs, are suffering from an impulse control disorder. That number may be much higher in the United States where reportedly 500,000 people suffer from the disease. Besides gambling, the compulsions can emerge with shopping, eating, sexual activity, and hoarding.

Parkinsons.org describes the condition as “an overwhelming drive or urge to act in a certain way, often repetitively, to reduce the worry or tension that they get from their urge. Some people continue to act in this way, even if they no longer get any pleasure or reward. In many cases, this behavior is out of character and the person may carry out these activities without any thoughts about financial, social or legal consequences.”

Studies also point out that men diagnosed with the Parkinson’s disease at a younger age, like my father, are most likely to suffer from these compulsions.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK has released new guidelines for the medical community to follow when prescribing dopamine agonist drugs. Doctors and nurses should advise patients that the drugs could lead to risky behavior, and ask patients and families to weigh the benefits of taking the medication against the risks.

I don’t blame the drugs for my father’s gambling addiction. His quality of life would have suffered without them. However, I do blame the casino industry. Not only could they track my father’s spending habits with his casino card, he was clearly physically ill—yet no one at the casinos stopped him from gambling. Although it was Parkinson’s disease that my father ultimately succumbed to, it was a gambling compulsion that truly wrecked his life.

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