Belfast man Declan Cregan: £1 slot machine bet turned into 10 year gambling addiction and loss of £31,000 life savings
Belfast man Declan Cregan was just 16 when he placed his first bet.
From putting that one pound coin into a slot machine, he went on to spend the next 10 years of his life gambling every day.
He lost his entire £31,000 life savings and once blew £8,000 in an hour – gambling consumed Declan’s life.
Now in recovery and not having gambled for the past four years, he is speaking out about his addiction in a bid to help prevent others from going down the same path.
He is also discussing the support he received from GAMSTOP, an online self-exclusion scheme for people who want to stop gambling, in the hope that he can warn others about the dangers of gambling.
It also coincides with Safer Gambling Week, an initiative that involves bookmakers and betting sites placing an increased emphasis on safer gambling tools to help customers bet responsibly.
For Declan, his gambling addiction began as a school boy on slot machines.
- Ulster GAA joins forces with charity helping families bereaved by gambling-related suicide
- Quarter of UK university students who gamble at risk of harm, study finds
- Nearly one in five people gambling online ‘have a problem or are at risk'
"It was pretty enjoyable, literally just one pound, I didn't imagine anything else coming from it," he said.
"On my first bet I won £7.20, so instantly I was hooked to a certain extent. From then on I went to the bookies every day."
Months later and his problem was flagged by a teacher, who told his mother of his concerns during a parents meeting at school.
"She didn't understand what was going on and from then on, I was about 17, I had so many attempts to try and stop, but I couldn't," he said.
"Everybody then knew, but when you become a gambler, you become an incredible liar."
Trying to hide his addiction from family and friends, Declan said he had to "think of a craftier way to do it" and turned to online banking.
"That took things to a different level for me," he said.
Later becoming a sales representative, he said any penny he earned was spent on gambling.
"I had so many bad days, every day gambling was a bad day, even if I won money I would never have went home with that money," he said.
"I ended up gambling it all by the end of the day.
"One day I won £8,000 and went to Victoria Square and spent £300 on clothes and was disgusted at myself for doing that,
"So I went straight back to the bookies afterwards to win the money back.
"Basically an hour after, I was walking home as I didn't even have enough money to pay the £1.50 black taxi.
"I would have just left myself stuck every time, left myself with absolutely nothing.
"I began stealing from Marks and Spencers to get my lunch, things like that - that was some weeks when I was earning £2,500 so it was absolutely crazy."
By the time he was 26, Declan had lost his entire £31,000 life savings and was taking out payday loans to fund his gambling addiction.
He said a "wake up call" about his addiction came when he lost £17,500 he had earned through work as a sales representative.
"At this stage I had literally hit rock bottom," he said.
"The heartache I was causing myself and the people around me. I had quite a lot of suicidal thoughts, I knew that if I didn't stop I wouldn't be here today.
"I damaged a lot of good relationships around me, if I didn't have good people around me I would have ended up homeless, it was that bad.
"That was the wake up call for me, from there I was able to seek some help."
He told of how registering with GAMSTOP helped him see a way out of his addiction.
The free service allows vulnerable consumers to exclude themselves from all gambling sites licensed by the Gambling Commission for up to five years.
"It was incredible for me... I literally cannot gamble online right now, even if I wanted to, I can't do it," he said.
"For me, it was such a saviour - that was a massive help for me."
Fiona Plamer from GAMSTOP, said: “We are delighted to hear that self-exclusion has been an invaluable tool for Declan and helped him to stop gambling.
"GAMSTOP is a free service and our most recent data shows there is increasing demand for our help.
"More than 400,000 potentially vulnerable consumers have excluded themselves from all licensed online gambling sites in the last five years.
"It is extremely important that we continue to raise awareness of self-exclusion to anyone who might benefit from taking a break from gambling."
Four years and two months since he last gambled, Declan (31) now works as a teaching assistant and as a carer.
He also does outreach work, raising awareness about gambling-related harm in schools, sports clubs and youth groups.
While he says his life is much better without gambling, he admits to having dark days.
"Life is amazing for me now, but I do struggle," he said.
"From gambling, I do have a lot of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, but I keep myself very busy.
"I am quite a good person, but if you're a gambler, you don't care what you're doing - I still have lot of regrets for the people I hurt.
"But I would say to others, seek help, it does take a long time, it's not overnight.
"For online users, sign up with GAMSTOP and open up to people and tell them what's going on.
"No matter how things are, there is always hope."