I hit a new low in September 2017 when, after being bombarded with online adverts, I became aware of a company called Amigo Loans. I’d exhausted most of my payday loan options some years earlier, and had been juggling the repayments ever since. Amigo (what an ironic name that is) had very high interest rates, and required a guarantor, who had to be a homeowner, to secure a loan.
I decided that I needed a loan, for £10,000, but given that my parents had no idea of my situation, there was no way I could ask them to guarantee it, and my partner, Charlotte, wasn’t a homeowner (not that I could have realistically asked her anyway). Nor were many of my close mates and, anyway, I knew asking them would cause alarm.
I turned to a colleague in the private school where I taught, who I got on very well with. A close friend, but not someone I had gambled with before. He was big-hearted, the sort who wanted to help. I assured him that £300 repayments each month were manageable and, with a warning of how serious all this was and the consequences it would have if it went sour, he agreed.
I sent him the online paperwork, which he filled out. By the end of the day, I had £10,000 in my account. The fact that I was due to pay back £20,000 seemed irrelevant: I had funds. I gambled the entire loan in the space of a week.
In one fell swoop, I’d deepened my troubles massively. This took my debt past £125,000.
The start of each month was doubly uncomfortable, because the individuals I owed – including colleagues and parents – knew that I’d been paid and should, therefore, be in a position to fund them. But I was nowhere near that.
I love Christmas, but that year, 2017, it was miserable. I was so pent-up, unable to open up on anything as I felt I’d so much to lose. My parents had some idea of my problems and were desperate to help, but I felt that knowing the full extent would break them.
Over the holiday I went to London to meet some friends at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. I woke up with no memory of the night whatsoever, but a mate told me that we had had all been enjoying ourselves and catching up over a couple of beers, when I just disappeared – for hours.
As can happen at a bar, I ran into another mate and drank aggressively with him before going Awol. I finally re-emerged and was, in his words, “the drunkest man alive”. I was unable to communicate with everyone else. They were getting festively merry but little more. Unsurprisingly, mates were exchanging confused and concerned glances about me. I had no idea where the time had gone.
It felt to me like Charlotte was sensing that I told lies and kept things from her. That was a major concern, but I had many other worries too. I no longer had parents left at school who I could go to and ask for money. All those I felt close enough to had said a confused no or a reluctant yes. As the emails I was receiving attested, I was really struggling to pay anything back to those in the latter camp. Even the creditors I was most keen to pay back had to be ignored.
In my spare time, I flicked through my contacts list on my phone and the hundreds of people I was friends with on Facebook. I would size each up, with two considerations: 1) whether they were in a position to lend to me; and 2) whether my request for cash would get back to my friends and family.
Ultimately, though, I wasn’t too picky and sent hundreds of messages, without much success. When people said no, I wouldn’t take it personally. I would just move on to the next person, until someone said yes. Inevitably, this only widened the cracks. The people I was approaching found it weird that I was asking for money, and my due diligence wasn’t tight enough. These were people I hadn’t seen for years and now had only tenuous links with.
I remember learning that a block I’d played cricket with for one season now had a decent property business, so asked him for money. He then understandably shared our exchange with a mutual friend, putting them on red alert about my behavior.
In 2017, my gambling had truly run wild. This was the year that I hit 76 different accounts (often having multiple accounts with the same gambling company) and, in one account alone, placed 27,988 bets. I’d built up all these accounts over the years in many different names.
I would gamble on every single horse race at every meet throughout the day, and just about every football league match. Saturdays, as you can imagine, were carnage
Many of my accounts were given VIP status by the gambling companies due to how much I was spending on them, and I would leverage that position for bonuses and freebies. So bad was my addiction at this point that I became really nasty with them, threatening that I would harm myself if I didn’t get what I wanted, or claim that I was about to lose my job. It was pure emotional blackmail. There was one operator with whom I was particularly aggressive, because I knew I would get what I wanted. They almost all said yes in the end.
And why not? I would end up giving them all of my money anyway. I would gamble on every single horse race at every meet throughout the day, and just about every football league match (bear in mind there are 92 clubs). Saturdays, as you can imagine, were carnage – I would put quite literally thousands of bets on, either placed in preparation overnight or just on my phone on the day.
When my money ran dry and my accounts were empty, I would experience a brief moment of relief. I could do nothing more. But that wouldn’t last long – I would go hunting for money once more.
All this gambling was in search of the salvation that was the “big win”. By now I knew it would need more than just one extraordinary bet to get me out of trouble, but I honestly thought it would happen.
And that is what is unique about a pathological gambling addiction. With drugs or alcohol, you know what you are feeding your addiction with is bad for you, but as a gambling addict, I was certain it was by gambling more that I would get out of the mess I was in. I came close to huge wins on massive multiples that left me feeling like the unluckiest man alive. They also just kept me coming back for more.
Standing on platform 5 at Slough station, I was certain of two things – that I’d placed my last bet, and that I was about to take my last breath. I would only end up following through with one of them.
I was a mess. Onlookers appeared confused by the sight of a 6ft 2in, thick-set, flame-haired man smartly dressed but in floods of tears and unable to stand still. No one came over, though. Perhaps they assumed I had just said a particularly tricky goodbye. In reality, I was preparing to say goodbye to everything.
I was gripped by the thought that I hadn’t told anyone about the trouble I was in. Those close to me deserved some sort of explanation. At the very least, there would be people wondering where I’d gone. But I was also ready to go – and there was too much to explain and far too little time to do so.
As a peacekeeping compromised with myself, I fired off two WhatsApp messages. I couldn’t call the recipients because I didn’t want them to hear the state I was in, or for that to be their final memory of me.
The first was to Charlotte. I simply wrote: “I don’t want to be here anymore. I’m sorry. X.”
The other was to my brother. We were very close, but he had no sense of the extent to which I was suffering, because I had said nothing. A couple of people had raised vague concerns about me to him, but our relationship was happy and based on fun. I also knew he would have his phone in his hand, because he was always glued to the thing. So as well as being my brother, he was perhaps the most likely person in my whole phonebook to read it promptly.
I didn’t tell him exactly where I was, but told him what I was thinking about doing. I said my situation was dire, and asked him to say goodbye to everyone and tell them that I loved them.
I saw the two blue ticks next to the WhatsApp message but he didn’t reply and, in my scrambled mind, I thought he wanted me to jump in front of the train
As I predicted he would, my brother read the message almost immediately, whereas Charlotte – busy in her work as a teacher – didn’t. I saw the two blue ticks next to the WhatsApp message but he didn’t reply and, in my scrambled mind, thought that he must have agreed with what I’d typed. I thought he wanted me to jump in front of the train. In fact, he’d just read the hardest few words he had – and hopefully will – ever read in his life.
Three minutes passed, and an announcement went out informing people on the platform to stand back because the oncoming train wouldn’t be stopping. I was bracing myself to jump when my phone started to go mad in my pocket.
My brother was trying to call me, but my mind was made up: I wasn’t going to answer.
Still holding my phone, a reply to my WhatsApp popped up. He said that he had no idea what was going on, but whatever I’d done, this was not the solution. He said that if I went ahead and did this, he and the rest of my family wouldn’t be able to cope. He said that I could talk to him about anything.
He didn’t know I was at the station, or how close I really was to taking my own life. Perhaps he would have reacted differently and panicked even more if he knew. But I truly believe his words were the only things I could have read that stopped me in my tracks the way they did. His message gave me perspective, and reminded me that this wasn’t all about me. Until now, I hadn’t considered the devastation I would leave behind. I’d just thought everything would be simpler without me.
For the first time in maybe a decade, I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I’d finally told someone that I had issues I couldn’t deal with alone
So, still in floods of tears, I stepped back, took a deep breath and, moments later, watched the train go past on its way to London.
I had made so many bad decisions, but this was the best one I would ever make. I thought about all the mammoth obstacles that I’d been running away from, and now had to face. But, for the first time in maybe a decade, I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I’d finally told someone that I had issues I couldn’t deal with alone. I’d owned up. Perhaps now I could get the help that I needed so badly, but had resisted for so long.
I felt deep fear and shame. My parents arrived the following morning, and my hug with Mum felt like it lasted a lifetime. The four of us sat around a table and I bared my soul to three of the most important people in my life over the course of more than five hours. I told them everything – the lies, the debts, the fact I would inevitably lose my job and the house that came with it, even the looming possibility of time in prison.
Even now, it took me some time to open up about the extent of my financial issues. I said it was so bad that I couldn’t tell them, but they kept pushing. I didn’t know an exact figure, but I knew a ballpark. Crying and shaking, I finally told them. We looked at it all in more detail, and came across loans and credit cards that I’d totally forgotten about. There were that many.
We all cried, a lot, as the emotion I’d been locking up flowed out. Of course, they weren’t pleased, or proud of how I’d behaved. And, of course, they recognized that I was significantly damaged and that huge challenges lay ahead for me.
But there was clear relief: I’d reached out before it was too late. I was still there, in front of them. I was suffering from an illness, but help was available. They agreed to support me in any way possible, on one condition: that I did everything I could to stop gambling and that I accepted all the help offered.
Patrick Foster’s last bet was on March 22nd, 2018. Four years into recovery, he now works with a gambling harm minimization organization, raising awareness of problem gambling in schools and workplaces.
Might Bite: The Secret Life of a Gambling Addict is published by Bloomsbury Sport