Don’t repeat my mistakes, says recovering addict who gambled away £31,000 in just 30 days
Declan Cregan was 16 when he put his first £1 in a slot machine. From that moment, he was hooked.
Now 29 and two years into recovery, the west Belfast man is speaking out about how addiction dominated his life for 11 years in a bid to stop other people following him down the same destructive road.
Declan’s late teens and most of his 20s were overshadowed by gambling, which robbed him of his confidence and every penny he earned.
The pain and worry his addiction caused his family still haunts him as he continues his recovery with their support and the help of counselling.
For part of his 20s, he was working as a sales representative, making big money, often thousands of pounds in a week.
Just before he stopped gambling in August 2019, he blew £31,000 in 30 days.
Every pay day, every penny of his earnings would go to a bookmaker or into roulette machines, leaving him without the money to buy food.
“There were many times I went hungry because I had no money to buy food, yet I could have started the day with a few thousand pounds in my pocket,” he says.
“I had a dream job for someone so young, making really good money. Now, at 29, I have nothing to show for it and I am starting all over again.”
After becoming a classroom assistant in a special needs school, Declan decided to use his experience to help others avoid the path he found himself on.
He is determined never to put a pound in a slot machine again and aims to take his story to schools and youth clubs.
While a pupil at St Mary’s Christian Brothers Grammar School in west Belfast, he worked part-time to fund his addiction.
A keen sportsman who played Gaelic football and still plays hurling for St John’s in the city, he started a sports coaching degree at Queen’s but dropped out after a few weeks to start his job in sales.
After using the slot machine for the first time, things began to spiral out of control.
“From that first day of winning £7.20, it was carnage and it just kept getting worse,” he admits.
“I got a crazy, huge buzz when I pocketed that £7.20. You think it is super-easy to win.
“I was only a kid and I was buzzing, but slowly and surely it got gradually worse and worse and I would have bet on anything and everything.
“In school, everyone knew I was a gambler and we actually had a group of us who gambled.
“I would have left school at lunchtime to go and do a bet. [Back then], I couldn’t wait to get out at the end of the day to go back to the bookies.
“I didn’t have a huge amount of money then, but every penny I had I gambled. Machines were my killer at that time — I just loved them.
“It got so bad that when I placed my bet and the ball started to spin, I knew which number it would land on because I had seen it spun so many times because I played roulette so often.”
As he was studying and working part-time, to fund his addiction Declan took out loans but found he couldn’t repay them as every penny he got went back into gambling. At one stage as a student, he owed hundreds of pounds to a number of companies.
“Every loan company under the sun was sending letters to me, demanding repayment,” he says.
“I never had the money to pay them and the pressure just kept growing and growing.
“That’s when my family started to find out about me and how bad it was. It is really hard to lie to your family, which I did for a long time.”
When he started to work full-time, the stakes got higher as every penny of his wages went to the machines or bookies, often leaving him penniless on the same day he was paid.
“I got a sales job with my brother-in-law in my early 20s and made great money,” Declan explains. “I remember one day working in Enniskillen and I got paid £4,500. I had it in my pocket that morning, but by the end of the
day, I hadn’t a penny. I had no food and there was no one I could ask for help, so I went hungry.”
As his 20s wore on and his gambling steadily became worse, Declan knew deep down that it had taken over his life, but he felt powerless to stop it.
He spent his days in betting shops, where he would play the machines while placing bets online with his phone and in person over the counter.
In August 2019, he hit a low and contacted one bookmaker to ask how much he had spent.
He was astonished to discover he had blown £31,000 in 30 days.
“I always knew I couldn’t control it and it was killing me. I couldn’t sleep and I still don’t sleep well,” Declan tells Sunday Life.
“I had a huge shame about my family and hurting people I knew.
“I banned myself from all the online places and telephone bookies I used.
“I got to the point when I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had lost confidence. I hit rock bottom and it was mental torture for me.”
With the support of family, friends and professional counselling, Declan has managed to rebuild his life and has not gambled for two years.
“It is a battle, but I just look at how far I have come. I won’t go back there to that place, which is such a bleak place to be,” he says.
“I keep myself busy. I go to the gym or phone a friend or family member, anything rather than give in to the urge to gamble.
“Counselling is helping and I have a brilliant family who are a great support.
“I think what drove me was that I convinced myself that one day I would hit the jackpot.
“[I thought I would] get over £1 million and be able to help all my friends and family, but even if I had, I probably would have gambled it all away in a week.
“With the money I have earned, I should have my own home and my own car, but I have nothing.
“I am starting from scratch, but I’ve no debt and I am happy about having to rebuild my life.
“I would say to anyone who thinks they have a problem that if I can do it, anyone can. Just find the courage to speak to someone.
“It is a horrible thing to have to come clean about it to your family but, trust me, it will help change your life for the better.”