Pat Galea, 65, Frankston, Vic
Wow. What a win! Closing the door to my room and laying down on my bed, I let the thrill wash over me. I’d spent the last few hours playing the pokies and it had given me a feeling I’d never experienced before. I felt ecstatic!
A few years earlier I’d had no interest in gambling at all. As a working mum of three, I was secretary of the local soccer club and spent my time organising school charity drives. But I struggled with restless legs syndrome. The condition affects the levels of dopamine in my system, a hormone that controls body movement. For 20 years I’d experienced a compelling urge to move my legs, which often left me unable to sleep.
Finally, my doctor told me a new medication had come on the market.
‘It’s a new class of drug that mimics the effect of dopamine by stimulating the same brain receptors,’ he said, explaining that the drugs, called dopamine agonists, were being effectively prescribed for people with restless legs syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.
He gave me a prescription for a small dose of one such medication, called Permax. After taking the white pill, I slept through the night for the first time in nearly two decades. I was thrilled, and although I quickly built up a tolerance to the drug, my doctor simply increased the dose a little, with excellent results.
After years of interrupted sleep, I felt incredible, like I had a new lease of life. But I also felt something else – a strange compulsion to play computer games. As soon as I’d completed one game, I wanted to start again. I just couldn’t help myself.
Then, one evening, my hubby Mark* and I were in the pub when the glint of a poker machine caught my eye
‘I’m just going to try my luck,’ I told him, slipping off with a $20 note.
I’d never shown much interest in the pokies before, but I found that – just like those computer games – once I started I couldn’t stop.
The following week, I was back in the pub and playing them again. And soon I was stopping there on my way home from work, during my lunch hour and even in the mornings. The thrill was so intense I’d sometimes call the office with an excuse. ‘I’m not feeling well,’ I’d tell my boss, then keep playing until all my money was gone.
Gradually, I spent less and less time at home.
When Mark lost his job, rather than support him, I continued to gamble away what money we had. Finally, the strain became too much and we split. I moved to a rented property with our three kids while we put our house on the market.
... once I started I couldn’t stop.
With my gambling sprees becoming more frequent, I lost the ability to walk away. Before long, I’d frittered away all the money I’d received from the house sale, as well as the cash I’d earned from selling my car. My pay cheques were disappearing and there was nothing left to pay the bills. Things were fast spiralling out of control.
One time, I won $2000 on a poker machine at the casino. I poured all the money straight back in and didn’t leave until everything was gone.
Going home in tears, I could barely face the kids. They knew what I was doing and it was breaking their hearts. ‘Mum, you have to stop,’ they pleaded, and I promised I would.
But the next morning, my mind would wander. If I had a few dollars I could win it back... How had things come to this?
‘Mum, you have to stop,’ they pleaded, and I promised I would.
Thinking about it, I realised my compulsion had begun shortly after I started taking the medication for my restless legs. Could there be a link? Talking to my doctor about it, he didn’t think there was, but he decided to try me on a different drug called Cabaser.
Sadly, over the next six years my gambling addiction only deepened. By 2008, I’d lost around $700,000 on poker machines. I’d stolen money and shoplifted to fund my habit and my family had been torn apart. I’d reached rock bottom.
But it was then that my doctor told me some shocking news.
‘New evidence suggests the medication you’ve been taking may be driving your gambling addiction,’ he said.
What? Sure enough, that night, a TV program was aired where the matter was investigated. Mark and I were still in touch and I invited him to watch it with me. We were both speechless as we listened to a neurologist who said several of his patients who’d been prescribed dopamine agonists had developed addictions – some to gambling and some to sex.
But it was then that my doctor told me some shocking news.
Hearing their stories, I realised their experiences echoed my own. For years I’d wondered why I couldn’t control my behaviour. Now it made sense. My medication was to blame.
Suddenly I knew I had to do something about it. The next day, I took legal advice and joined a class action against the distributors of Permax and Cabaser. It alleged they were negligent in selling the medications in Australia without adequate warnings about side-effects.
My doctor started weaning me off Cabaser and as he did, my urge to gamble dwindled. If only I’d realised earlier...
I now have a morphine patch to help control my restless legs syndrome, but the side-effects mean I have to take anti-depressants and an epilepsy drug too. But that’s nothing compared to the decade of hell I have been through.
My gambling addiction shattered my family and drove me to leave my husband when he needed me most.
In 2013, Aspen Pharmacare Australia – the distributor of Permax – agreed to settle the class action against it. Then, in December last year, drug company Pfizer also agreed to a financial settlement for 160 Aussies who took Cabaser. But no amount of money can buy back the time I’ve wasted.
Thankfully, Mark and I have rekindled our romance, and last year we bought a house big enough for our four grandchildren to stay.
Finally, I feel like I’ve been given a second chance – and I’m going to make the most of it.
• Dopamine agonists mimic the effects of the hormone dopamine – in some cases restoring a person’s ability to control their movements.
• The chemical causes a ‘rush’ which has been linked to risk-taking behaviours and addictions.
• Melbourne law firm Arnold Thomas and Becker represented almost 200 patients claiming to have experienced these symptoms.
• It was alleged that the drug companies selling Permax and Cabaser were negligent in selling the medicines without adequate warnings about side effects.
• Both companies have agreed to a settlement which will see patients involved in the class action compensated.
Originally published in that's life! Issue 3, 2014.