Morgan Takes Back Her Life

In Rehab, She Gets The Shakes

Despite all the problems gambling was causing her, Melanie Morgan refused to quit.

Finally, her husband got fed up and left her; he threatened to take their baby, CJ, away from her forever.

Morgan decided to get help. "I knew I was so far out of control that I had to do something."

She made an appointment with a therapist, who told her that she needed immediate help.

He recommended a residential treatment center for compulsive gamblers. The center he sent her to was in, of all places, Las Vegas.

"It's like sending an alcoholic to the Napa Valley, to the vineyards," he says. "It was nuts."

The plane had barely touched down when Morgan, traveling alone, faced temptation. Her pulse quickened when she spotted a branch of her bank right in the airport.

Morgan got in line to cash a check, so she could go gambling.

The line was long. As she waited, Morgan realized that if she stayed on this path, she would probably end up killing herself. (Problem gamblers have a higher rate of suicide than drug addicts or alcoholics.)

She fled the bank and went to the hospital. There she met Dr. Robert Hunter, a clinical psychologist who runs one of the country's best known rehab centers for compulsive gamblers.

Morgan clearly had a problem, Hunter says. She was a classic "action gambler." She craved excitement, action, noise and liked being the center of attention.

Almost all female gambling addicts fall into a different category: "escape-seekers," who are just the opposite," Hunter says.

"They'd rather be in a corner. They don't want anybody to see them," Hunter adds. "That's why they like the machines so much. They just want to hide."

"Action seekers want to play," he says.

But given her background as a adrenaline-charged journalist, Morgan didn't fit the normal pattern. "Most women aren't traveling all around the world going from one dangerous assignment to another," she says.

Hunter believes that pathological gambling is fueled by a change in brain chemistry. New research seems to back that belief up. As a result, he treats gambling addicts much as other centers treat drug addicts and alcoholics.

"This is a true addiction," he says. "My patients gamble the way junkies shoot dope. Cocaine, prescription pain pills, alcohol, gambling - all flip exactly the same switch in the brain."

At the clinic, Morgan felt like an addict. "It took three days for me to stop physically experiencing withdrawal in the hospital," she says.

"Shakes, fever, diarrhea. I couldn't warm up. I was so cold I thought I was going to die," she says. About half of Hunter's patients go through this, he says.

What did she think about while experiencing this? "I was replaying in my head every single card game or card hand I've ever been dealt," she says. "Thousands and thousands of card combinations flashed across my bran."

Morgan began intensive therapy sessions, privately and in groups. There she met recovered long-time gamblers, whose experiences helped illuminate her own struggles.

She saw what her future would look like if she kept gambling; she was scared, but determined.

After 10 days, Morgan left the clinic. Then her real work began. Using anti-depressants and regularly attending therapy sessions, Morgan struggled to stay clean.

"I literally stayed in my house and took care of my children all the time," she remembers. "I only left to go to my group, to my therapy and to the grocery store. I didn't trust myself. And I sure as hell didn't think Jack should trust me either."

By this time, her husband had moved back home but was cautious. He expected Morgan to relapse, he says. Two months into her recovery, she did.

"I went on an all-night bender," Morgan says. She lost $5,000.

She couldn't stop herself: "Most people think if you just had the willpower," she says. "It's not like that. It's as horrible an addiction as drugs and alcohol."

The mistake gave her husband new insight into her addiction: She would never completely triumph.

"She'll have this disease the rest of her life," he says. "There's a little thing in Melanie's brain that's just sitting there that could pop out again."

Husband Jack told his wife that he forgave her for this relapse, but he would not accept another. She agreed. He joined Morgan in therapy, and she started going to Gamblers Anonymous, a self-help group. Like other recovering addicts, she took life one day at a time.

So far, she has been successful. She hasn't gambled at all in six years. She knows, though, that she has to be careful. In her favor: Many of the pressures Morgan faced in Seattle are gone.

Morgan and her husband moved back to San Francisco, where they work together. She is a successful radio talk show host, and he is the station's operations manager. Their son CJ is now a happy 8-year-old.

And although she now gets along with her stepson Greg, she can never visit him - not as long as he lives in Las Vegas. "I can't handle the visual stimulation from all the casinos," she says.

"It's just too difficult for me. And I don't want to tempt myself," she says.

Last year Morgan was elected president of the California Council on Problem Gambling.

"She's my hero," her husband Jack says, fighting back tears. "She fought back for her baby and her husband and her family and had more courage in that struggle to stop this addiction than anybody I ever knew."

"It's not like I'm cured," says Morgan. "That doesn't happen. But it does mean that today I'm OK."

Go back to the first part of this story, "A Card Game Leads To Ruin."

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