Gabriela Byrne on the personal and community impact of pokies.

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Anne Tuohey.

There is something extremely powerful about hearing a first-hand account of a person’s story of hardship and how they overcame this adversity. When that person then also uses this experience to help thousands of others, it is truly inspiring.

SPC members and friends were treated to a fascinating insight into the personal world of pokies addiction by Gabriela Byrne, who was addicted to pokies for several years when the machines were first introduced in Victoria.

Poker Machine
Photo courtesy yum9me. flickr cc

Gabriela discussed some of the features common to all addictions, describing the adrenalin rush she gained from entering a pokies venue as akin to injecting heroin for a drug addict.

For the uninitiated, it was illuminating to hear Gabriela explain that the rush comes not from winning per-se, but from needing to seek out and anticipate this rush. The machines are carefully designed to feed this need, with the companies which own the machines employing psychologists to fine-tune strategies continually to heighten this anticipation and trance-like zone. The lighting, the tunes the machines emit when there is a win, all operate subliminally to put the player into a receptive zone.

Gabriela spoke poignantly about the impact on her family as well as on the broader community. In addition to revealing the emotional burden, she talked about the effect on local businesses she had previously patronised as she poured money into the machines which she would otherwise have spent on shopping.

She broke free of what she described as her “love affair with the pokies” by developing her own self-help, ‘Free Yourself’ approach. This model, developed into a program available as a DVD and a book, has helped thousands of pokies victims.

Relapse is a normal part of the process of recovery, and Gabriela recognised that, to succeed, it was critical to learn to reduce the likelihood of relapse . The pull to return to the pokies remains ever strong, particularly if the victim has not replaced this so-called recreational pursuit with a meaningful pastime. This contributed to Gabi’s determination to establish a place to which people could go to socialise, enjoy each other’s company, and engage in some activities.

A few years ago, she set up such a place in Lilydale called The Chapel which was successfully run as a not-for-profit social enterprise. Approximately 70 people volunteered – many pokies addicts and former addicts, but also people wanting to make a difference – to provide meals and entertainment. While this was successful, the premises were sold, and Gabi has continued to pursue other possibilities to establish what she calls ‘A Third Place’, a place away from home and work, where people can enjoy others company in a convivial setting.

Gabriela is currently project manager for a program entitled MoreConnect, established at the City of Moreland. Participants are people with pokies addiction issues as well as non-addicts, and they participate in recreation and social activities over a number of months. The intention is that these activities provide an alternative activity through long-term sustainable participation. These initiatives are proving to be successful in breaking the cycle of addiction and relapse.

Gabi’s quest is to find alternative funders to increase the number of these programs, which are very cost effective due to the considerable contribution by volunteers.

The machines are deliberately concentrated in lower socio-economic areas, meaning that as a form of government revenue the citizens of Victoria rely on approximately 13% of all State revenue coming from the pockets of those who can least afford it. This makes pokies revenue the most regressive form of taxation.

Gabriela is active at all levels of the community. She supports Independent Andrew Willkie’s bid for mandatory pre-commitment and a reduction from $5 to $1 bet limits. She believes that, if these measures had been in place for her, they would have reduced the harm caused to her and her family through her addiction.

The Federal Government will put before Parliament its revised legislation, having abandoned Wilkie’s initial demand. After hearing such damning evidence from someone so harmed by this product, it seems inadmissible that the Government is seeking to water down measures shown to be effective tools in alleviating pokies addiction.

It was a truly inspirational and convivial evening, with Gabriela remaining for refreshments and discussion with attendees.

We wish Gabriela every success in her ongoing cause, and thank her sincerely for providing such an informative and engaging discussion.

Gabriela’s self-help book and DVD, Free yourself, is available online from or by contacting Gabriela on 0414 844 387.

Click HERE to listen to an audio podcast of the event.

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