See more of the story

GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — With 23 years in recovery from a gambling addiction, Teri has thoughts to offer Minnesota legislators who will consider legalizing sports betting in the 2024 session.

"Remember those Nancy Reagan 'Just Say No' buttons?" she asked. "That's what we need for sports betting."

Teri, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her anonymity in recovery, detailed troubles with gambling that date to the thrill of winning $500 in a church raffle when she was young and eventually led to money and legal troubles.

Recovery took hold in September 2000 when she checked into Project Turnabout's Vanguard residential gambling treatment program in this city more than two hours west of Minneapolis. The program is one of only a handful of residential gambling treatment options in the country, and for Minnesota residents, it's free, funded mostly through unclaimed lottery proceeds.

As the 2024 Legislature again considers making it legal to place mobile bets on sports, Project Turnabout CEO Marti Paulson wants to let it be known that help is available. "The awareness isn't nearly what it should be," she said. "Because if you don't need to know, why would you?"

Gambling addiction can affect anyone regardless of gender, race or class, and it can be easily hidden. The problem might not surface until the gambler exhausts every dollar or their family finds out. Paulson said it's not uncommon for families to learn about depleted retirement accounts and college funds during treatment.

At Project Turnabout, Vanguard patients are in their own wing with 20 beds, separate from those receiving treatment for chemical abuse.

When a patient arrives with a gambling problem as well as a one with drugs or alcohol, Paulson said counselors make an educated guess at their primary addiction. Gamblers detox much like drug addicts, enduring roughly 10 days of withdrawal including anxiety, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, Paulson said.

At Vanguard, the gamblers participate in many of the same activities as those being treated for chemical dependency. Attendance at meals is required. A personal trainer guides each patient through a mandatory daily hour of physical activity in the workout room.

There is individual and group therapy, a meditation room, a sweat lodge and lots of sage smudging.

The facility, which sits on the edge of a residential neighborhood, backs up to leafy, gently rolling walking paths with spots to stop for contemplation. The windows of the low-slung buildings look over woodsy scenes among crags of sparkling granite. In the fall, the view is aflame in orange, yellow and red sumac.

The road to treatment for pathological gambling often begins with a big win, which elicits a high. The comes the chase for another high, followed by losses and a frantic push to win even bigger to make up for losses. For a while, the household bills get paid and the leftover cash is used for gambling. As the addiction hardens, the hold of debt widens.

Legislators included treatment for problem gamblers in the bills last session that would have legalized sports betting on apps on phones. Paulson, Teri and others are concerned about the ease of gambling on phones.

"You don't even think about the money behind that when you're online, you just push the button," Paulson said.

As Timothy Fong, co-director of the gambling studies program at UCLA, started a speech to the Minnesota Alliance on Problem Gambling last month in Bloomington, he showed an image of a man seated on a toilet, holding his cellphone. The insinuation was that he was gambling while using the restroom.

"I don't think there's an image better than this that highlights the problem," Fong said.

Fong, who treats problem gamblers, said that if sports betting is legalized, problem gambling will increase, especially among young people. Online gambling is easier to conceal from friends and family because there's no need to account for time spent at a casino.

There's no predicting who will develop a problem. "You don't know where your line in the sand is," Paulson said. "That's why some people can be professional gamblers and they're very good at it."

Problem gamblers zero in on the money chase, setting aside all other needs. "When I was gambling, I didn't care if I ate, that was money I could use to gamble," she said.

In her youth, Teri used sports as a means of coping with family trauma and loss. When an injury sidelined her, she went to casinos as an escape from watching sports on TV with everyone else on weekends.

Paulson said gamblers tend to be thinkers, believing they can think their way free of the problem. Teri said, "When I thought it was becoming a problem, I would quit for a few months and think, 'Oh. I got this.'"

Initially, Teri said she'd win money or break even. When she lost, she told herself, "I'll win it back. I always do."

She filed for bankruptcy in the early 1990s, but that didn't stop her. A few years later she received outpatient treatment. "I didn't go there to stop gambling," she said. "I went there to learn how to control my gambling."

It didn't work. She ended up in legal trouble for, among other things, writing bad checks.

A court order sent her to Vanguard. "At first, you get there and think, nobody's going to understand me. Then you think, I'm not as sick as them," Teri said. "The second 10 days, you start thinking, 'Yeah this stuff could work, I see people leaving that are happy.'"

For more than a decade after treatment, Teri turned over her money to a friend to manage and carefully planned her trips back to Vanguard so she would buy gas only at a chain that didn't sell scratch-off lottery tickets. The urge to gamble is gone, but Teri is active in recovery.

She said she's most worried about college students being able to gamble on their phones. "I wish they wouldn't do it," she said of legalized sports betting. "I know it's probably inevitable."

Paulson said it's important to keep an eye on teenagers isolating or a partner making excuses for unpaid bills. "Be an active partner," she said. "You need to know what's in your bank account."