How a Lottery Dream Can Turn to a Nightmare

Margaret and James Jones, a couple in their 50s who live in a trailer outside the small, working-class community of Washington, Ga., got a stunning piece of news recently. They discovered they were the winners of $130 million in the Georgia Mega Millions drawing -- the second-largest prize in the state's history.

"Now our kids won't have to worry, and we won't have to worry," Margaret Jones told ABC News' "Good Morning America."

But will the Joneses have to contend with a whole new set of worries now?

The lottery seems to promise happiness with just a dollar and a dream, but past winners and experts say suddenly coming into big bucks can turn a person's life into a nightmare.

'I Wish I Would Have Torn the Ticket Up'

That's certainly been the case for Jack Whittaker. Ever since winning the largest single lottery jackpot in U.S. history on Christmas Day 2002 -- $314.9 million -- the West Virginia man has been plagued by troubles.

At first, his mishaps seemed almost comical: More than $500,000 in cash and cashier's checks was stolen from Whittaker's SUV, which was parked outside the Pink Pony strip club; later, another $100,000 was stolen from his car while it was parked outside his house.

Then the problems grew more disturbing. Whittaker was arrested a number of times on assault charges. The body of his granddaughter's friend -- the victim of a drug overdose --was found in Whittaker's home while he was away. After two drunken driving charges, a judge sentenced Whittaker to a 28-day alcohol-rehabilitation center.

Most recently, his troubles have taken a tragic turn. Nearly two years to the day of his big win, Whittaker's 17-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose near her boyfriend's father's home, wrapped in a sheet and plastic tarp.

Whittaker and his lawyer did not return calls for comment, but Whittaker's wife, Jewel, told The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette: "I wish all of this never would have happened ... I wish I would have torn the ticket up."

Chasing the Dream, but Unprepared for the Reality

Psychologists and financial experts agree -- money doesn't buy happiness, but that doesn't keep us from chasing it.

In a 1978 study, psychologist Phil Brickman and his colleagues followed lottery winners over a number of years and found that after the initial elation wore off, they were no happier on a day-to-day basis than before the win. And, in fact, many winners find themselves unhappier.

"In American society, we tend to overvalue the role of money," said Stephen Goldbart, a psychologist and the co-founder of the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute, a San Francisco-based group that advises people who come into sudden wealth. "The American dream equals financial success. It's an empty drug, but most people buy it."

Goldbart, who mainly works with entrepreneurs and those who inherit their wealth, says few people are prepared to deal with sudden money, especially lottery winners who do nothing more than buy a ticket.

Many winners experience a shock to the system, and then reality sets in -- with higher but often unrealistic expectations, increased responsibilities, constant pressure from friends and family to share the wealth, and paranoia about whom they can trust.

Susan Bradley, the founder of the Sudden Money Institute, another group that counsels people who come into sudden wealth, said people who get rich very quickly experience "social anomie" -- life with seemingly no rules or boundaries.

"This loss of structure, as good as this sound on the surface, can be the source of deep confusion and eventually disappointment," said Bradley.

And there even seems to be a biological basis for the unhappiness of lottery winners. In a recent study, Dr. Gregory Berns, an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Emory University, found that the brain is more aroused when people had to actively work for rewards.

"Working for your money is, in fact, more rewarding than getting it passively," said Berns. "From the brain's perspective, earning money is more meaningful and probably more satisfying."

The (Mis)Fortune of Hitting the Jackpot

Not all lottery winners have disaster befall them, of course, but there are many cases of big winners having to cope with enormous problems, and coming away from the experience worse off than before they won.

Before striking it rich, William "Bud" Post worked with a traveling carnival and as a house painter and day laborer. In 1988, he won $16.2 million in the Pennsylvania lottery. Within months, his former girlfriend sued him successfully for a third of the prize, and his brother was arrested for allegedly hiring a hit man to try to kill him. Post now lives on $450 a month in Social Security benefits and food stamps.

Evelyn Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice -- once in 1985 and once in 1986 -- for a total of $5.4 million. After handing out money to friends and relatives and blowing a good share of it gambling, Adams declared bankruptcy and now lives in a trailer.

Billie Bob Harrell Jr., of Houston, who stocked shelves at a Home Depot, won $31 million in a Texas jackpot in 1997. Two years later, after copious spending and lending and a broken marriage, he killed himself with a shotgun.

And in November 2004, a Queens parking garage attendant named Juan Rodriguez, who had 78 cents to his name and was $44,000 in debt, won $149 million in the New York State Lotto. In a matter of days, his wife had filed for divorce. The most recent reports have him holed up with a relative in a posh Manhattan hotel, trying to avoid people looking for handouts.

Facing Envy and Ridicule

Lottery winners, more than any other sudden money recipients, are especially envied when they win and ridiculed when their difficulties hit the headlines.

"The general thinking that money is good and the more you have the better off you are leads many windfall recipients to see themselves as defective. It seems that enjoying a windfall should be a no-brainer. The recipient's failures are blamed on them -- their lack of character, discipline or sophistication," said Bradley.

In fact, about one-third of lottery winners eventually declare bankruptcy, according to the Certified Financial Planners Board of Standards.

What big lottery winners need are privacy, safety and specialized financial help, said Bradley. Money itself is neither good nor bad, but how you use it that has negative or positive consequences.

"Receiving sudden money is a major life event," said Bradley. "Life as you know it is over, and it is up to you to assimilate the new money into your life in a way that is healthy and productive."

The Joneses hope they are among the lucky ones, who can deal with their newfound wealth in a positive way. The couple says they hope to help their family and their church, and maybe even keep their jobs -- Margaret is a postal worker and James runs an auto repair shop.

But they also are beginning to realize that nothing will ever be quite the same again.

"Everyone keeps saying it will change us," said James. "I hope not. But it probably will."